1/22/2006

Independent Online - Bin Laden: Where is he? Who's protecting him? Why can't we find him?

The latest audiotape proves the al-Qa'ida figurehead has pulled off one of the most remarkable disappearing acts in history.

Bin Laden: Where is he? Who's protecting him? Why can't we find him?
The latest audiotape proves the al-Qa'ida figurehead has pulled off one of the most remarkable disappearing acts in history. By Raymond Whitaker and Justin Huggler


For George Kassimeris, senior research fellow in conflict and terrorism at Wolverhampton University, the response to the message fulfilled bin Laden's aims: "He wanted to show his followers he still calls the shots. What happened? He was front-page news. The US immediately replied to him, and the media around the US began reporting increased security as a result of his threats.

"The fact that he had been silent for a year increased the impact - if he spoke out too often, it would be less dramatic. Bin Laden is no longer in operational control of al-Qa'ida, but he doesn't want to be. He sees himself as a prophet, an ideological focus, not as a strategist or commander."

All the same, capturing or killing bin Laden or his deputy would be a priceless coup for a President who, as the al-Qa'ida leader noted, is losing support because of his entanglement in Iraq. But while the US or its allies have twice claimed to have got close to Zawahiri, there have been no such claims about bin Laden, who has pulled off one of the most remarkable disappearing acts in history.

There has not been a single confirmed sighting of him since the battle of Tora Bora, al-Qa'ida's last stand against the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. If "intelligence sources" are to be believed, he has not even shown up on America's electronic surveillance network. Not a satellite phone call. Not an email. Yet between them, he and Zawahiri have issued at least 28 video and audiotapes from hiding. Both of them were heard from last week.

So where are they? As this month's missile strike shows, the assumption is that they are still in the lawless border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The frontier runs 1,530 miles through some of the most rugged terrain on earth, and is inhabited by fearsome tribesmen who have no love for any outside interference from Kabul or Islamabad, let alone America.

For all the speculation that bin Laden might be sheltering in a Pakistani city, which is where other senior al-Qa'ida figures have been captured, or could have escaped by boat to Yemen or Saudi Arabia, his safety seems best assured by staying in an area where neither American nor Pakistani troops dare venture.

Even if he is finally hunted down, by this stage it would have little strategic impact. Bin Laden has already achieved what he set out to do, by creating al-Qa'ida. As an ideology, it is far more dangerous than a single group of conspirators.
Independent Online Edition > Asia

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