This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 28/01/2011
We have almost 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We've launched more than 200 drone attacks in Pakistan's remote tribal regions. We've spent billions of dollars on intelligence. And as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, we're still no closer to finding Osama bin Laden.
It seems possible, even likely, that we'll be saying much the same on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, and again on the 20th. Given the sorry state of the hunt for the man who masterminded the largest mass murder in U.S. history, we should not be surprised if bin Laden dies, years from now, in the comfort of his own bed.
For the second consecutive year, President Obama didn't mention bin Laden in his State of the Union address. The threat of terrorism received relatively little attention; after all, the budget deficit, economic competitiveness and civility in Washington are the big debates of the moment. Besides, bin Laden doesn't matter anymore - he's cowering in some cave and no longer running al-Qaeda or its affiliates, right?
Wrong. We underestimate bin Laden at our peril. His influence over al-Qaeda remains enormous - symbolically, strategically and tactically. His ability to stay alive and free is a great morale booster for al-Qaeda and its allies and allows the elusive leader to keep setting the agenda for the global jihadist movement.
Bin Laden's continued sway over that movement is undeniable. Three years ago, the Saudi government commissioned a study of militants in its custody, interviewing 639 extremists arrested before 2004 and another 53 arrested between 2004 and 2006. In both studies, Saudi officials told me, a majority of participants cited bin Laden as their most important role model.
Similarly, in Britain, terrorist plotters have made emblematic remarks about al-Qaeda's leader in videos that they believed would be their final earthly statements. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the July 2005 suicide attacks in London, called bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri "heroes," while Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the ringleader of the plot to bring down seven passenger jets over the Atlantic in 2006, declared that "Sheik Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be destroyed. And now the time has come for you to be destroyed."
Terrorists continue to act on bin Laden's pronouncements. In March 2008, the al-Qaeda leader decried the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper as a "catastrophe" meriting swift punishment. Three months later, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Danish Embassy in Pakistan, killing six. And senior U.S. officials say that planning for Mumbai-style attacks in Europe, which led to a Europe-wide terror alert from the State Department last fall, was backed by al-Qaeda's senior leaders, including bin Laden.
Bin Laden's al-Qaeda, which has long considered itself a vanguard organization, has ideologically hijacked larger terrorist groups in Pakistan that had not previously seen themselves as part of his global jihad. These include Lashkar-i-Taiba, which mounted the 2008 attacks in Mumbai; the Pakistani Taliban, which dispatched a bomber to Times Square in May 2010; and Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami, which recruited a U.S. citizen to kill staffers at the Danish newspaper that printed the prophet Muhammad cartoons. And when militants join al-Qaeda, they take an oath of fealty not to the organization but to bin Laden himself.
Despite bin Laden's continued importance, what has the hunt turned up since the Obama administration assumed office? Nothing. The closest we've ever come to catching him was at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001, when he was pinned down by hundreds of Afghan militiamen and dozens of U.S. Special Forces operators - only to disappear into the mountains like a wraith.
The consensus view among intelligence officers is that bin Laden is now in or around Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (recently renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), a region roughly the size of Virginia, full of craggy mountains and xenophobic tribes. And even that information is sketchy. A senior U.S. intelligence official told me recently that he has had "no confidence" in any of the intelligence relating to bin Laden's possible location "for years."
What will it take to get him? Cash rewards have helped ensnare other al-Qaeda leaders, but well-advertised bounties for bin Laden's head have yielded nothing. Similarly, bin Laden has not communicated via cellular or satellite phone for a decade. The United States, which relies heavily on signals intelligence, is virtually blind in its pursuit. If the trail has run cold, our best chance may be to wait for a misstep on bin Laden's part.
Every time bin Laden appears on one of his somewhat spectral videotapes or sends out an audio message - weighing in on topics from global warming to France's ban on burqas - he takes a risk. The tapes must be uploaded to a jihadist Web site or dropped off at an al-Jazeera bureau, giving possible clues to his location.
Also, some of bin Laden's lifelong habits may offer what intelligence analysts call a "signature" of his presence. One is his passion for thoroughbred horses, which the 53-year-old has ridden since his teens. (Even in his late 40s, he boasted of riding up to 40 miles a day.) And while most of Osama's five wives and 20 children have left him, he may want to attend family events such as the weddings of children living nearby. Robert Grenier, who was the CIA station chief in Pakistan in 2001, says local informants could also help by identifying unusual amounts or types of food sent to areas where bin Laden is believed to be hiding. (Bin Laden's first wife recalls that his favorite dish was zucchini stuffed with marrow.)
Ultimately, the end for bin Laden might come on the business end of a Hellfire missile from a CIA drone flying over Pakistan. In 2010, the Obama administration authorized 118 drone strikes, about triple the number that President George W. Bush authorized during his entire two terms. But even though such strikes have "decimated" the leadership of al-Qaeda, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials, none of the strikes appears to have targeted bin Laden himself.
There was a time when our top leaders considered getting bin Laden a security imperative. "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority," then-candidate Barack Obama said during a presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2008. After winning the election, however, he began playing down the hunt. "My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him," the president-elect said in January 2009. "But 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."
Even Bush suffered bin Laden fatigue. Though he called for the terrorist's capture "dead or alive" after 9/11, Bush later changed his tone. "I just don't spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you," he said in March 2002.
It would help to spend more time on him. Not only does bin Laden remain influential, but his death or capture would trigger a fierce - and potentially useful - succession battle. While Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri is technically bin Laden's successor, he is considered by many to be a divisive force and ill-suited for the top role. Eliminating bin Laden "would create fractures within the movement, renew a debate on broad strategy and remove the one figure best able to inspire new recruits," said John McLaughlin, who was the deputy director of the CIA until 2004. And as Roger Cressey, who coordinated counterterrorism policy for the National Security Council at the time of the 2001 attacks, put it to me: "How do we close the 9/11 chapter with him still being out there?"
For those of us hoping that chapter can someday be closed, one name should be sobering: the Faqir of Ipi. The Faqir was a Muslim religious leader who waged a guerrilla war against the British in Pakistan's tribal regions during the 1930s and 1940s from his base in North Waziristan. As many as 40,000 British and Indian soldiers deployed to the area to hunt him down.
They never found him. He died in his own bed in 1960 - reportedly from a severe case of asthma.
Peter Bergen is the director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda," from which this essay is adapted.