Nine years after Osama bin Laden was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “ten most wanted” list, seven years after President George W. Bush said the Al Qaeda leader was “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” the exact location of the six-foot, five-inch Saudi terrorist remains a mystery. Even before Al Qaeda operatives flew jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. intelligence was tracking bin Laden’s whereabouts, but after September 11, the desire and the need to apprehend him surged. “It’s not enough to get one individual, although we’ll start with that one individual,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in 2001. By December of that year, U.S. Special Forces and Afghan allies thought they had cornered the Al Qaeda leader at Tora Bora, a cave complex in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan. Army officials later asserted that they were not certain if bin Laden was present at Tora Bora, but in April 2002, The Washington Post reported that intelligence officials had “decisive evidence” that he was there and that he escaped the battle alive. Reporters and military experts say that American officials misjudged the commitment of the Afghan militias they relied on to seal off escape routes used by bin Laden, Al Qaeda leaders, and the Taliban. At a March 2002 press conference, President Bush appeared unruffled. “I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run,” he said. After that, the White House largely stopped talking about bin Laden. “I think we’ve lost him,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told Time magazine in 2002. “That’s why you’re not hearing much talk about the hunt — because we’re not succeeding.” In 2003, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, bin Laden’s third-in-command, revitalized the hunt for bin Laden in remote areas of Pakistan, but the information gleaned from Mohammed’s arrest proved old. Pakistan forbade American soldiers operating in Afghanistan from crossing the border in pursuit of attackers who fled into the hills, and by the end of 2004, American military personnel were “no longer really hunting for Mr. bin Laden,” according to The New York Times. Critics argue that the war in Iraq diverted resources from Afghanistan: When Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in 2003, 12 times as many U.S. troops were serving in Iraq as in Afghanistan. In 2005, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shut down “Alec Station,” the unit dedicated to hunting bin Laden. With Al Qaeda rebuilding its command and control in Pakistan, the strategic importance of bin Laden’s capture remains high. Equally important, say terrorism experts, is the symbolism of the 9/11 mastermind remaining at large.
At an April 2008 hearing before the House Select Intelligence Committee, Peter Bergen, an expert on Al Qaeda, testified: “How is the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders going? The hunt is going poorly.” U.S. intelligence officials say the reason, in part, is that bin Laden has worked hard to avoid detection. A CIA spokeswoman referred the Center to November 2008 remarks made by Director Michael Hayden. “He is putting a lot of energy into his own survival, a lot of energy into his own security,” Hayden said. “In fact, he appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads.” President-Elect Barack Obama’s national security advisers are indicating that the president-elect wants to ratchet up efforts to find the Al Qaeda leader, according to recent reports.
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