Finding World's Bad Guys Often Not Easy

After 9/11, President Bush vowed he would get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." But a little more than two years later, bin Laden apparently is functioning well enough to issue periodic audio and videotapes that taunt America.

Likewise, deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein purportedly has issued anti-American audiotapes, nearly six months after Bush declared April 8, following a strike in Iraq: "Saddam Hussein will be gone. It might have been yesterday, I don't know. But he'll be gone."

What's the delay in getting these guys?

As leaders throughout recent history have learned, rounding up international bad guys is not always as easy as it might seem. Governments pursuing Nazis, rebels and terrorists have found that despite outrage and determination, it can take years, or even decades, to track down fugitives.

Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal, two of the most-wanted terrorists of a previous generation, were on the run for decades before evidently being betrayed by protectors. World War II-era Nazis often slipped into a generation of exile amid Cold War distractions. One of the most notorious Nazis, Josef Mengele, died a free man.

Despite America's outrage and determination following 9/11, looking for bin Laden could be "like looking for a needle in a haystack," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it in late October 2001.

"It's a big world," Rumsfeld told USA Today at the time. "There are lots of countries. He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him and I just don't know whether we'll be successful."

Common Threads

Authorities on past manhunts say that while every high-profile pursuit seems to have its unique twists and turns, there can be common threads.

Foreign governments often add years to the pursuit by secretly — or overtly — protecting wanted fugitives. Sometimes, the targets can buy time by slipping into wild, remote areas with sympathetic populations — such as tribal parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are believed to have hidden.

Ruth Wedgwood, who once helped track fugitives as a former federal prosecutor in New York — including the fugitive financier Robert Vesco, who is believed to be in a Cuban prison — said history shows the hunts for bin Laden, Saddam and others can go for years without resolution.

Or, they could be caught tomorrow. Often, it comes down to a sudden break from new intelligence, information obtained from interrogations of prisoners, or tips generated by reward offers. It even can come down to dumb luck, such as if someone spots a fugitive walking down the street.

Wedgwood, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a law professor at Johns Hopkins University, speculated bin Laden might one day be undermined if he seeks treatment for his kidney condition.

"A lot of law enforcement is pure serendipity," she said. "People can hide out for a very long time … if they're only concerned with survival. If they want to remain the leader … if they want to continue operating and planning … then we have a better shot."

Pulling the Rug

That principle can apply equally to common criminals and international terrorists, Wedgwood said: A higher profile often means a trail of communications, intelligence and local notoriety. If underlings get caught, immediate questioning can reveal a lot.

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