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