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The Obstacles to the Capture of Osama bin Laden

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - 15:11 Print Text Size

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Al Qaeda's As-Sahab media arm released a video Sept. 11 to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Although the 47-minute video features a voice-over introduction by Osama bin Laden, the bulk of it is of Abu Musab Waleed al-Shehri, one of the suicide bombers who crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center's north tower. That recording was made prior to al-Shehri's travel to the United States in the spring of 2001.

There is nothing in bin Laden's audio segment to indicate it was recorded recently. The production does include a still photograph of him — one taken from what appears to be a real bin Laden video released Sept. 7 (in which he sports a dyed beard), but bin Laden's comments about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi suggest they were recorded during al Qaeda's 2006 media blitz.

The release of two successive bin Laden messages, however, has again focused attention on bin Laden, who before last week had not been seen on video since late October 2004. This increased attention has once again caused people to question why the United States has failed to find bin Laden — and to wonder whether it ever will.

While the feds generally get their man in the movies or on television, it is very difficult in real life to find a single person who does not want to be found. It is even harder when that person is hiding in an extremely rugged, isolated and lawless area and is sheltered by a heavily armed local population.

The United States and Pakistan have not launched a major military operation to envelop and systematically search the entire region where bin Laden likely is hiding — an operation that would require tens of thousands of troops and likely result in heavy combat with the tribes residing in the area. Moreover, this is not the kind of operation they will take on in the future. The United States, therefore, will continue to pursue intelligence and covert Special Forces operations, but if it is going to catch bin Laden, it will have to wait patiently for one of those operations to produce a lucky break — or for bin Laden to make a fatal operational security blunder.

Needle in a Haystack

Finding a single man in a large area with rugged terrain is a daunting task, even when a large number of searchers and a vast array of the latest high-tech surveillance equipment are involved. This principle was demonstrated by the manhunt for so-called "Olympic Bomber" Eric Rudolph, who was able to avoid one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history by hiding in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains. The task force looking for Rudolph at times had hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement officers assigned to it, while some of its search operations involved thousands of law enforcement and volunteer searchers. The government also employed high-tech surveillance and sensor equipment and even offered a $1 million reward for information leading to Rudolph's capture.

However, Rudolph's capture in May 2003, more than five years after he was listed on the FBI's most-wanted list, was not the result of the organized search for him. Rather, he was caught by a rookie police officer on a routine patrol who found Rudolph rummaging for food in a dumpster behind grocery store. The officer did not even realize he had captured Rudolph until he had taken him to the police station for booking.

Hostile Terrain

The terrain in the Smoky Mountains is tough and remote, but it is nothing compared to the terrain in the soaring, craggy Safed Koh range that runs along the Pakistani-Afghan border or in the Hindu Kush to the north. Some of the peaks in the Safed Koh range, including Mount Sikaram, are well over twice as high as any peak in the Smokies, while the Hindu Kush contains some of the highest peaks in the world.

But it is not only the terrain that is hostile. In the Great Smokies, there are some people who are not happy to see "revenuers" and other government agents — or other strangers, for that matter — but at least the area is under the federal government's control. The same cannot be said of the lawless areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The presence of Pakistani military forces is resented in these areas, and troops are regularly attacked by the heavily armed tribesmen living there.

This is not a new phenomenon by any means, though. The Pashtun tribes in the rugged area along the Durand Line (the line set to demarcate the border between the British Raj and Afghanistan, which later became the Afghan-Pakistani border) have always been difficult to control. Even before the establishment of Pakistan, the inhabitants of the area gave the British colonial authorities fits for more than a century. The Britons were never able to gain full control over the region, so they instead granted extensive power to tribal elders, called maliks. Under the deal, the maliks retained their autonomy in exchange for maintaining peace between the tribesmen and the British Raj — thus allowing commerce to continue unabated.

However, some dramatic flare-ups of violence occurred against the Britons during their time in the region. One of the last of them began in 1936 when a religious leader known as the Faqir of Ipi encouraged his followers to wage jihad on British forces. (Jihad against invading forces is a centuries-old tradition in the region.) The Faqir and his followers fought an extended insurgency against the British forces that only ended when they left Pakistan. The United Kingdom attempted to crush the Faqir and his followers, but the outmanned and outgunned insurgents used the rugged terrain and the support of the local tribes to their advantage. Efforts to use spies to locate or assassinate the Faqir also failed. Although the British and colonial troops pursuing the Faqir reportedly numbered more than 40,000 at one point, the Faqir was never captured or killed. He died a natural death in 1960.

A Modern Faqir?

Under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani military entered the FATA in force in March 2004 to pursue foreign militants — for the first time since the country's creation — but the operation resulted in heavy casualties for the Pakistani army, demonstrating how difficult it is for the Pakistani military to fight people so well integrated in the Pashtun tribal badlands. Following that failed operation, the Pakistani government reverted to the British model of negotiating with the maliks in an effort to combat the influence of the Taliban and foreign jihadists — and has been harshly criticized because of it. Nowadays, jihadist insurgents are attacking Pakistani security and intelligence forces in the Pashtun areas in the Northwest.

The parallels between the hunt for the Faqir of Ipi and bin Laden are obvious — though it must be noted that bin Laden is a Saudi and not a native-born Pashtun. However, many of the challenges that the United Kingdom faced in that operation are also being faced by the United States today.

Aside from the terrain — a formidable obstacle in and of itself — U.S. forces are hampered by the strong, conservative Islamic conviction of the people in the region. This conviction extends beyond the tribes to include some members of the Pakistani military and Pakistan's intelligence agencies — especially those at the operational level in the region. It must be remembered that prior to 9/11 the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and military openly supported the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. In addition to the relationships formed between bin Laden and the so-called "Afghan Arabs" (foreign jihadists) during the war against the Soviets, Pakistani troops also trained and fought alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda in their battles against the Northern Alliance and other foes. Because of these deep and historic ties, there are some in the Pakistani government (specifically within the security apparatus) who remain sympathetic, if not outright loyal, to their friends in the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Additionally, and perhaps just as important, many in the Pakistani government and military do not want to kill their own people — the Pashtuns, for example — in order to destroy the much smaller subset of Pakistani and foreign militants. The challenge is to eliminate the militants while causing very little collateral damage to the rest of the population — and some in the Pakistani government say the airstrikes in places such as Chingai and Damadola have not accomplished this goal. In August, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri told television channel AAJ that Pakistan had done all it can in the war on terrorism and that, "No one should expect anything more from Islamabad."

In an operation such as the manhunt for bin Laden, intelligence is critical. However, the Taliban and al Qaeda so far have used their home-field advantage to establish better intelligence networks in the area than the Americans. According to U.S. counterterrorism sources, U.S. intelligence had gathered some very good leads in the early days of the hunt for bin Laden and other high-value al Qaeda targets, and they shared this intelligence with their counterparts in the Pakistani security apparatus to try to organize operations to act on the intelligence. During this process, people within the intelligence apparatus passed information back to al Qaeda, thus compromising the sources and methods being used to collect the information. These double agents inside the Pakistani government did grave damage to the U.S. human intelligence network.

Double agents within the Pakistani government are not the only problem, however. Following 9/11, there was a rapid increase in the number of case officers assigned to collect information pertaining to al Qaeda and bin Laden, and the CIA was assigned to be the lead agency in the hunt. One big problem with this, according to sources, was that most of these case officers were young, inexperienced and ill-suited to the mission. The CIA really needed people who were more like Rudyard Kipling's character Kim — savvy case officers who understand the region's culture, issues and actors, and who can move imperceptibly within the local milieu to recruit valuable intelligence sources. Unfortunately for the CIA, it has been unable to find a real-life Kim.

This lack of seasoned, savvy and gritty case officers is complicated by the fact that, operationally, al Qaeda practices better security than do the Americans. First, there are few people permitted to see bin Laden and the other senior leaders, and most of those who are granted access are known and trusted friends and relatives. Someone else who wants to see bin Laden or other senior al Qaeda leader must wait while a message is first passed via a number of couriers to the organization. If a meeting is granted, the person is picked up at a time of al Qaeda's choosing and taken blindfolded via a circuitous route to a location where he is stripped and searched for bugs, beacons and other tracking devices. The person then reportedly is polygraphed to verify that his story is true. Only then will he be taken — blindfolded and via a circuitous route — to another site for the meeting. These types of measures make it very difficult for U.S. intelligence officers to get any of their sources close to the al Qaeda leaders, much less determine where they are hiding out.

The areas where bin Laden likely is hiding are remote and insular. Visitors to the area are quickly recognized and identified — especially if they happen to be blond guys named Skip. Moreover, residents who spend too much time talking to such outsiders often are labeled as spies and killed. These conditions have served to ensure that the jihadists maintain a superior human intelligence (and counterintelligence) network in the area. It is a network that also stretches deep into the heart of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Islamabad's twin city and home to the Pakistani army's general headquarters.

The Price of Security

Although al Qaeda's operational security and the jihadist intelligence network have been able to keep bin Laden alive thus far, they have lost a number of other senior operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Faraj al-Libi and others). Most of these have been al Qaeda operational managers, people who, by the very nature of their jobs, need to establish and maintain communications with militant cells.

This drive to recruit new jihadists to the cause and to help continue operational activity is what led to the lucky break that resulted in the 1995 arrest of Abdel Basit, the operational planner and bombmaker responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Basit had tried to recruit a foreign student to assist him in one of the attempts to conduct "Operation Bojinka," a plan to bomb multiple U.S. airliners. Having gotten cold feet, the student revealed the plot, thus allowing Diplomatic Security special agents the opportunity to coordinate an operation to arrest Basit.

Al Qaeda has learned from the mistakes made by the men it has lost and has better secured the methods it uses to communicate with the outside world. This increased security, however, has resulted in increased insulation, which has adversely affected not only communications but also financial transfers and recruiting. Combined with U.S. efforts against al Qaeda, this has resulted in a reduction in operational ability and effectiveness.

The tension between operations and security poses a significant problem for an organization that seeks to maintain and manage a global militant network. By opting to err on the side of security, bin Laden and the others could escape capture indefinitely, though they would remain operationally ineffective. However, should they attempt to become more operationally active and effective — and decrease their security measures to do so — they will provide the United States with more opportunities to get the one break it needs to find bin Laden.

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