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Dec 10th, 2009

Details Sketchy on Bin Laden’s Whereabouts

Robert Windrem
Senior investigative producer
NBC News
December 9, 2009

“We don’t know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we’d go and get him.” — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Dec. 6, 2009.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, has evaded capture by the United States for more than a decade. And although his public utterances are few, his capture or death remains a top U.S. priority.

On Tuesday, General Stanley McChrystal acknowledged as much. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that while he doesn’t think it would help defeat al-Qaida if bin Laden were captured or killed, he doesn’t believe the United States can defeat the terrorist organization until he is captured or killed.

Over the past few years, there have been reports of sightings in locations in Pakistan as widespread as Chitral in the north to South Waziristan, a swath of territory equivalent in size to New England and Mid-Atlantic states.

Here’s what we know, based on information from U.S. intelligence sources.

  • Bin Laden is believed to stay in one location for months, moving only when security requires. He is believed to stay not in caves but in the large-walled compounds typical of the region, the guest of friendly natives. Typical of an event that would cause him to move: the capture or killing of a high-ranking al-Qaida figure, like the organization’s director of international operations. There were reports in mid-2005 that the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libi in May 2005 caused him to move from a location where he had long stayed.
  • Bin Laden is suspected of receiving some financial support from members of his large Saudi family. He has 53 siblings.
  • It is known that other al-Qaida leaders have chosen locations near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In early 2005, for example, the CIA believed it had found the “winter headquarters” of al-Qaida in Pakistan’s Bajaur province. The location, again a walled compound, was eight kilometers from the border with access across the border via six mountain passes. Al-Qaida operatives were accompanied by their families. However, bin Laden was not at the headquarters, nor was Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No. 2. Surveillance of the camp led to the capture a few months later of Abu Faraj al Libi, the Libyan who is suspected of being al-Qaida’s operations chief.
  • Bin Laden is not accompanied by a large security contingent but instead by a small group of loyalists. In addition to Arabs, the security contingent consists of Chechens and Uzbeks who would fight to the death and who reportedly have orders to kill the al-Qaida leader if the situation appears dire. There have also been reports that his security contingent has intermarried with local tribes to ensure a tighter familial bond.
  • When traveling, bin Laden reportedly uses the lowest profile transportation: mopeds or even donkeys. The size of the traveling party varies. Sometimes, the group is large, other times, small, again to keep security forces guessing.
  • Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri haven’t traveled together since mid-2003 because of security concerns. They communicate via courier networks. Each high-ranking al-Qaida official has his own separate network. Thus if one is taken down, the others do not have to fear their own network has been compromised. The United States has not targeted al-Zawahiri in a Predator attack since February 2006, when they missed him by about a half hour.
  • The last bin Laden video surfaced in September 2007, and that was the first since October 2004. In both, bin Laden appeared to be wearing the same clothing and set against the same background. Some experts believe the two were actually taped back in 2004 in separate tapings. One proponent of a single taping noted that those sections of the message that could be dated to 2007 were delivered over a still, not moving video.
  • There are many myths surrounding bin Laden’s health. He has not, contrary to popular belief, ever undergone kidney dialysis, but instead was treated for kidney stones back in 1998. It is unknown whether he still suffers from that condition. He does suffer from an enlarged heart and chronically low blood pressure, which is treated through medicine. He is also missing two toes from a war wound in Afghanistan. He was, according to credible reports, wounded at Tora Bora in December 2001.
  • There is some speculation among the diplomatic community in Islamabad that Bin Laden may no longer be in the border areas. One likely location, according to Western diplomats, would be Yemen. U.S. officials, however, say they have no evidence that he has left the border area and believe he is still there.
  • Bin Laden no longer has operational control of al-Qaida, but instead has delegated much of his authority to Zawahiri and whoever is the director of international operations. His role now is largely symbolic, with his video and audio messages now more commentary than calls to action.
  • Should he be killed, the United States is prepared to get samples of his DNA. Saudi Arabia has long held matching samples at the Ministry of Interio’rs forensic lab in Riyadh to help with verification.


9/14/2010 Update

New Information Emerges on Post-9/11 Hunt for Bin Laden

An undated file picture of  Osama Bin Ladin in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan.
An undated file picture of Osama Bin Ladin in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan. (Image: CNN)

By Paul Cruickshank
CNN Terrorism Analyst

September 14, 2010

Western intelligence agencies were able to form a detailed picture of Osama bin Laden’s movements in the years after 9/11, and came closer to capturing or killing him than has so far been acknowledged, a former European intelligence official has disclosed.

The former official, who declined to be identified, told CNN that in 2003 and 2004 an informant in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region with close connections to al Qaeda’s top leadership provided a stream of reliable information on bin Laden’s movements. But the information was never quite fresh enough for Western intelligence agencies to target al Qaeda’s leader.

Nearly nine years ago, bin Laden and others in the al Qaeda leadership escaped as their haven among the caves and mountains of Tora Bora — close to the Afghanistan border with Pakistan — came under withering U.S. air attacks. Despite bin Laden being the world’s most sought-after fugitive, to date very little has been reliably reported about his movements beyond a consensus that he is now likely hiding somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The former official said that in the period after bin Laden left Tora Bora, under pressure and on the run, he and his lieutenants were little able to communicate with each other. But gradually, al Qaeda restored its communications and was able to resume meetings.

Bin Laden even met with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at some point before the latter’s arrest in February 2003. Additionally, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were frequently in the same area and regularly in communication.

During this time, Western intelligence agencies were able to draw up a detailed map tracing bin Laden’s movements, according to the former intelligence official.

In 2003-2004, bin Laden spent time in several areas — amid the rugged mountains of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal areas and in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, a more heavily populated area where Pakistan’s security forces had a greater presence.

But according to the former official, bin Laden shunned big cities, preferring to stay in rural areas. The intelligence stream indicated that al Qaeda’s leader also made several trips across into Afghanistan during this period, despite the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

In a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, Western intelligence agencies were always playing catch-up as bin Laden moved from location to location. Tantalizingly at one point, according to the former official, information about his exact location was only one week old. But the intelligence stream on bin Laden’s movements never resulted in what is known as “actionable intelligence” that could have led to his capture or assassination.

After 2004 the intelligence stream dried up, according to the former official, who did not elaborate why. But he said that despite the setback, information on al Qaeda’s leaders’ movements never completely dried up; and recent intelligence suggested bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were still in close geographic proximity and able to communicate with each other. …

Bin Laden is now mainly concentrating on providing “strategic direction” to the al Qaeda organization, rather than involving himself deeply in the daily running of the terrorist organization, the former official told CNN. Raw intelligence reports leaked in July on the Wikileaks website suggesting bin Laden took part in detailed planning of operations should be treated with skepticism, said the former official.

U.S. intelligence officials play down the possibility that bin Laden might be captured soon. CIA Director Leon Panetta stated in June that very little hard information on bin Laden’s movements had come to light in recent years. …


Related reports on this site

Osama bin Laden Personality Profile

Ayman al-Zawahiri Personality Profile

FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — December 10, 2008

Iraq: Intelligence and Policy Failure


Bush is history (MSNBC, Dec. 9, 2008) — Countdown’s Keith Olbermann lists why White House talking points designated to cast President Bush in a positive light actually serve as a reminder of the president’s many faults and shortcomings. (04:51)

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that Thomas Fingar, Bush administration deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, had suggested the Iraq war was as much the failure of policymakers as the product of the flawed intelligence on which they relied.

Fingar’s assessment reveals that decision-making on Iraq was marred by a strong sense of time pressure, a tendency among decision makers to seek concurrence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, and a directive leadership style in the White House — all of which are well-established causes of groupthink.

Furthermore, according to the Gayle Report, the Department of Defense knew before the start of the Iraq war in 2003 of the threats of mines and roadside bombs in Iraq but did nothing to acquire Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles ahead of the invasion — a level of overconfidence symptomatic of groupthink.

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