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September 11th, 2008
07:05 PM ET

The long fruitless hunt for Osama bin Laden


Editor's Note: We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world. Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst. He produced bin Laden’s first television interview which aired on CNN in 1997. He shares his thoughts below:
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Peter Bergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN National Security Analyst

Seven years after 9/11 the author of the largest mass murder in American history is free, almost certainly living in Pakistan, which is, at least nominally, a close ally in the US-led ‘war on terror’. As he no doubt savors the anniversary of his greatest “triumph” Osama bin Laden seems untroubled by serious kidney illness as was once rumored, nor does he appear to be troubled by American efforts to find him.

Since his disappearance at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in mid- December 2001 US intelligence agencies have not had any definitive information about the al Qaeda’s leader’s whereabouts. While there are informed hypotheses that he is in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, on the Afghan border, perhaps in one of the more northerly areas such as Bajaur, these are simply hypotheses not actionable intelligence. In other words, American intelligence agencies have nothing of any substance on bin Laden. Given the hundreds of billions of dollars that the ‘war on terror’ has consumed the failure to capture or kill al Qaeda’s leader has been one of its signal failures.

That said, it is worth bearing in mind that finding any one individual can be hard. Think of Mohamed Aideed, the anti-American Somali warlord who was known to be in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia in 1993, yet some 20,000 US soldiers deployed there were not able to find him. Think also of Radovan Karadzic, the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal arrested in July in Belgrade who it took more than a decade to track down after the end of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and he was hiding in a relatively small country in Europe, not the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

And given the fact that bin Laden is not making obvious errors such as talking on phones the signals of which can be intercepted and the fact that no one in his immediate circle will rat him out for the long-advertised cash rewards for his head it is likely that al Qaeda’s leader could evade detection for years or even decades.

There are, however, areas where al Qaeda’s leader is vulnerable. The most obvious being his continuing penchant for releasing audio- and videotapes. He has released around twenty since 9 /11. Those tapes give strategic guidance to al Qaeda and the wider militant jihadist movement, but they also provide a window of opportunity to find bin Laden as the chain of custody of those tapes eventually leads back to him.

One such an opportunity is likely to come over the next several weeks. Unable to stage a domestic sequel to 9/11, al-Qaeda’s chief will probably feel compelled to issue a videotape in the week or so before the Nov. 4 election, just as he did four years ago. On that tape bin Laden is likely to tell Americans that it is immaterial whether they elect McCain or Obama, instead they must get their government to change its policies in the Muslim world or face the consequences. Such a video must be recorded and couriered to an Internet cafe in Pakistan to be uploaded or delivered to one of al Jazeera’s offices around the world, actions that could be traced back to the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Another potential vulnerability may emerge out the startling number of missile attacks that have been launched against suspected al Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan in the past several weeks. Since July 28 there have been six American missile strikes into the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where al Qaeda is headquartered. There have been twice as many missile strikes in the past six weeks alone than the three such strikes in the whole of 2007.

These attacks have killed key al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Haris and Abu Khabab al Masri and seem to be based on better human intelligence on the ground integrated with real-time information coming from various kinds of satellites and drones feeding back overhead imagery of the FATA to US military and intelligence planners; the same kind of fusion of human and signals intelligence that has helped to dampen down the insurgency in Iraq.

The most recent missile strike on September 8 was aimed at a compound in the FATA owned by Jalaluddin Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani, key leaders of the Taliban-led insurgency who are also long time allies of al Qaeda. While neither of the Haqqanis died in the strike, their family members including wives and children were. These attacks seemed designed not only to create an ever-shrinking numbers of safe havens for al Qaeda but also to create uncertainty among the terror organization and its allies that will in turn lead to increased communications between them that can then be intercepted, so leading US intelligence officials to additional targets.

Bizarrely, the CIA closed its dedicated bin Laden unit in 2005. Today, however, the hunt for al Qaeda’s leader seems to have once again to have taken a top priority for the US government. No doubt President Bush would like to leave office with this rather large piece of unfinished business finished. I am not holding my breath, but will be happy to be pleasantly surprised.

soundoff (82 Responses)
  1. Bob Roberts

    Once again we are reminded of the tragic day and the lost lives that have not been answered for by the failures of George W Bush. President Bush Once again shows his inability to follow through and provide real accomplishment rather then failure. His failure to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice is typical of his lack luster performance, first swearing to track him to the ends of the earth, then discounting him as not important. What a huge slap in the face to the thousands who died on that tragic day. Poor judgment and irresponsible leadership buy the Bush administration is responsible for the decision to place political agendas over the importance of tracking down and the real culprits responsible for this tragedy. The decision by the neocon designers of the Iraq war and their agenda to promote a proactive military agenda of US involvement in the Middle East have left the real enemy of our country still at large. Distracting this country from the real enemy and providing a venue to push those who were willing to hate and distrust the US (but still stay out of the fight) to see Iraq as the final straw, and giving them the urban battle ground that any military commander with one ounce of sense would reject as a logistic nightmare. I’m sure many other less realistic and informed people would reject this truth, and will. It makes me sad that they would still willing prop up the person who has left this country it tatters with his poor leadership.

    September 12, 2008 at 11:32 am |
  2. Lisa

    I think the first comment made by Brenda Harris says it all. We Americans forget that Iran had nothing to do with 9/11. Bin Laden is still out plotting his next attack on the U.S. while we're sitting back letting him. Voting for McCain is voting four more years of the last eight, and we Americans can't afford it. Wake up people!!!!!

    September 11, 2008 at 10:19 pm |
  3. cb chickadee

    Dead or alive, he has been rendered ineffective. I doubt Osama bin Laden's visions and dreams were to launch a single attack in 2001, and then do nothing on U.S. soil for another 7 years (and counting).

    September 11, 2008 at 10:07 pm |
  4. Mikey Moore

    I love the insane people who want blame 9/11 on Bush and the Republicans. Maybe I am missing something, and maybe when 9/11 was being planned and trained for, Al Qaeda was clairvoyant and knew Bush would be elected. Maybe your buddy Clinton should have done something after the first attack in 93.... Guess he was busy. You think because you watch CNN and blog that you have the whole thing figured out? I am sure Bush killed Mary Jo Kopechne too.

    September 11, 2008 at 9:46 pm |
  5. Geechee

    77 out of 100 Senators voted for the war. Many were Democrats, including Kerry, Biden, etc., so please quit with the simplistic rants and shrill laments about "...Bush lied to us..", "...We were tricked...", yabadayabadayabada. All the major players in that decision, Repubs and Dems alike, SAW THE SAME INTELLIGENCE, a fact that you Lefties have quite conveniently forgotten. What's more, if we had been hit again at any point during the seven years since 9/11, you folks would have been the first to blame Bush for not protecting you. As of this moment, you have nothing to complain about. As to the "broken-record" postings that blogs of this ilk (Consistently Negative News) are typically rife with regarding Bin Laden's elusiveness: There are criminal fugitives in our OWN country who've managed to elude capture for decades, so how 'bout give it a rest? Or put your money where your mouth is. Go down to your nearest Army recruiter and volunteer for infantry training and we'll pay for you to go over there and look for him yourself. Not much chance of that happening, though, is there my lovelies? Because you talk the talk, but you don't walk the walk. Posters like you never DO.

    September 11, 2008 at 9:37 pm |
  6. Jim Stegall

    The comments on this story would be amusing if not for the fact that the people who posted them apparently believe them. Do any of the posters have any real-world understanding of the situation? Thirty-odd posts and not one sane idea on how to catch Bin Laden, just pointless criticism, conspiracy theories, and meaningless partisan rhetoric.

    Are Americans incapable of being serious about anything anymore?

    September 11, 2008 at 9:35 pm |
  7. g thomas

    They haven't found bin Laden because they don't want to. It would take too much hot air out of their global war on "terror" and make Iraq seem unnecessary.

    They're probably sending all of the rockets over there now less to give Bush a dubious legacy than to be sure b-L doesn't say something derisive in the November tape that would give dems the edge. Maybe something about how easy the republicans are to bait, as he was reported to have joked to his cronies.

    September 11, 2008 at 9:03 pm |
  8. Michael

    I followed a link to this blog and had no idea what site I was on until I looked at the link. Are all your posters on crack?
    Osama has been running like the frightened coward he is for the last 7 years. He has to have somebody else carry his feces out of the cave in a plastic bag so that he isn't blown to bits by an unarmed drone.
    Bin Laden escaped because of the same people posting to this website: Don’t bomb – you’ll hit civilians, no racial profiling, no wiretapping, don’t bomb in another sovereign country without asking, constitutional rights for terrorists, less bombs more schools, etc…
    You aggravate the problem and then blame Bush (alone with the other half of the country that agrees with him)
    If we actually do kill this loser, you’ll all cry like you did for Saddam.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:53 pm |
  9. Davis

    The American people are a victim of their own selfishness, as am I. If we cared about finding Bin Laden as much as we care about our obsession with reality tv, or whether Jessica Simpson is dating Tony Romo, than our country would listen to its constitiuents and find this man. Our fast food society along has the attention span of a gnat sometimes. These atrocities occured for whatever reason, and god bless those heroes and there families, but if we really cared as much as we say we do, and started to trust people we feel are in capable or deserving that trust, and not caring about the worlds opinion, this war on terror would have ended 4 years ago.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:32 pm |
  10. Rose

    Seems to me that once we went there to "look for bin Laden" someone forgot he existed and we went astray. The war confused our current administration as to why we went over there in the first place. If we realy want to find him, I believe we could. Just like we found the other rat...in a hole.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:31 pm |
  11. Dwayne Burns

    Does anyone find it unusual that we haven't captured Osama when the Bush Administraion let his family fly home right after the attacks! When the rest of the aircraft in America was grounded, the people who may have had info as to his whereabouts were allowed to leave without any questioning by American authorities. Bush and his cronies are responsible for this charade. Let's not be naive!
    Speaking of mysteries, can someone tell me what is growing out of the left side of John McCain's face? Just wondering.
    Dwayne Burns - Redding, CA

    September 11, 2008 at 8:17 pm |
  12. Annie Kate

    It would be satisfying to catch Bin Laden but I have thought that many thought he was dead already and al Queda releasing audio tapes in his name to keep up the farce that he still lives. If he is dead it would be nice to know that; if he's not then we need to hunt him down.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 11, 2008 at 8:08 pm |
  13. Damian - Atlanta, GA

    The reason we don't have Bin Laden is because we have not gone into Pakistan to get him. The Bush administration has failed on the "War on Terror" in almost every way imaginable. Over time he will mess up, and if he attacks again we would go in and finally find him. However, the political parties would be at fault for their failures if such an event occurred.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:03 pm |
  14. Tom

    The only thing worse than the attacks is that this murderer is still free. The world changed that day forever. We saw the horrible ugly side of humanity. We will never forget.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:02 pm |
  15. John

    There are so many absurd statements on this blog... I cannot believe most of them are serious comments. For example: "I believe strongly that the reason we haven’t found and eliminated Osama is that the Bin Laden family and the Bush family have been close friends for a long time." Are you serious?

    I mean, nobody is pretending that George Bush is a great president... but statements like this, if meant seriously, only signal the insanity of the author.

    September 11, 2008 at 8:02 pm |
  16. Paul Raihle

    With all these comments deflecting blame on our current administration:

    1) What presidential campaign is robust with bloggers?
    2) We don’t want to be in Iraq, but let’s invade Pakistan?
    3) What are the demographics of CNN’s viewers?

    September 11, 2008 at 7:59 pm |
  17. TJ

    When you juxtapose the unhinged comments on this thread with the somber reality of 9/11/01, you see just how crazy the left is.

    They can't even identify the enemy.

    Sad.

    September 11, 2008 at 7:31 pm |
  18. Mitty

    You mean we had him dead to rights in Tora Bora? We knew the exact patch of ground he was standing on. But somehow he slipped down a spider hole and disappeared and we haven't caught a trace of him since?

    Hmmmmmmmmmm? What's wrong with the first part of that story? Do you suppose the quality of our intelligence on him then (7-years ago) is similar to what it is now?

    September 11, 2008 at 7:05 pm |
  19. Scott

    Bush doesn't want to capture bin Laden.

    No wait, he is in league with him.

    No, hold on, bin Laden is dead but the US media doesn't care to let you know because it hates Pakistani and Egyptian media.

    Wow. 9-11-08 certainly unleashed all the conspiracy theorists and lunatics as evidenced by this comment thread.

    September 11, 2008 at 6:41 pm |
  20. citizen

    OBL is dead. Otherwise his PR department wouldn't have to rely on remixes, compilations, re-issues and greatest hits to keep his image out there. The real outrage is that Ground Zero is still a hole in the ground and not the site of a rebuilt WTC. And Hardy Campbell – you're dismissed.

    September 11, 2008 at 6:31 pm |
  21. Gus

    Credit hasn't been given to Bush for the history that didn't happen. The British and Russians before us proved it a mistake to go into the mountains to fight in a country miles from the nearest body of water. Your air assaults are limited, no ships can assist you and tanks are worthless. How many men would have died if John Kerry had been CiC and would have tried to get Bin Laden in Tora Bora–thankfully we'll never know. Bush's mistake was initially naming Bin Laden as public enemy #1–getting him is simply not worth the death of one single US fighter. Bin Laden being alive and living in a cave; out of sight for seven years is NOT a good recruiting tool for young Muslim men.

    Look at a map and consider what you learned about military history. The good commander always tries to fight on the ground of his choosing. Bin Laden was most likely ready to cause us some real damage in those mountains–ground of his choosing. So the smart minds said where can we fight the bad guys where we can inflict the most kills and limit our own casualties? The killing fields were in Iraq. Close to naval support, maximum use of tanks and air power close to existing bases in Kuwait. The flypaper approach attracted the bad guys to Iraq and there we killed them. Bin Laden didn't come but lots of his lieutenants did and they are all now wishing they had stayed in the caves.

    Now you have an Arab country with 25 million population, who having been through hell now has an opportunity at liberty for the masses. One swamp drained and perhaps Syria and Iran inhabitants will lust for Iraqi freedom very soon. That means mothers will encourage their sons to make something of themselves; no longer dead-enders agreeing with these sons to blow themselves up.

    Bush and our hero that you call General Betrayus, years from now will be remembered much differently than how you are portraying them now. If only General P had been the brains in 2003 perhaps things would have went more smoothly. Proud to be an American.

    September 11, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
  22. Dan R.

    While it would certainly be emotionally satisfying to see Osama bin Laden's head on a stick, in the overall scheme of things he's now pretty inconsequential. That's why comments like the one from Ken ("After 7 years of lies leading to unjustified war combined with constitutional breaches at home, the President failed to apprehend the man most commonly believed to be responsible for 9/11. A complete failure.") just totally and absolutely miss the mark.

    The reason bin Laden is pretty much inconsequential these days is that his worldwide network has been seriously degraded and the appeal of his movement among the world's muslims is now at al all-time low. As for Bin Laden himself, he's been reduced to moving from safe house to safe house, sleeping with one eye open, never knowing who might be the one to betray him. His ability to serve as the lightning rod for worldwide jihad is gone.

    "A complete failure", Ken? Hardly. As much as you and the rest of the infantile left might not like to admit it, the US is decisively winning the war on terror and Americans are considerably safer today than they were on 9/11/01 as a result. While I have my differences with President Bush, on that score he deserves a lot of credit.

    On 9/11/01, how many people would have been willing to bet that today, a full seven years later, we still wouldn't have experienced another terrorist attack on American soil? If we're going to rip Bush when his administration does something wrong, we have to give him credit when they do something right.

    September 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  23. Kristina, Seattle

    Just call up McCain! He knows how to find him. He said so at his convention... so it must be true.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:39 pm |
  24. beverly knight

    We have failed to even find Osama last location because we have been to concern with the wrong war. We have allowed our country to be consumed by this war based on lies we did his job for him .With bush as a leader Bin Laden can take a rest and all our new people think we are children who need to be entertained. We need to demand discussion of real issues or turn them off.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:09 pm |
  25. Brian Hanrahan

    I would like to comment that the only reason that we have not been attacked here in the US since 2001 is due to the diligence of our intelligence agencies. I also would like to point out that if our Military was not engaging terrorism overseas they certainly would be doing so here. I for one would rather have our brave men and women of the armed forces engaging the enemy in his backyard rather than ours. Remember that we are a volunteer force and that many of our Fathers,Brothers,Mothers and Sisters have gone over seas not once but numerous times knowing full well the sacrifices they make in order for their loved ones and fellow Americans not to know what true terror is all about.

    September 11, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  26. Julie San Diego, CA

    Let's not worry so much about one guy who's getting on in years and may or may not be alive.

    Let's worry about the tens of thousands of young men in that area of the world who have no jobs, no education, and lots of anger that can easily be directed towards us by the next generation of lunatics like Bin Laden.

    Finding Bin Laden isn't going to solve our problems. Finding Sadam did nothing to solve the Iraq situation.

    We need to deal with the root causes of terrorism – desperation, extremist teachings, gender inequity, poverty, and hopelessness.

    Less money for weapons and more money for schools that teach our values, not extremist values. Real efforts to improve the status of women in that part of the world – (microcredit, programs like "Heifer" that loan farm animals to the needy). Establishment of a viable economic system, with constraints on corruption, so that a business owner or farmer can be reasonably assured that if they work hard, their business or farm will not be bombed or taken from them by a corrupt official.

    Jimmy Carter may not have done the best job in his tenure as President, but over the years, the man has done much to solve some of these issues in developing nations. Let's take our best and brightest former leaders and get them working on solving this problem so we aren't raising another generation of Baby Osamas in that part of the world.

    If you think these ideas cost too much money, look at what we're spending out there with our military presence.

    September 11, 2008 at 2:05 pm |
  27. AK

    OK.. Let us pray U.S Govt. will do its best to capture this idiot.
    What else can be done to stop spreading the virus in this country...

    A. All religious schools in U.S needs to be aduited – what they are teaching/what the kids are reading.
    B. Most of them were not taught how to live in hormany with other religions, we should explain them what is correct and and what is wrong ..atleast get good teacher who is good at their religion and explain them these acts will hurt people ... first we should behave like human beings before aspiring for heaven...

    September 11, 2008 at 1:59 pm |
  28. lampe

    Shelley: Shame on you. on a day, when you are supposed to be remembering all those lives lost, you are thinking of Obama, and McCain, and lipstick. It's people like you who give decent people a bad name.Grow-up.

    September 11, 2008 at 1:40 pm |
  29. derek

    Look at the detail of the tapes that are released…..you telling me that with all the technology out now, obl couldn’t afford a better quality camera by now? Think about it people……

    September 11, 2008 at 1:34 pm |
  30. Dave

    Well, truth is, he's dead. But you watch them say they killed him sometime soon.

    September 11, 2008 at 11:28 am |
  31. Camilo

    The failure to find this murderer rests squarely on the shoulders of our current president. He had the chance to apprehend him in Tora Bora yet chose to pursue other adventures. This is an unforgivable travesty.

    At this point, it appears Osama bin Laden will meet a natural demise. He is a hero to like-minded extremists having spit in the eye of the only remaining superpower. I struggle for words to try to explain to my eight-year-old son why 9/11 happened and why this mighty and rich country, supremely endowed with cutting-edge technology, can't bring a mass-murderer to justice.

    September 11, 2008 at 11:27 am |
  32. Jake

    Isn't it amazing how our government has spent billions of dollars over seven years to locate just one simple-minded criminal from the third-world.

    Kinda makes you wonder how much it's going to cost to round up and deport 20 million undocumented aliens living within our borders. I'm guessing it's cheaper to build the fences then open the amnesty program.

    September 11, 2008 at 11:18 am |
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