Cant find binladen
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Why Can't We Find bin Laden?
His taped voice proves to Washington that he's alive and signaling spectacular attacks. An inside look at what the U.S. is doing to nail him—and why the campaign has fizzled so far
By JOHANNA MCGEARY AND DOUGLAS WALLER
Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002
Osama bin Laden wanted to talk to his followers. This time the U.S. government was only too happy to help. Within a day of hearing the scratchy audiocassette of the al-Qaeda leader praising the recent bombings in Bali and the Moscow theater assault, intelligence sources tell Time, U.S. agents paid a visit to one of bin Laden's senior operatives, Ramzi Binalshibh, held for interrogation at a safe house somewhere overseas. They played the 3-minute tape for Binalshibh, who has begun to spill secrets about al-Qaeda's inner workings since he was picked up last September in Pakistan. After listening to his old master pray for vengeance upon the U.S. and its allies, the terrorist let his guards know that what they had was authentic, a proof of life.
An ocean away, other intelligence officials were playing the tape to some of the several hundred lesser-ranking al-Qaeda detainees held in pens at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And the reaction they got was even scarier: a senior U.S. official told Time that detainees said some passages could be a call to action. That interpretation, along with reports from informants and intercepted communications flooding cia headquarters in Langley, Va., sent waves of anxiety through the intelligence community.
It was an in-your-face reminder from the master terrorist that he is still in business?and the U.S. can't find him. The full impact of the new tape reached the public when the fbi issued a stark bulletin containing a new vocabulary of alarm warning of "spectacular" terrorist attacks to come. Over the weekend, London's Sunday Times reported three North Africans had been arrested after British intelligence foiled their alleged plot to release gas, possibly cyanide, in the London Underground. Also over the weekend, a London journalist for the Qatar satellite channel al-Jazeera said he had received a six-page unsigned statement that appeared to come from al-Qaeda, threatening more attacks against Washington and New York City.
Bin Laden broke cover at a particularly awkward time for President Bush, raising doubts about the success of phase one of Bush's antiterrorism war just when he's pushing to launch phase two against Saddam Hussein. The news was rushed to him not long after experts at the cia's bin Laden unit at Langley reviewed the audiocast on al-Jazeera, the network regularly used by al-Qaeda to deliver its messages. At around 8 p.m. that day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush with the bad news while he was in the shower. Experts were almost certain they were hearing the voice of bin Laden for the first time since U.S. agents thought they picked up a radio message from him in Tora Bora almost a year ago. When the President walked into his staff meeting the next morning, a staff member says, "he was very intense." After all, this is a President who keeps a copy of the faces of key al-Qaeda leaders in his desk and crosses them out as they are killed or captured.
Remember "Osama, dead or alive"? The President's indelible declaration of U.S. intention to get him, back in the first days of the war on terrorism a year ago, made the capture or demise of the al-Qaeda leader essential to victory. In the months since, as the bearded, 6-ft., 5-in. leader managed to elude spy satellites and listening devices, along with the hail of bombs at Tora Bora and the lure of a $27 million bounty, the Administration has downplayed the importance of the man while emphasizing instead the pursuit of his organization. In the meantime, his adherents fled, regrouped, adapted, and launched terrorist attacks in new guises.
With the iconic leader back vowing high-level terrorism, Americans are left to wonder why the No. 1 target of the war's original manhunt is still at large. Democrats, pummeled by Bush during the midterm elections for being soft on terrorism, saw a chance for payback. "We can't find bin Laden. We haven't made real progress in finding key elements of al-Qaeda," said soon to be Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. "They continue to be as great a threat today as they were one and a half years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?" American citizens may well be wondering the same thing. But the comment incensed the White House. "Tom Daschle has participated in classified and unclassified briefings about the war," said an angry Bush aide. "He knows the incredible level of success of the U.S. operations."
But by some measures, bin Laden's demise is just as important a symbol of success. And the return of bin Laden could complicate Bush's pursuit of Saddam by creating a conflict between his goals, or at least the appearance of one. Eager to show that Bush has not shifted all his attention to Saddam, Rice pointed out that Bush still "begins his day on the war on terrorism and the threat levels and the threat information we have about the United States. This is the central focus of this Administration." White House officials also leaked word that a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative was recently captured and is in U.S. custody. They would not say who he was but acknowledged that he was not one of bin Laden's top aides.
With almost certain confirmation that bin Laden is alive, the discussion turns back to how serious a threat he is and why he can't be caught. In a Time/cnn poll, a sizable portion, 42%, of Americans surveyed said the tape made them more worried about impending terrorist attacks, although 56% remained at the same level of anxiety. The voice on the tape calmly and chillingly predicts that al-Qaeda's enemies "will be killed just as you kill and will be bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will further distress you." While there's no real pattern in forewarnings from al-Qaeda, intelligence analysts take the words at face value. A recorded al-Jazeera broadcast from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in early October was followed by the deadly bombing in Bali that killed more than 180. The voice's condemnation of key allies in the U.S. antiterrorism war?Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia?put foreign governments on alert for another major hit. Bin Laden also named Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld?he calls them "the White House gangsters"?and that has counterterrorism experts worried those officials might be personally targeted.
So the bin Laden tape provided a chilling context for the steady stream of intelligence chatter that the cia has picked up in the past three weeks, much like what it saw before Sept. 11, 2001. More suspicious phone calls and more reports from field agents suggested al-Qaeda suspects appeared to be on the move. "There's more activity on the communications circuits used by dirty guys," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "There are more cryptic conversations by people making plans to travel." The fbi's graphic warning of "spectacular" attacks causing "mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma" raised anxiety even as agents acknowledged they had no idea when, where or how the terrorists might strike. While the Administration did not raise the national alert level from yellow to orange, officials are bracing for the worst and operating on a hair trigger regarding any suspicious activity. Before 9/11, the fbi preferred to keep its targets under surveillance until agents acquired hard evidence of a specific plot. Today the mission is disruption first.
Why is bin Laden speaking now, and what does the audiotape say about him? U.S. intelligence analysts speculate bin Laden may have rejected videotape because it would reveal that he was ailing, wounded or disguised. They say they detected labored breathing in the tape?it is rumored that bin Laden suffers from kidney disease?and think he was reading from a script. But he may simply have used audio to make sure no watcher could glean information useful in tracking him down. Skilled at propaganda, bin Laden could have reasons for speaking now other than to signal an attack. "Terror groups don't like to be upstaged," says Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. "Bin Laden is reminding us that with all the world's attention focused on Iraq, al-Qaeda is still alive and well." And he may have wanted to not only reassert control over his organization but also dominate extremist movements flourishing elsewhere. By highlighting incidents that his organization probably did not mastermind, like the Chechen assault on the Moscow theater, "he's implying that those actions are a part of a campaign over which he presides," says Jenkins.
So where is he? The U.S. has followed leads putting him in a wide variety of places in the Islamic world, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to Iran. But the trail went cold at the Afghan border with Pakistan in December 2001, when a voice believed to be his was last overheard in Tora Bora. Senior Bush aides admit privately that the month it took to build up forces for the invasion of Afghanistan gave bin Laden and his senior leaders plenty of time to carry out evacuation plans. The military is a lot less keen to confess that it blew its best opportunity to nab him in the December assault on Tora Bora. Washington committed too few American troops to the hunt, even some U.S. military officers say, while relying on iffy Afghan warlords to do the dirty work and indifferent Pakistani forces to cut off escape routes. Bin Laden vanished so completely that a few Administration officials regularly pronounced him dead.
But the troops were trying to find him. In late 2001 combined U.S. military and intelligence operatives in Afghanistan ran the hunt out of Bagram air base. Led by an Army commander, teams patrolled the "rat trail," the countless smugglers' paths that loop into the mountainous tribal zones of western Pakistan, where they had picked up a pattern of phone communication between bin Laden and friends. While the teams never got close to him, most intelligence analysts think bin Laden is still holed up in Pakistan's treacherous border zone, out among the clannish tribes who barely recognize national control, or tucked up by sympathizers among the 3 million residents of dusty Peshawar, the chief city of the Northwest Frontier.
The cia has taken over control of the terrorist search-and-destroy mission. While some 1,100 analysts and covert operatives staff the terrorism hunt, operating out of Virginia, the special bin Laden station has 50 officers who focus solely on the terrorist leader. (Bin Laden unit is a cover; the office is actually named after the child of the cia officer who first organized it, but that name remains secret to protect the child from retaliation.) They even have a "red cell" made up of a dozen analysts who try to think like bin Laden and dream up ways he might attack. But on the ground the cia must count on local agents who can blend in to do surveillance or gather information. Theoretically, there are four ways to take him out:
1) Spot him with a Predator drone and drop a precision-guided weapon on him. Fast, cheap, simple. It worked in Yemen on Nov. 3, when a drone's missile obliterated a car carrying a former bin Laden bodyguard and five other al-Qaeda operatives. But an air strike inside Pakistan would require more cooperation from President Pervez Musharraf than the U.S. has. Pakistan only reluctantly agreed to allow the U.S. to use its airspace and bases to stage the Afghan invasion; it would balk at Predator drones flying all over the country.
2) Detect him electronically, triangulate his position quickly, listen long enough to make sure he's the right man, then drop a bomb fast. But U.S. snoopers would need to be able to eavesdrop, and he's not talking over cellular or satellite airwaves anymore.
3) Track him down the old-fashioned way, paying off locals until he's just around the corner, then surround him, strap on the night-vision gear, take out the guards and do him in. Problem: in the tribal lands of Pakistan, he's a hero, and the U.S. has few agents who can blend in among the people.
4) Persuade someone else to get him. But it's virtually impossible for anyone to infiltrate his tiny, devoted circle. The long mountainous stretch of tribal lands in western Pakistan probably remains the best place for bin Laden to hide. It presents a formidable geographical defense for U.S. hunters to penetrate. The cia has fewer than 100 paramilitary officers in the region at any time.
U.S. spooks believe bin Laden is squirreled away in a locale where he doesn't move around much. Photo reconnaissance has not captured any "signatures" showing regular movement by guards or vehicles that might belong to bin Laden. He apparently communicates only by personal couriers who ride motorcycles and buses to pass messages from the tribal areas to al-Qaeda's enclaves in cities like Peshawar and Karachi. U.S. experts suspect his presence is known only to the hard core of no more than 20 dedicated guards who are pledged to die rather than give him up.
Agents at a makeshift fbi operations base set up in a smuggler's town in the northern tribal area of Waziristan that's full of former Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, have to spend as much time guarding against counterattack as scouting. Surveillance of the Pashtun, who live there on hilltops in adobe forts surrounded by 15-foot-high walls, is difficult. The only way that U.S. surveillance can pick up anything is if suddenly one of these medieval-like castles receives a burst of visitors, rumbling up the dusty trails in four-by-fours, but that isn't happening anymore. Al-Qaeda is too wary. Earlier this month, the fbi agents became the hunted when two rockets crashed into their compound.
It's true that cia and Pakistani agents have worked together to nab al-Qaeda senior aides such as Binalshibh and Palestinian bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan's big cities. But the tribal zone is a different story?a sensitive region. U.S. commandos, now mostly confined to the Afghan side of the border, are rarely allowed to raid possible mountain hideouts on the Pakistan side, whether by themselves or with Pakistani officers. Under the current delicate political climate for the government of Musharraf, say senior U.S. and Pakistani officials, that would be a mission impossible. Many of the deeply religious clans there sympathize with bin Laden and are bound by tribal honor to shelter fugitives from the Pakistani police and army. The U.S. government's $27 million reward for bin Laden has little sway here; villagers don't trust the Pakistani government to cut them in on their share of the reward. They're just as suspicious of members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (isi) agency, who they believe might be collecting al-Qaeda payoffs and would kill them if they ratted. "We do have information about al-Qaeda," says a tribal chieftain in Quetta, "but we don't have a safe way of passing this on to the Americans."
In Pakistan's general elections on Oct. 10, pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda- friendly religious parties won control over border governments in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province. "If we start sending American troops on patrol into the tribal areas, we're going to have dead Americans," says a State Department official. Pakistani officials don't believe they would be any more successful. "Ninety percent of the time when we go after someone in there, we fail," says a senior police officer in Quetta. "Our intelligence in these areas is never any good."
Not everyone, however, believes the Pakistani government is helpless. U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan, along with U.N. and Afghan intelligence officials, are worried that al-Qaeda enclaves have been set up on the Pakistani side of the border under protection from the country's Frontier Corps militia, which Islamabad used during the Taliban era to patrol the tribal regions. "It's our assessment they're assisting al-Qaeda," says Major Mike Richardson, an operations officer with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne, which patrols the Afghan side. Some intelligence analysts in the region and in Washington also suspect that dissident elements within Pakistan's isi are still sympathetic to the Taliban. "I wouldn't rule it out," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "There are some rogue types in those organizations." An Afghan intelligence officer says he's sure "isi has made safe passage into the tribal areas for these criminals."
American investigators are trying to persuade Musharraf to let them expand their bin Laden search into the tribal belt, but the Pakistanis have "a different agenda," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad. "The Americans' aim, obviously, is to get the bad guys." The Pakistani strategy is to extend the government's influence in these lawless areas by winning over the local chieftains, a kind of mini-nation building. That's why Musharraf is wary of mishaps like the one in which two U.S. missiles recently strayed inside the Pakistani border and landed a few hundred yards from a tribal militia garrison. The Bush Administration, for its part, maintains that it's "still pleased" with Musharraf's help.
But Musharraf said he believed bin Laden had died of a kidney ailment. And when he's not declaring bin Laden dead, he has joined a long list of U.S. officials who have been insisting that the terrorist leader was not the ultimate prize. "We've always said that al-Qaeda did not depend on Osama bin Laden," Rumsfeld said last week. Yet the Defense chief also acknowledged "that tape was intended to be a very clear threat." In time, we will learn how crucial bin Laden's existence is to al-Qaeda's. But in symbolic terms, the value of getting him?dead or alive?remains incalculable.
?With reporting by Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Michael Weisskopf/Washington; Tim McGirk/ Islamabad; and Michael Ware/Kabul
From the Nov. 25, 2002 issue of TIME magazine