Hunt for Osama Bin Laden Shifts Gears

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Osama Bin Laden is still a free man. U.S. officials are not sure where he is, although it has long been assumed that he is hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Although the U.S. government says the hunt is still on, the CIA recently closed its Bin Laden unit.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Osama bin Laden has now released two tapes in recent days. The tapes include this one, promising more attacks against the U.S. and paying tribute to his recently killed al-Qaida colleague, Abu Musab Zuqawi.

Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN (Al-Qaida Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

But like bin Laden's earlier messages this year, we do not actually see him. The words are accompanied by an old photo. Bin Laden has not appeared on video since October 2004. That may indicate that he's sick or injured and trying to hide it, or that he doesn't have access to video technology, or that he is extremely careful about his security.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has this update on U.S. efforts to find him.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

Here's a question almost guaranteed to make Counterterrorism officials squirm. How is it that nearly five years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden is still a free man?

Mr. ROBERT GRENIER (Former CIA Counterterrorism Official): As you can imagine, that is a question that I have attempted to answer on quite a number of occasions.

KELLY: That's Bob Grenier. He was the CIA's top Counterterrorism official until February, and before that, CIA station chief in Pakistan.

Grenier, in his first interview since leaving the agency, says the CIA is constantly thinking up new ways to go after bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. It's just that so far they haven't worked.

Mr. GRENIER: I think that it has to be acknowledged. Here, okay, five years after the fact, you have the two most senior people in al-Qaida who still appear to be at large, and you really can't paint that as a success.

KELLY: So why hasn't the U.S. been able to get bin Laden? Henry Crumpton(ph), the State Department's point man on terrorism issues, offers one of the most frequently cited answers.

Mr. HENRY CRUMPTON (U.S. State Department): Man-hunting anywhere is a hard business. You look at the FBI's top ten most wanted fugitives. They can elude capture for years and years, and that's here within our borders.

KELLY: Crumpton adds the area where bin Laden is believed to be hiding is doubly hard. Bin Laden is thought to be near the Afghan-Pakistan border, probably on the Pakistan side. It's tough terrain, both because of its craggy mountains and remote location, and because tribal leaders there are historically hostile to outsiders.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence officials suggest other factors may also help explain why bin Laden is still at large. For starters, there's disagreement over how dangerous bin Laden personally remains, and therefore what level of precious intelligence and military resources should be devoted to his capture.

Here's Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief.

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Counterterrorism Expert): I don't think bin Laden represents a threat anymore. I think today he largely serves as a symbolic figure. And I think if the United States takes him out, that's a good thing, but it's at this point so late in the game that it's a pyrrhic victory for us if we get him. In fact, he may be, like Che Guevara, more valuable to the movement in death as a martyr and as a symbol than he was in his last year or two.

KELLY: Others vigorously disagree. A senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity argues that bin Laden is still dangerous on a tactical and operational level, and says taking him out remains quote "an incredibly important part of the war on terror."

That said, NPR has learned the CIA quietly disbanded its bin Laden unit last year. For years, that unit had masterminded the hunt for bin Laden. CIA veterans insist he's still a major priority, but they say the focus shouldn't be on one man. The threat today is perceived to be the ideology he spawned and the many al-Qaida offshoots and terror cells operating worldwide.

The senior administration official insists, while there may no longer be a specific bin Laden unit, people do wake up every day and go out and try to find him. Which raises the question, just how good is U.S. intelligence on bin Laden?

Mr. CLARKE: I don't think U.S. intelligence really has a clue where bin Laden is.

KELLY: Again, Richard Clarke. The CIA would beg to differ. In an interview last year, then CIA Director Porter Goss claimed he had quote "an excellent idea of where bin Laden is." But if that's so, why hasn't the U.S. caught him?

Bob Grenier, the former CIA counterterrorism chief, says it's not as simple as just ordering U.S. forces to go get bin Laden.

Mr. GRENIER: Let's just suppose that we sent three divisions of U.S. troops into Pakistan, up into those areas, and we violated Pakistani sovereignty, and I could tell you for a fact that we would touch off a large tribal war, and perhaps it would lead to the overthrow of Musharraf - well, maybe we'd get lucky and maybe we would - we would capture bin Laden and Zawahri, but at what long-term cost?

KELLY: So it's a question of what you would have to do in the short-term to get bin Laden could end up working against U.S. interests in the long-term.

Mr. GRENIER: If pursued crudely, yes.

KELLY: Gary Berntsen also cites the political survival of Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf as a top strategic priority, even higher than capturing Osama bin Laden. Berntsen was the CIA's field commander in Afghanistan after 9/11.

He scoffs at the notion that war in Iraq has drained resources and distracted attention from the pursuit of bin Laden. Berntsen argues any more U.S. forces on the case would actually counterproductive.

Mr. GARY BERNTSEN (Former CIA Field Commander in Afghanistan): We can't have U.S. forces running all around Pakistan, because that would upset the local population, the local political situation. Pakistan, nation of 160 million people with nuclear weapons. Would you want that country to fall and those weapons to fall into the hands of people that were supporters of bin Laden?

Mr. RAND BEERS (Terrorism Expert): Well, it's clear to me that the last thing that we want to do is destabilize Musharraf.

KELLY: Rand Beers. He worked terrorism issues for the National Security Council in several administrations. But Beers argues the U.S. could be pushing Pakistan harder.

Mr. BEERS: And the question that I continue to have is how much can we get Musharraf to cooperate? And the question that he has to ask himself is how far is he prepared to press the intelligence service?

KELLY: That's Pakistan's legendary ISI. It's believed to be riddled with al-Qaida sympathizers. Indeed, some experts have argued that bin Laden enjoys so much support in parts of Pakistan's government that he might not be restricted to the tribal areas in the north.

Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen points out that other senior al-Qaida leaders have been captured in big Pakistani cities, Kweta, Karachi, Rawalpindi. Bergen says, why not bin Laden?

Richard Clarke would go further still. He proposes maybe bin Laden's not in Pakistan at all.

Mr. CLARKE: The analogy I use is when you search your entire house for your car keys, maybe the car keys are in the car. When you search Pakistan high and low, and you can't find him, maybe that's because he's not here.

KELLY: So where else might he be? Clarke leans back in his chair, then pronounces, Maybe Soviet Central Asia, or Somalia, or maybe, and here a touch of mischief creeps into Clarke's voice, maybe, he says, he's in Iran.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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