Where is Bin Ladin?

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Jul 02, 2006

Why can't we get Osama bin Ladin? He is the most wanted man in the world, and among the most recognizable. He is unusually tall, reportedly somewhat ill, and occasionally manages to record and distribute audiotapes to the wider world. Yet nearly five years after he masterminded the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans, the United States – despite all of our might – has come up empty in one of the largest manhunts in human history.

The recent strike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the Jordanian terrorist who became an insurgent leader in Iraq – should give us hope. Among the many positive elements of Zarqawi's death was a demonstration that the U.S. can locate and eliminate an elusive al Qaeda leader. Yet unlike bin Ladin and his top lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi was operating in a country occupied by nearly 150,000 U.S. troops.

One of the more frustrating elements of the hunt for bin Ladin is that we are fairly certain where he is: somewhere on the Pakistani side of the northwestern Afghan-Pakistani border. This region presents unique challenges for the U.S., and plenty of opportunities for bin Ladin to hide. The vast terrain is mountainous and desert, and populated by tribes who are sympathetic to bin Ladin and opposed to the United States and Pakistan's leader, Pervez Musharraf.

Furthermore, U.S. tools to catch bin Ladin are limited. Because he is likely in Pakistan, U.S. forces cannot operate freely in the area. Because of the terrain and deep-rooted tribal traditions of independence, Pakistani forces have their own problems conducting operations. Reward money is of questionable use: informing the U.S. of bin Ladin's whereabouts would be extremely difficult, and doing so would subject an informant and his or her family to reprisal violence.

Some Americans throw up their hands and ask why we don't launch extended air strikes or an invasion of northwestern Pakistan. Doing so without precise intelligence on bin Ladin's whereabouts would likely cause extensive civilian casualties. This would certainly enrage Pakistanis, and could unleash civil unrest leading to the toppling of Musharraf. Thus even if we did get bin Ladin, we could be faced with Pakistan in chaos, and the prospect of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists – an outcome far worse than having bin Ladin at large.

So what, then, can the U.S. do to get bin Ladin? The key is better intelligence, and that depends on gradually closing in on the ring of associates who are in some kind of contact with bin Ladin. Even though he is cut off, he is still the leader of a network, and is dependent on others for food, shelter, medical care, and the distribution of his messages. To put it simply, we have to continue to look for someone who can tell us where he is, which likely means that we will have to deal with some unsavory characters.

This takes time. Developing "human intelligence" – obtaining the contacts and informants to get good information – takes years, not months. We must also bear in mind that we are dealing with remote and very different parts of the world – we are trying to penetrate Islamist tribal regions in Pakistan, not a Soviet network in East Berlin. You're not going to get this done with a fellow from southern Indiana.

That's why we must cooperate closely with foreign governments and security services, particularly Pakistan's. Finding a single individual in a distant land is nearly impossible without help – even in Iraq, the U.S. reportedly drew on Jordanian intelligence in targeting Zarqawi. Meanwhile, bin Ladin faces his own dilemma. The more he does – by way of appearances, communication, use of technology, or contact with different people – the more likely it is that we'll get him. The less he does, the less relevant he is, though his mere freedom does represent a rebuke of American power.

We will either get bin Ladin, or he will die in a remote corner of the world. In the process of getting him, we can strengthen our intelligence gathering in a vital front in the war on terrorism. But we should not give bin Ladin the kind of legacy he wants: a clumsy strike on Pakistan that kills innocent Muslims, and opens further the chasm between the US. and the Islamic world.

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