Hunt for Osama Over? Obama Steers Clear of Bin Laden References

The President's Rhetoric on World's Most-Wanted Man Has Changed Considerably Since Campaign

By HUMA KHAN

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 2010—

Terrorism and the national security agenda continue to define U.S. foreign policy, as they did during the Bush administration. Yet there is one person who is missing from the language of President Obama and his advisers -- Osama bin Laden, the FBI's most-wanted terrorist.

Former President Bush defined his war on terror in light of bin Laden. He famously pronounced in December 2001 that he wanted the al Qaeda mastermind captured "dead or alive."

So, too, did Obama when he was running for president. In a debate on Oct. 7, 2008, he declared, "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

He kept up that strong rhetoric right up to election day.

"I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just a symbol, he's also the operational leader of an organization that is planning attacks against U.S. targets," Obama said on Nov. 2, 2008, just a few days before his victory.

But as a president, Obama has been considerably less eager to make bin Laden the central feature of the fight against terrorism. In an interview with CBS News in January 2009, Obama seemed to lower the bar of the importance of finding bin Laden. His administration's "preference obviously would be to capture or kill him," Obama said, but he added a caveat.

"If we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America," he said.

Since then, the president has been quite frugal in using bin Laden's name. Even as he explained his decision behind the troop surge in Afghanistan and tried to re-focus efforts on stamping out al Qaeda, Obama has, for the most part, kept bin Laden out of his language.

That, experts say, may not be unwise.

"When you mention bin Laden's name too much, you inadvertently elevate his status to a person larger than it needs to be. [It] fuels al Qaeda's ranks," Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News. "We don't want to create this organization that has this cult personality. We want to minimize publicity."

Others say the Saudi dissident, whose last tape was released in June, may not still be alive and even if he is, he may not be the leader he once was.

"We don't know whether he is in any way the daily boss of al Qaeda. He is historically the boss and symbolically the boss, but is he the guy who really runs it?" said Pulitzer Prize winner Leslie H. Gelb, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Our intelligence can't answer that question with any confidence. We can keep personalizing it on Osama as Bush was wont to do, but I think Obama is correct to make it [the focus] al Qaeda rather than the person, because it may turn out the guy is dead already."

Hunt for Osama bin Laden Continues

Some conspiracy theorists have said the U.S. government created the most recent bin Laden tapes. Others have dismissed his tapes as fake, but no one has been able to say with certainty if the world's most-wanted terrorist is still alive.

The decision to keep bin Laden out of the national security rhetoric and frame the terrorism war differently is likely deliberate.

Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of language. When asked in a January 2009 interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel about the phrases Bush used, such as "war on terror" and Islamic fascism, Obama said: "The language we use matters. ... We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name."

Another reason for the shift in language, experts say, is precisely because the current administration wants to separate itself from its predecessor. The president hasn't shied away from that.

But does that mean the threat from bin Laden is over?

"Eliminating Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri won't result in a defeat of al Qaeda, but you cannot defeat al Qaeda without eliminating Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri," Nelson said.

Nelson's statement echoed remarks made by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in December, when he said capturing or killing bin Laden, an iconic figure whose "survival emboldens al Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," would help in defeating al Qaeda.

"It would not defeat al Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don't think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he is captured or killed," he told Congress.

Experts say symbolically, it is key to eliminate both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but doing so won't mean the threat is over.

"I think symbolically, it would mean a lot, but it would be foolish for any one of us to assume that if we got rid of both of them the threat would leave us," ABC News consultant and former FBI agent Jack Cloonan told ABC News. "It won't. They're not in charge of the organization anymore."

Cloonan, who served as a senior agent on the FBI's bin Laden squad in New York and headed the case of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said al Qaeda as an organization has changed considerably over the years. Rather than being a united group, it exists in many shapes and forms throughout the world, a challenge the Obama administration saw firsthand in the case of the botched Christmas Day terror plot.

But that doesn't mean the United States has stopped going after the senior leadership. In fact, the case of the CIA agents being killed by a double agent in Afghanistan last month was a clear indication that the United States is still having a hard time pinning down the location of al Qaeda leaders, Cloonan said.

The Jordanian doctor who killed five CIA officers and two CIA security contractors lured the agents to a meeting by claiming he had just met with Zawahiri and bin Laden.

"It shows you how vulnerable we can be after all this time because we lack the critical information to get Zawahiri and bin Laden," Cloonan said. "It tells me also we are very dependent on liaison services to come forward with somebody who we can send into that region of the world. ... We don't have the human assets to tell us where these people are."

Framing National Security

The president and his team may not have made bin Laden the central feature of their terrorism war -- and have been chided by critics for not using the word "terrorism" enough -- but they have upped the assault on al Qaeda. The administration approved an escalation of CIA drone strikes, mostly in North Waziristan, in northwest Pakistan, where al Qaeda leadership is believed to be hiding.

In 2009, the CIA launched more than 50 drone strikes, according to a tally by ABC News. That's more than the total drone attacks in the previous five years combined. From 2004 to 2008, there were 46 drone strikes, according to data from the Long War Journal. A drone strike in South Waziristan in August killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, considered to be one of the chief leaders behind attacks in Pakistan and against American interests.

As the president's State of the Union speech approaches, he is expected to address in detail the national security challenges and the administration's steps moving forward.

"He'll take some forceful position that encompasses everybody's opinion," Gelb told ABC News. "That's his pattern."

But don't look for any references to bin Laden, experts say.

"My recommend is for the administration to publicly minimize the importance of this individual and the mention of his name," Nelson said. "Every time his name is mentioned, it elevates his status and serves as a recruiting tool. I think we have to avoid that as a nation."