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.

"If every time you catch somebody he has a pocket organizer or a set of numbers … backtrack those real quick and sometimes you'll get lucky," Wedgwood said. "The way you catch people is by doing what prosecutors and intel agents do, which is scour data and play upon human intelligence and human frailties."

Many analysts believe Saddam may be caught before bin Laden because his former associates continue to be rounded up at a rapid rate, and the former dictator is believed to remain confined to Iraq, where he may be planning ongoing attacks.

But even continued operations by fugitives don't ensure their capture. Al Qaeda figures can be a case in point, with bin Laden apparently reverting to lower-tech communications methods such as couriers to cover his tracks better, U.S. officials say.

On the other hand, the cases of Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal and others show that even when terrorists slow down their activities in their later years, they may not be safe.

Abu Nidal, in his mid-60s, was found dead in Iraq in 2002. And Carlos was captured in Sudan, where he had taken refuge, in 1994. Both were terrorists who moved from country to country, allegedly masterminding dozens of killings, kidnappings and attacks against Middle Eastern and Western targets.

"Without the assistance, connivance or winks of states, there is no way Abu Nidal would have lived the way he lived for as long as he lived," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group dedicated to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. "Once that state pulls the rug, five minutes later the guy's dead."

‘Well-Funded, Religious Nazis’

Cooper also sees parallels between the current hunt for al Qaeda figures and the post-World War II hunt for Nazis.

"You're dealing with highly motivated, well-funded, religious Nazis," Cooper said. "There is a direct parallel there. There is a worldview. Their view is that there will be a worldwide Islamic government. … You either agree with their worldview or you're an enemy. That pretty much sounds like echoes of Nazism."

But Patrick Seale, author of Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire: The Secret Life of the World's Most Notorious Arab Terrorist, said that type of world view also makes today's manhunts much different than those in the past, when figures like Abu Nidal had secular motivations and less extensive popular support.

The difference makes the comparisons between the hunts for Abu Nidal and Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein shaky, he said, and may even make applications of past manhunt lessons counterproductive.

"The trouble with counterterror is that it risks alienating the local populations and pushing them into the arms of the militants, as we are seeing in Iraq," Seale said. "Every time an American soldier kills an Iraqi, this breeds, probably, a whole family of militants.

"Israel, for years, has been conducting this policy of targeted killings," Seale added. "This has not visibly dampened the fires of resistance. On the contrary, you see, you have to talk to your enemy rather than kill him if you want to end the problem."

He added that when President Bush says things like, "I want justice, and there's an old poster out West, that I recall, said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive,' " as he did on Sept. 17, 2001, that doesn't necessarily help, either.

"The United States has had the unfortunate tendency of personalizing the struggle," Seale said. "This is a huge mistake. These people are icons perhaps, one could say, but there are many people who feel like them, and if you decapitate these organizations, new leaders emerge."

In fact, as bin Laden continued to elude the U.S. dragnet, American officials grew more tempered in their remarks: "Terror is bigger than one person," President Bush said in March 2002, setting the pattern for more recent comments.

Unflagging Pursuit

The rhetorical shift does not signal any reduction of efforts to pursue bin Laden. Officials and analysts contacted for this story say the 9/11 attacks make him a special case.

"I think with all of these people we're going to hunt them down until we get them," said Richard Clarke, counterterrorism czar under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and now an ABCNEWS consultant. "I don't think we're going to lose interest."

But history has shown pursuers can lose interest.

Nazi hunters learned the hard way the resolve of governments to catch even the most despised fugitives can peter out. After an initial push to prosecute Nazis at the Nuremberg war crimes trials immediately following World War II, things changed.

"Another war quickly intervened, and that was the Cold War," the Wiesenthal Center's Cooper said. "The Cold War was the best news that the Nazis could have dreamed of."

Many apparently went from being sought as war criminals to being allowed to slip into safe exile, often in South America, Cooper said. He added some lesser, non-German figures even fled to the United States, claiming possible persecution by communists back home.

"It was left to individuals [like Simon Wiesenthal] to try to find the trail," Cooper added. "Only with the end of the Cold War was it possible to really get cooperation" from some governments.

He believes some Nazis stayed protected in South America because of bribes and occasionally maybe even local ideological sympathy — perhaps in the manner current fugitives hide out among pockets of supporters.

But there's an important difference between the hunt for Nazis and the hunt for bin Laden, Cooper said: It is far less likely America will lose resolve for catching the most recent crop of international enemies, because this time the United States is "the aggrieved party," rather than citizens of foreign nations who were victims of Nazi concentration camps.

"The current situation is, in many ways, completely different," Cooper said. "You have the full force, the full resources, of the most powerful nation in the history of planet Earth."