Whatever Happened to Osama Bin Laden?

By Maddy Sauer

Jul 6, 2007 12:57pm

Early this week, as banners on extreme Islamist websites announced a message of good news to come shortly from Al Qaeda leadership, terrorism analysts and the media began speculating that it might be the first message in over a year from Osama bin Laden to his followers. As it turned out, it was yet another message from his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri that was more academic than threatening. Almost six years after the attacks of September 11th, bin Laden has continued to elude capture and has remained a thorn in the side of US anti-terror efforts. "It seems likely that word would have leaked out if bin Laden had died, so we assume he is alive," Richard Clarke, a former US counterterrorism official and ABC News consultant, said. "His location, however, is totally unknown." The world last heard from bin Laden in June 2006 when he issued an audio statement praising the efforts of fellow terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi who had been recently killed in Iraq. There has been no new video of bin Laden since October 2004. The last time there was a lengthy gap between his statements was between December 2004 and January 2006. Meanwhile, his followers often make claims that their leader is alive and well. Last month, top Taliban Commander Mansoor Dadullah, who recently led the graduation ceremony of suicide bomber recruits, told Al Jazeera that bin Laden is "alive and active" and that the Al Qaeda leader had even sent him a condolence letter when his brother, another top Taliban commander, was killed by coalition forces. "He’s carrying out his duties," Dadullah said. "He preferred to stay away, and we preferred that because he should stay in hiding and give instructions." The former head of counterterrorism at the CIA, however, has his doubts about Dadullah’s claims. "I’m somewhat skeptical," said Robert Grenier, now a managing director at Kroll. "I tend to take that with a very large grain of salt." Earlier this spring, coalition forces in Afghanistan launched a major offensive in the Eastern Kunar province, a lawless frontier area where bin Laden was rumored to be hiding. Just a few days earlier, however, the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told Congress that he believed bin Laden to be in Pakistan. Many experts believe that bin Laden is able to travel somewhat freely between both countries along the border where tribal leaders are quite sympathetic to Al Qaeda. McConnell said just last week, that wherever they are, bin Laden and Zawahiri are still engaging their followers. "They provide guidance and coordination," McConnell said at a meeting at the Council on Relations. "They have lieutenants across the Middle East and increasingly across Africa." Grenier also agrees that bin Laden is on the Pakistan side of the border, but adds that there is little hard evidence to support that conclusion. "Being on the Pakistani side of the border does afford bin Laden greater safety than the Afghanistan side because of the greater freedom of movement that US and coalition forces have in Afghanistan," said Grenier. "If there is a breach of security it is far easier for US forces to react in Afghanistan." Extreme Islamists and other radical groups have been able to operate more freely in Pakistan in the past year thanks to a peace deal the Pakistani government made with tribal leaders last September. Pakistani troops were pulled out of the lawless tribal regions in exchange for a pledge from local leaders that they would not provide sanctuary to foreign fighters. "Clearly this has helped to establish a more effective safe haven for Islamic extremists, be they Taliban or local Pakistani groups or foreign fighters," said Grenier. Many observers declared that Pakistan had thrown in the towel in their fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and even Vice President Dick Cheney met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf earlier this spring to warn him that the Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists were gaining in their strength and increasing their sphere of influence into cities like Quetta. But some say, the White House has not done enough to step up the pressure on bin Laden. "The administration often talks about taking the battle to the enemy, but the real enemy is the Al Qaeda core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan badlands," Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this spring. "And we, frankly, haven’t taken the offense to them in quite some time." Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

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