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Why Can’t We Get Him?

By Michael Hirsh, Mark Hosenball and Sami Yousafzai

The new bin Laden tape, in which he is seen walking down a mountainside with deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri

Two years after the horror of 9/11, Osama bin Laden appears to be alive, well—and still a master of media manipulation

Sept. 22 issue — In the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the Kissakhani bazaar is buzzing with talk of Osama bin Laden. When a new video aired by Al-Jazeera last week showed the terror chieftain walking casually down a boulder-strewn mountainside, it was almost as if he had risen from the dead. The market in bin Laden baubles—photos, tapes—took off in hours.

MUHAMMAD YAQOOB, a 25-year-old hotel worker, quickly bought three new color posters of bin Laden from a sidewalk vendor. “I’m so happy he’s still in this world,” said Yaqoob. “I hope to hear one day that he has exploded the Bush White House.” In a nearby hotel lobby where locals usually gather over 10-cent cups of tea to watch Indian movies on TV, the price quickly doubled as a huge crowd jammed in for the constant replay. Many viewers proudly noted that bin Laden was wearing the rolled felt cap and loose-fitting shalwar kameez, shirt and pants that are the dress of this rough northwest region bordering Afghanistan. “Oh, America, look closely,” shouted one man. “Osama’s still strong and can walk over mountains.” Amid the boosterism, even adoration, one skeptical voice could be heard, a middle-aged teacher who feared the war will go on forever. “I still can’t understand why powerful America cannot catch him,” he said.

Arab TV airs alleged bin Laden tape
September 10, 2003 — MSNBC’s Jacob Keryakes translates a portion of the Al-Jazeera tape purportedly from Osama bin Laden.


Why indeed? George W. Bush has already buried bin Laden—rhetorically. It’s been many months since the president, who once declared he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive,” even mentioned his name. But if last week’s video is to be believed, bin Laden appears to be not only alive, but thriving. And with America distracted in Iraq, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf leery of stirring up an Islamist backlash, there is no large-scale military force currently pursuing the chief culprit in the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials concede.

If the latest video is recent, which is by no means certain, bin Laden may have also recovered from whatever ailments he had. (He’s rumored to have been wounded, and to have kidney disease.) A former Afghan official points out that bin Laden is carrying full clips of ammunition in a bandoleer across his chest and has a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a burden unlikely to be borne in the mountains by someone suffering from a debilitating illness. A senior source with the now reconstituted Taliban believes the video is a strong sign that Al Qaeda is actively planning new operations. Why? Because bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, are both in it, and they appear together rarely.

Appearances by America’s most wanted man

April 17-18, 2002Dec. 27, 2001Dec. 12, 2001Nov. 7, 2001Nov. 3, 2001Oct. 7, 2001Oct. 4, 2001June 20, 2001Jan. 10, 2001Sept. 21, 2000Jan. 15, 1999May 28, 1998August 10, 1997
The "Riverside tape," believed shot in October 2001, is shown on Arabic language broadcasters MBC and al-Jazeera in slightly different versions. In this tape, bin Laden praises the effects the Sept. 11 attacks had on the U.S. economy. Also on tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s chief lieutenant.

" The Gaunt Tape," so named because bin Laden is haggard and doesn’t move his left arm, is believed to have been recorded in late November 2001. Al-Jazeera airs the tape.

Washington releases tape of the "dinner party" in which bin Laden describes planning for the Sept. 11 attacks. Shot in mid-November, possibly Nov. 9, 2001, in Kandahar. Released by the U.S. government to all broadcasters. Also on tape: Khaled al-Harbi, a Saudi cleric.

Bin Laden’s sons play in the wreckage of a downed U.S. helicopter, believed to have been shot in October. The tape is shown on al-Jazeera. Video later shows up as part of a tape the U.S. government releases in December 2001.

Bin Laden, dressed in camouflage and armed with an AK-47, says in a tape aired by al-Jazeera that Afghanistan is in a religious war. "The people of Afghanistan had nothing to do with this matter. The campaign, however, continues to unjustly annihilate the villagers and civilians, children, women and innocent people." There’s no indication of when the tape was shot, but almost certainly it was within weeks, if not days, prior to its release, since it refers to U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

A threatening tape released at the start of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and shown on al-Jazeera. It is believed to have been shot in late September or early October. Also on tape: bin Laden spokesman Abu Ghaith, chief lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s military commander.

The al-Qaida graduation ceremony tape. Al-Jazeera reports the tape was made after the Sept. 11 attacks, but U.S. intelligence says it was shot in June 2001 to celebrate the merger of al-Qaida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Also seen on the tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

A 98-minute al-Qaida training tape believed to have been shot at various times -- but after the USS Cole bombing in October 2000 and before the U.S. presidential inauguration in January 2001 – is distributed by APTN and Reuters. Bin Laden praises the bombers of the USS Cole: "And the courage of our youth was witnessed in Aden, where they destroyed their destroyer and instilled fear. ... Their ships stand so arrogantly in our ports."

Tape of bin Laden celebrating the marriage of his teenage son, Mohammed, to the daughter of Mohammed Atef, his military commander. The tape was shot the previous day in Afghanistan. Also on the tape: Atef and Mohammed bin Laden.

Tape shown on al-Jazeera of bin Laden and three Egyptian clerics calling for the release of Abdul Rahman, a blind sheik imprisoned in the United States. It’s believed to have been filmed sometime between March and May 2000. Also on the tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s lieutenant, and Rifai Ahmad Taha, a leading figure in the armed Egyptian group, Jamaa Islamiya, and Assad Allah, son of Sheikh Abdel Rahman. Shown on Al-Jazeera.

In an interview with al-Jazeera, bin Laden praises those who carried out the August 1998 Africa embassy bombings, saying the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, was hit because "because it was the major U.S. intelligence center in East Africa.” More of the interview with al-Jazeera is broadcast on June 10.

In an interview with ABC's John Miller, bin Laden praises Ramzi Yousef and Wali Khan Amin Shah, convicted in the Day of Hate airliner plot, saying "America will see many youths who will follow Ramzi Yousef." Bin Laden also praises the bombers of the Khobar Towers U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia. “We predict a black day for America and the end of the United States as United States ... Allah willing." Mohammed Atef also seen on the tape.

In an interview with CNN's Peter Arnett, bin Laden praises the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia. "If the American government is serious about avoiding the explosions inside the U.S., then let it stop provoking the feelings of 1,250 million Muslims," he says.

Source: NBC News
Printable version

U.S. intelligence sources say they are not even close to pinpointing bin Laden’s whereabouts. And one official involved in the search for him frets to NEWSWEEK that they may not be able to kill or capture him after all—ever. “We’re going to have to be very lucky to get him,” this Defense official said. It’s not just that recent reports place him in remote Afghan and Pakistani border provinces such as Kunar and Waziristan. Unable to infiltrate his network, U.S. officials also cannot monitor bin Laden’s communications, since he has long since dropped the use of satellite phones and land lines. He is surrounded by “people who are extremely loyal to him,” said one U.S. official. “Very, very few people know his whereabouts and those who do would not be inclined to discuss it.”

Still, intel officials say the latest video doesn’t really confirm that bin Laden is still alive and healthy. In audio portions, Al-Zawahiri makes explicit references to the recent war in Iraq. But the bin Laden part of the audio, and video shots showing both men wandering about a pastoral landscape, give no real-time references. (The CIA believes the voice on the tape is bin Laden’s, but has not been able to confirm that 100 percent.) Other knowledgeable sources say they doubt that bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are really at ease in the mountains. U.S.-Pakistani operations to capture them have been too intense and intelligence reports suggest that the Qaeda chief has gone to elaborate lengths to stay on the move and not get caught. “He can’t afford to go for leisurely strolls,” says one former U.S. intelligence official who was recently involved in the hunt for bin Laden.


The search for Osama bin Laden
September 10, 2003 — Of the 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, no one mentions Osama bin Laden’s name unless asked. NBC’s Mike Taibbi visits with the 82nd Airborne for an update.

But bin Laden’s elusiveness and the Taliban’s resurgence—combined with the postwar morass in Iraq—have raised tough new questions about the administration’s overall strategy in the war on terror. It’s not just whether the Bush administration is getting Iraq right, say a rising chorus of skeptics among the military brass, along with some Democrats like Sen. Bob Graham. It’s whether Iraq should have been invaded at all when the task of destroying Al Qaeda in its Central Asian base was left so unfinished. “We’ve essentially declared war on Mussolini and allowed Hitler to run free,” said Graham, one of the few presidential candidates who voted no on the Iraq war resolution in fall 2002. With each passing day that ready-to-fire weapons of mass destruction are not found, it becomes harder to explain why Iraq was such an imminent threat that America had to wheel 180 degrees to suddenly take on Saddam Hussein—and sacrifice so much international support to do so.

September 2001
Bin Laden
Septeber 11: Terrorists destroy the World Trade Center. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are in Kandahar.

U.S. military
Sept. 13: U.S. Special Forces arrive in Afghanistan.
Sept. 28: Bush says U.S. is “in hot pursuit” of terrorists.

October 2001
Al Qaeda
October: U.S. claims to have killed Qaeda leaders, but “none of the very top six, eight, 10 people” are included.

U.S. military
Oct. 7: U.S. planes begin bombing military targets, including suspected Qaeda hideouts within Afghanistan.

November 2001
Bin Laden
Nov. 9-10: Bin Laden leaves Kandahar for Jalalabad, where he grants an interview and speaks in public.
Nov. 29: Dick Cheney says that bin Laden is probably inside the complex of cavesat Tora Bora.

Al Qaeda
Nov. 9: Fighters routed from Mazar-e Sharif flee toward Kabul and Kunduz.
MID-Nov.: 240 fighters flee via Iran.
Nov. 16: Many Qaeda and Taliban officials flee via the White Mountain route. Unpursued, they scatter in Pakistan.

U.S. military
Nov. 9: Mazar-e Sharif falls.
Nov. 13: Kabul falls.
Nov. 16: Bombing begins at Tora Bora.
Nov. 16: U.S. bombs the Khugyani route from Tora Bora while Qaeda and Taliban officials escape by other routes.

December 2001
Bin Laden
Dec. 9: U.S. intelligence detects radio transmission from Tora Bora caves of a voice that may be bin Laden’s.
Dec. 9: During a ceasefire to discuss surrender, bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders may have sneaked out of Tora Bora.
Dec. 7-12: Bin Laden may have followed Khugyani escape route. Ayman Al-Zawahiri may be in Pakistan. Or dead.

Al Qaeda
Dec. 7: Besieged Kandahar falls after the Taliban make a deal with warlords. Fighting breaks out. Mullah Omar escapes.
Dec. 9-10: Qaeda defenders in Tora Bora are granted a two-day ceasefire to negotiate a surrender.

U.S. military
Mid-December: Pakistani troops round up nearly 400 small-time Qaeda fighters. U.S. bombs Khugyani escape route.
Late December: Gen. Tommy Franks’ U.S. Marines wait for the situation to stabilize before moving into Kandahar.

January 2002
Al Qaeda
Jan. 28: Six Qaeda soldiers holed up in a Kandahar hospital for seven weeks were killed in a raid by Afghan forces.

February 2002
Bin Laden
February: Afghan officialsreport that bin Laden may have holed up for the winter in the Shahikot area.

Al Qaeda
Early February: Qaeda remnants regroup in the Shahi-kot area under the protection of local friendly Afghans.

U.S. military
February: U.S. troops continue to search Qaeda camps, looking for weapons of mass destruction (and bin Laden).

March 2002
Bin Laden
March: Bin Laden could have headed for Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal area before the U.S. launched its Operation Anaconda.

Al Qaeda
March 2: U.S. operation meets fierce Qaeda resistance.
March 28: Abu Zubaydah is arrested deep inside Pakistan.

U.S. military
March 2: Operation Anaconda begins. Coalition troops don’t deploy on the Afghan frontier until late March.

April 2002
Bin Laden
Early April: Bin Laden reported in Pakistan near Miran Shah.
April 26: No sign of bin Laden in Miran Shah.

U.S. military
April 26: U.S.and Pakistani forces raid a madrasa in Miran Shah run by Qaeda sympathizer Jalaludin Haqqani.

May 2002
Al Qaeda
May: Qaeda remnants continue operating, especially along the Waziristan- Khowst frontiers.

U.S. military
May 19: Operation Mountain Lion begins efforts to close the border, but few suspects are caught.

June 2002
Bin Laden
June: Spokesman Abu Ghaith claimsbin Laden is alive and will soon release a new video.

Al Qaeda
June/July: Smugglers moving Qaeda fugitives out of Afghanistan via Iran are reported doing a brisk trade.

July 2002
Bin Laden
July: No new video appears. The FBI’s counterintelligence chief states his belief that bin Laden is dead. Others disagree.

Al Qaeda
July 13: Boats smuggling suspected Qaeda fugitives are intercepted by Canadian forces in the Gulf of Oman.

U.S. military
July 29: Qaeda fighters’ ambush of U.S. Special Forces near Khowst is fiercest fighting since end of Operation Anaconda.

Military officials now openly worry about whether they’ll have enough troops for just the tasks they have. One problem: declining re-enlistments by frustrated Reservists and National Guardsmen. “The point is: why would we open that new front? It wasn’t related directly to the war on terror,” says retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander who has long criticized the administration’s switch from bin Laden to Saddam. Iraq, which had a meager Qaeda presence before the March invasion, was supposed to be on its way to becoming a democratic model for the Arab world by now. Instead, Bush declared recently that Iraq has become “the central front” in the terror war, drawing legions of new foreign terrorists, including Al Qaeda.

The Bush administration has long insisted it could take on both Afghanistan and Iraq. And senior officials point to the signal fact that there has been no major attack against Americans by Al Qaeda since 9/11, and to the capture or killing of “nearly two thirds of Al Qaeda’s known leaders,” as Bush said in his speech to the nation on Sept. 7. That alone can be considered a huge success, and probably is by many Americans: a new NEWSWEEK Poll shows that a majority still supports Bush’s handling of Iraq and the war on terror.

But some like Zinni say the number of terrorists is not static; many more are being created. Meanwhile, the United States still has only about 9,000 troops in all of Central Asia, even as it struggles to fight off demands that it increase its presence in Iraq. And some U.S. military officials trace the Taliban’s gradual resurgence to the abrupt diversion of so many resources to Iraq, including Predator aerial vehicles, in a critical period beginning in 2002. One example: in February and March of 2002, the Arabic-speaking Fifth Special Forces Group—the teams that were mostly credited with winning the Afghan war—were largely pulled out to be soon redeployed in the Mideast. They were replaced by other teams such as the Seventh Group, whose focus is Latin America. The result: a loss of good intelligence. “From the very beginning we f—ked it up,” said a Fifth Group officer who fought in Afghanistan. “The conventional Army came in and new teams... didn’t have the same relations. Continuity is everything. The trust you develop with another guy by fighting alongside him is everything. We did it wrong.”


Other intelligence resources were also badly strained. “It was widely reported after September 11 that we didn’t have enough intelligence officers who are familiar with [the Islamic] world,” notes one former staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “If we didn’t have enough for Afghanistan, how did they make the argument they had enough for Afghanistan and Iraq?” Bush officials insist they did not stint in their intelligence gathering for bin Laden and Al Qaeda. “That’s a canard. There was a deliberate effort not to make that happen,” one administration official said. But privately, some U.S officials acknowledge that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may have seriously drained away resources from the hunt for bin Laden.

Washington has prodded Musharraf to send in troops to the tribal regions, and Pakistani officials claim they came very close to catching bin Laden in the past 20 months. In early September the military launched a fresh hunt after intelligence reports showed a large concentration of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Waziristan tribal region. Helicopter-borne Pakistani troops were used for the first time, but the operation was abruptly halted after suspected Islamic militants fired three rockets at an air base being used by the Pakistani Special Forces.

Musharraf and other Pakistani senior officials concede that bin Laden and Qaeda fugitives enjoy tre-mendous public support in the North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan, which are now governed by pro-Taliban parties. More alarmingly, many Pakistanis suspect that elements in Pakistan’s military and its powerful intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), provide crucial support to Qaeda leaders and Taliban forces. Indeed, a number of Pakistani military officers have been arrested recently for links to Al Qaeda, including one soldier who gave shelter to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was Qaeda’s No. 3. Even some in Musharraf’s administration express sympathy for Islamic guerrillas. “Taliban are fighting a just war against occupation of their country,” says a senior Pakistani official.

Perhaps the ultimate question, some U.S. military officers say, is whether the Bush administration has left America more vulnerable by pushing so forcefully for “regime change” in two countries at once, without planning properly for what would come next. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists on keeping the U.S. military “footprint” small in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet meager nation-building efforts could turn both countries into a sea of sympathy for Islamist terrorists to swim in. Osama bin Laden has always proved depressingly capable in fighting for “hearts and minds.” The very fact that he is able to persist makes his message, among the radical faithful, only more potent.

With Donatella Lorch and Michael Isikoff in Washington, Zahid Hussain in Islamabad and Ron Moreau

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