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:
Peter Bergen | Bio
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.