The Harder Hunt For Bin Laden

Outwardly, Osama bin Laden's protectors in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan affect a haughty unconcern. Taliban fighters in Pakistan, interviewed last week, laughed at the spectacle of a disheveled and down-and-out Saddam Hussein getting hoisted out of his hole, utterly abandoned by aides and bodyguards who once pledged to die for him.

Taliban fighters hiding in plain sight in Pakistan say this will never be the fate of bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri or Mullah Mohammed Omar, the ousted Taliban leader who remains their closest political ally. The terror chieftains are well protected by their bodyguards, by the local population and by Afghanistan's forbidding geography. While Saddam faced a 130,000-strong U.S. Army relentlessly tightening the noose, bin Laden is up against a scant 10,000-man U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. And unlike Saddam's henchmen, supporters of bin Laden and Omar are "linked by Islam, not by money," these Taliban sources boast. "We have a small, strongly Islamic population, thousands of high mountains and millions of caves to hide in," says a senior Taliban planner and fund-raiser who goes by the nom de guerre Zabihullah.

Taliban operatives also say that wherever bin Laden stops these days, he tells his followers to plant land mines and pockets of high explosives around his clandestine bivouac. These booby traps are meant to protect him--but also to make sure that if "the sheik" can't escape, he is quickly "martyred" and his body destroyed. Bin Laden has told his confidants that he "would welcome death as a martyr," and that he would never allow himself to be captured alive, Zabihullah says.

Some Taliban and Qaeda fighters say that, far from running, bin Laden will likely capitalize on Saddam's humiliating arrest--seeing it as a chance to radicalize and Islamicize the anti-U.S resistance in Iraq. They say Saddam's capture has not changed bin Laden's plans--reported recently in NEWSWEEK--to shift anti-American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq, Turkey and the Mideast. "The arrest of Saddam will have a positive affect on the anti-U.S. jihad and Qaeda operations in Iraq," says Rahman Hotaki, a Taliban official who works with Qaeda fighters in Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "Many Iraqis hated Saddam, so they didn't join the fight. Now that he is gone, more Iraqis will join a holy jihad against the U.S."

Brave words. But in the assessment of former associates, bin Laden is likely worried. A former mujahed companion of bin Laden's named Commander Hamat speculates that the Qaeda leader has added an extra "circle" of security around him in the aftermath of Saddam's capture. And while bin Laden can take solace for now because most U.S. forces are still focused on crushing the Iraqi insurgency, he has reason to fear the public vow of Gen. Richard Myers, the Joint Chiefs chairman who was traveling in Afghanistan last week. Myers declared it was an "absolute certainty" that bin Laden "will be captured someday, just like we captured Saddam Hussein."

U.S. intelligence officials agree that trapping the Qaeda leader, who has eluded pursuers for more than a decade, will be much more difficult than getting Saddam. But U.S. manhunting teams in Afghanistan, recently united with similar teams in Iraq under the umbrella of Task Force 121, have actually come close to nailing their quarries on several occasions, sources say. They are also using, in some cases, similar techniques. NEWSWEEK has learned that software used to track wanted Iraqis is also being used to piece together and identify weaknesses in the ethnic, family and tribal links of bin Laden's network, according to intelligence analysts and company officials. The software, called Analyst's Notebook, was developed by i2 Inc., a Springfield, Va., company. Analyst's Notebook allows investigators to turn huge volumes of data into actionable intelligence, creating charts of complex networks by identifying, for example, frequent phone calls between members. The same program traced the "love bug" computer virus of 2000 to an obscure hacker in the Philippines and has been used to nab serial killers, said Chuck Izzo, an i2 spokesman.

Even Zabihullah says that bin Laden had a close call not long ago. He says the terror chieftain and his protective entourage scurried into the bushes when a U.S. aircraft streaked overhead as they were walking along a mountain trail. The plane did not see them. Another Taliban fighter who calls himself Assadullah Zarafat says that several months ago, U.S. and Afghan forces brushed by Mullah Omar in Uruzgan province without recognizing him. Omar and his security detachment had stopped at a local mosque to say their afternoon prayers. As they were finishing, several pickup trucks and Humvees carrying Afghan and U.S. soldiers pulled up to the mosque and the Afghans went in to pray. Mullah Omar told his men to hide their weapons and not to react. He then led the newcomers in prayer.

Bin Laden could also give his enemies an opening because, rather than lying low, he seems eager to gamble by taking the fight to them. Al Qaeda is believed to be behind recent attacks in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And Qaeda terrorists may have tried to kill Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with a bomb last week, missing his car by seconds. Al-Zawahiri, in the latest video aired by Al-Jazeera on Friday, warned of new attacks. Yet such operations--which require wide networks of operatives, one of whom might be interested in a $25 million reward--could provide intelligence-gathering opportunities to Western agents.

The real test of bin Laden's vulnerability may now come in Pakistan. If the attack on Musharraf proves to be Qaeda-linked--rather than an "inside" assassination attempt, perhaps by members of the Pakistani military--it could backfire against bin Laden by provoking the Pakistani president into decisive action. U.S. intelligence officials say their ability to capture bin Laden and his associates is largely dependent on intelligence assistance from Pakistan, an ally that once supported the Taliban and whose loyalties have sometimes been in doubt. "Most of Musharraf's actions against jihadis have been reluctantly taken under tremendous U.S. pressure, often preceding or just following a high-level American visit," says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat. One U.S. intel official, asked about a potential breakthrough against bin Laden, responds simply: "That's going to be a Pakistani thing."

For Bush as much as Musharraf, bin Laden may be an escalating priority. While Bush focused on Saddam, the president conveniently dropped all references to the man he once vowed to get "dead or alive." But nailing the chief culprit of 9/11 by next November could all but secure a second term for him, and his Democratic rivals are already bringing up the subject. "Now that Saddam's been captured, people will say, 'That's nice, but where's bin Laden?'," says Sen. Jack Reed, a Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee.

Finally, bin Laden may someday, somewhere, make a mistake. An exhausted Saddam was caught eight months after he had to abandon his lavish palaces. Bin Laden, of course, has been roughing it for far longer. Still, life on the lam can wear down the toughest outlaw. A veteran Islamic militant who is known by the nom de guerre Abdullah claimed that last February he was assigned to deliver medicines to an ailing bin Laden in Afghanistan's thickly forested Kunar province. "He looked weak and frail," said Abdullah. "He moves with a few close aides and guards and never stays at any place for long. To avoid detection he often travels during nights and in bad weather," he said. So who knows? Maybe a really bad cold--and a decision to linger one night too many in the same place to recover--will be enough to do in the man who has yet to answer for the worst attack on American soil.