Challenges of Hunting Bin Laden

Every available American satellite and high-tech listening device is focused on Afghanistan, seeking what the United States has never had with Osama bin Laden, what it calls "eyes on target."

"We're using very high-tech methods to look at a very low-tech country," said Dwayne Day, a leading authority on satellite technology.

"'Eyes on target' means you see the person you're going after and you know they're there," said author Mark Bowden.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack or a needle in a football field," says Tom Carew, a former British special forces commando who led secret missions into Afghanistan.

In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies have not even had "ears on target" — the ability to monitor bin Laden's communications — for at least a year.

"Bin Laden was able to determine that we knew he was using cell phones and satellite technology to communicate with his subordinates, and once that info became public, he ceased to communicate with his co-workers in that way," said former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Not Like the Movies

So now, it's almost like starting from scratch. It's late in the game to insert spies or special forces, said Carew.

"You're gonna have a lot of problems. You're gonna get bogged down there. It's full of holes, they'll shoot and scoot, they'll engage you and they'll go. You'll never be able to dictate the terms or to firefight to them. They will dictate it to you. They'll engage you when you least expect it and vaporize again," he said.

It's a sobering reality for Americans who may think the world of author Tom Clancy and movies like Patriot Games are real.

"What you see in the movies, when they're pointing a satellite down at a terrorist training camp and trying to figure out what's going on … when you see the live images of commandos running around on the ground shooting people and being relayed back to Washington in real time, that's really not how things work," said Day.

Day said American intelligence officials trying to find bin Laden with satellites wish they had what Hollywood has created for movies like Mission Impossible 2.

"Anytime you see a movie where the satellite acts like the Goodyear blimp, where it just hovers and takes pictures, you're watching fantasy — things just don't work like that in real life. You don't get moving images from space," he said.

"Enemy of the State is a great paranoid thriller, it's a lot of fun, but when they have all these scenes where you have those techno-nerds sitting in some office in Washington and they're directing satellites. That's just crazy — things don't work like that," said Day.

"The odds of catching Osama bin Laden with a spy satellite are excellent if he's driving around in a limousine with a big target painted on the roof," he said. "If he's hiding, they're not going to see anything. Even if he's standing right out in the dessert looking straight up we're not going to be able to figure out if it's him."

Previous Success

But it's not as if U.S. special forces couldn't do it with enough time. They have, in Colombia, in a case that has great similarities to the hunt for bin Laden, gone after a murderous cocaine kingpin named Pablo Escobar.

"The United States sent Delta Force to Colombia and Delta Force, coupled with the army surveillance units and CIA and just about every other tool in the American arsenal was put at the disposal of the Colombia forces," said Bowden, who documented the previously undisclosed role of U.S. intelligence and the Delta Force in tracking Escobar, who like bin Laden had lots of money and a big organization.

"They targeted him and they got him. Basically by tracking down everybody associated with him, killing them or arresting them, until Escobar was left stripped of his organization and running from hideout to hideout," he said.

On a fateful day, Escobar made a brief cell phone call to his family and American intelligence identified his voice and pinpointed his location.

"It was surrounded, he tried to flee and he was shot down and killed," said Bowden.

But Bowden said Americans should also remember how U.S. troops, including Delta Force, met with calamity in Somalia, as they went after a wanted warlord and his lieutenants hiding among supporters in the crowded city of Mogadishu, the subject of his book Black Hawk Down.

"They lost 18 men. They lost two helicopters. They ended up killing five hundred to a thousand Somalis. It turned out to be a very ugly terrible episode. But the bottom line is, they went out to get these two guys. They found them, they got them," said Bowden.

The one attempt against bin Laden we know about was a failure — cruise missiles fired at a training camp — without eyes on target. It's a mistake Bowden said the United States won't make again.

"Delta Force has been planning and practicing missions to Afghanistan, I know, since 1998," he said.

"They've been doing it for years. They've known, full well, that this was a likely mission for them. And in fact, many of them were angry and frustrated that they weren't allowed to conduct these missions earlier."

But without eyes on target, bin Laden is a shadow, maybe in the mountains, maybe in underground caves, maybe even hiding in a holy shrine, where any U.S. military action could run the risk of inflaming the entire Muslim world.