The hunt for Osama bin Laden has been narrowed to a 40-square-mile section of the Waziristan region of Pakistan, senior U.S. officials told ABCNEWS.
"[It is] a very hostile area in terms of geography, mountains, terrain, ravines and two ferocious tribes, the Wazirs and the Mahsuds who dominate the area," said Dr. Akbar Ahmed, professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C.
Authorities are casting a net around the towns of Angoor Ada and Wana in southern Waziristan, which are infested with al Qaeda supporters, but it is a difficult and dangerous area to operate in.
Protected by local gunmen, an ABCNEWS producer, who we won't name due to safety reasons, was able to move through the hostile Waziristan area undetected this summer.
Read the producer's exclusive reporter's notebook.
Local residents showed ABCNEWS the mountain homes of known al Qaeda operatives, graffiti praising the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is also believed to be hiding in northern Waziristan, and the marketplaces and bazaars where authorities believe that bin Laden and his entourage could get its supplies.
At least eight people were murdered in the town of Angoor Ada, in broad daylight, on the suspicion they were informing the U.S. of bin Laden's whereabouts, according to locals. As a result, locals are tightlipped about al Qaeda's presence.
Locals also told ABCNEWS that one tribe has been known to kill their own relatives for helping Americans with development and infrastructure work on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"I think it's highly risky for anyone up there," said Richard Clarke, an ABCNEWS consultant who was a national security adviser at the White House before retiring earlier this year. Since the majority of people in that region support bin Laden, he said, "they are going to be enforcers and they're going to be protecting him and his organization."
Bin Laden’s Messengers
Even though bin Laden has continued to issue audiotapes confirmed by the CIA as his voice, he was last seen on a video 17 months ago, on April 15, 2002. Four months prior, when he released a tape claiming credit for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, his gaunt appearance suggested he was ill or injured.
But authorities told ABCNEWS there is new information from electronic intercepts and intelligence on the ground that shows bin Laden is very much alive, somewhere in the rugged terrain of Waziristan. Local sources there said al Qaeda has affiliates in different cities from Wana to Karachi, who are responsible for transporting al Qaeda members and sending messages by camel, enabling bin Laden to avoid U.S. spy planes and satellites overhead.
"The problem has been that bin Laden has gone quiet," said former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro, who is also an ABCNEWS consultant. "He is not using electronic communications devices. And there haven't been any recent sightings of him."
Earlier this year, electronic intercepts led the U.S. to another region of Pakistan, Baluchistan, where authorities thought they had found bin Laden moving in a convoy of trucks.
"They thought they were very close to locating him and fixing his position about two months ago," said Cannistraro. "But they failed in the end to locate him."
Tribal Codes, Customs
Four FBI and CIA agents are stationed with Pakistani troops to relay U.S. intelligence information, but even the Pakistanis have a hard time operating there. By treaty with the Wazir tribe, they are not allowed further than 100 yards on either side of the road, according to Ahmed, who once held a political post in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, which includes Waziristan.
"This really is a closed area," he said. "The government of Pakistan has very limited control. Beyond 100 yards of both sides of the road, they have no control, which means there is no criminal law, no civil procedure codes, no normal laws of Pakistan function."
The tribal code also focuses on revenge, hospitality and honor, according to Ahmed, so if bin Laden was hiding in this area, all the codes would be applied. "He would be hiding as a guest, so the law of hospitality would be involved," said Ahmed. "If someone handed him over for the huge reward that is being offered, the honor of the tribe would be at stake."
Pakistani officials have had some success in tracking down and apprehending some key al Qaeda members, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of bin Laden's top deputies accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks and who was captured March 1, 2003 in Pakistan. But according to Pakistan Interior Minister Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat, they have been handicapped by centuries-old tribal tradition and customs.
"Because of their tribal sensitivities, it could be entirely possible that Osama, or his other aides — his closes aides — they could be in hiding in parts of the tribal belt," said Saleh Hayat.
Tribal customs and traditions aside, Saleh Hayat said it is imperative of Pakistan, "to now focus on the tribal belts and to extend its laws into those areas … but it is a gradual process."
The tribes also cross borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, "so Osama can be like a fish swimming in an ocean, just going up and down," said Ahmed.
Fewer Ground Resources
U.S. special forces are stationed across the border in Afghanistan with approximately 45 checkpoints should bin Laden head there, but authorities said there are many unfrequented routes and it is impossible to seal the entire border.
Special forces in Afghanistan, however, are not as specialized as they once were, Cannistraro told ABCNEWS. This specifically hurts the hunt because, he added, in order to deploy intelligence resources to collect information on bin Laden, the U.S. needs Arabic speakers.
"If you've drawn off many if not all of your Arabic language resources and sent them off to Iraq you're shorthanded in terms of dealing with intelligence collection problem of fixing bin Laden's location," said Cannistraro. "So there are fewer resources to deal with in trying to basically find and capture, the principal leader of a terrorist organization that's killing Americans."
Waziristan is mountainous and very difficult terrain to maneuver in. It is also populated by Pashtuns, who support bin Laden and his followers, so it's very difficult to acquire the ground intelligence to help in the hunt.
As a result, in this rugged, hostile region, even with the hunt narrowed to 40 square miles, the U.S. needs all the help it can get.