John L. Scherer
Locating bin Laden
October 29, 2010
So where, finally, is Osama bin Laden?
Many in Washington still believe he is hiding in South Waziristan, or
North Waziristan, or perhaps Bajaur, all outlying agencies in northwest
Pakistan. After his having eluded intelligence agents and military
forces searching the region for over nine years, it seems worthwhile to
plenty of places.
Shortly after 9/11, informants claimed bin Laden had
been seen in West Darfur and in Juba, in southern Sudan. He and his
family had lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996.
More recently, in
2009, UCLA researchers Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew employed
satellite geographical analysis to identify three compounds in
Parachinar, the capital of the Kurram Valley, in Pakistan, which could
serve as hideouts for bin Laden.
In March 2009, the New York
Daily News claimed that the search had focused on the Chitral
district of Pakistan, particularly the Kalam Valley. A captured al-Qaeda
chieftain confirmed that bin Laden was hiding in Chitral.
In December 2009, a Taliban
detainee in Pakistan insisted bin Laden had been living in Afghanistan.
The detainee claimed that during the preceding January or February, he
met someone who had seen bin Laden about 15 to 20 days earlier inside
the war-torn country.
In the film Feathered Cocaine
(2010), falconer Alan Parrot asserted that bin Laden has lived in Iran
for at least seven years. Parrot interviewed another falconer there who
claimed to have met bin Laden six times since March 2003 on hunting
expeditions. The man insisted that bin Laden routinely engaged in
falconry, and felt so secure that he traveled with only four bodyguards.
In May 2010, Human Events
provided supporting evidence. Iran had accepted 35 al-Qaeda leaders
after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, despite the conflict
between the Sunnis of al-Qaeda and the Shiite regime in Iran. In June
2003, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that bin
Laden was in Iran preparing new terror attacks. In 2004 Richard Miniter
had written in Shadow War that two former Iranian intelligence
agents told him they had seen bin Laden in Iran the previous year. Some
analysts believe that bin Laden switched from video to audiocassettes
because he could not find anywhere in Iran that resembled Afghanistan or
northern Pakistan. In February 2009, the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions
on high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives working out of Iran.
The Sunday London Times (December
23, 2009) reported that at least 19 of bin Laden's family had crossed
from Afghanistan into Iran, most shortly before 9/11. They have lived
under virtual house arrest outside Tehran, largely because the Iranian
government did not know what to do with them. Some analysts had
speculated that bin Laden's second son, Muhammad, had served as the
second-in-command of al-Qaeda, and that another son, Saad, had
instigated terrorist attacks until being killed by a drone in 2008.
Relatives insisted, to the contrary, Muhammad is still living in the
compound, and Saad ran away in 2009 to find his mother, who resides in
Syria with three other bin Laden children. At one point, Saad reportedly
lived at Kermanshah, Iran, near the border with Iraq. One of the
daughters, Iman, escaped from Iran, and sought asylum in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden does not enjoy good relations with family members, so he may
nowhere near them.
All of this sounds credible,
but no one in the West has identified him in these places, or, for that
matter, anywhere else. On December 6, 2009, U.S. Secretary of Robert
Gates admitted that the United States had received no accurate
information about his whereabouts in years. Pakistan's prime minister
Yousef Raza Gilani has rejected claims that Osama bin Laden resides on
The Israeli newspaper Maariv
reported that an Israeli woman insisted she had seen bin Laden at the
Denpasar Airport in Bali on August 22, 2002. He had a briefcase
handcuffed to his wrist and was accompanied by two bodyguards. The man
she saw had a short beard and wore Western clothes. Of course, the woman
probably did not correctly identify bin Laden. A number of people surely
believe they have spotted him at various locations during the past few
years, but Israelis, who have struggled against terrorism for decades,
are more likely to recognize him than other nationalities.
Al-Qaeda has made every effort to throw
trackers off the trail. It has increased communications traffic
(e-mails, coded messages, phone calls) periodically to suggest an
impending attack, when none has occurred. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed
confessed to attacks planned in the United States against school buses,
oil rigs, and hospitals, when none happened. Ramsi bin-al-Shibh
confessed to plots targeting the financial districts of Boston and New
York, but these proved false alarms. The December 2009 airline bomber,
Umar Farouk Abdulmatullab, claimed his failed attempt to be the "first
of many," but it probably was not. Terrorist attacks need not succeed to
frighten the public. Abdulmatullab only had to mix the chemicals
correctly and to place the bomb exactly where it could destroy enough of
the plane to bring it down, but he managed neither. Faisal Shahzad's car
bomb in the Times Square in May 2010 included fertilizer, but it had
been rendered inert. The explosive was M-80s, each the equivalent of
one-third stick of dynamite, connected to propane containers. Shahzad
had to flee on foot because he left the keys to his getaway car locked
inside the vehicle. He forgot his apartment key inside the SUV with the
bomb. These individuals revealed just how desperate al-Qaeda has become.
Incidentally, no terrorist data base
identified Shahzad as a threat. John Pescatore, a former analyst with
the National Security Agency, has, nonetheless, argued the importance of
collecting data: "You definitely need to do it, because it gives you
warning of major storms. But it's not going to tell you about individual
Other analysts have asserted, without
significant proof, that bin Laden masterminded plots by militant Germans
and Britons to attack tourist destinations in Europe in the autumn of
2010. He probably played no role, and reports of intrigues relied on a
single al-Qaeda source. One German official spoke of the alleged
conspiracies as "a high, abstract threat." In the United States, the
alert was to remain in effect for 90 days, but why not 50, or 27? It is
all much too vague.
Muslim terrorist organizations around
the world now act independently of al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden no
longer picks targets or finances groups. Even before 9/11, journalist
Mary Anne Weaver called the group a "clearing house" to solicit and
distribute funds and logistical support, "a chameleon, an amoeba, which
constantly changes shape." She wrote this in January 2000, and the
description remains valid today.
Indonesia seems a more likely
destination for bin Laden than anywhere else. Al-Qaeda began planning
the World Trade Center operation in 1996, although Khaled Sheikh
Mohammed, his nephew Abdul Basit Abdul Karim, and friend Abdul Hakim
Murad decided to bomb the World Trade Center in 1992. Mohammed spoke
about training and airline operation twice with the Kuwaiti pilot Murad
in 1993. In an eighteen-minute video released on October 29, 2004, bin
Laden claimed that he had conceived the attack after watching the
Israelis destroy towers in Lebanon during their 1982 invasion. Whether
he did or not, bin Laden had plenty of time to plot an escape route from
Afghanistan to evade U.S. retaliation.
In fact, the group was moving its
headquarters from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia prior to the attacks. In
June 2000, Mohammed Atef, then second-in-command, and Ayman al-Zawahiri
visited the Philippines and the Aceh special territory in Indonesia,
where the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) had been trying to form a Muslim
state since 1976. Muslim insurgents have been especially active in this
region. In March 2010, Indonesian authorities raided the hideout of
Dulmatin, the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings and a senior member
of Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda. The army
killed Dulmatin near Pamulang, in the Aceh special territory. Governor
Irwandi Yusuf suggested he had been drawn to this region because Aceh
was predominantly Muslim, the province imposed Shariah law, and GAM had
While there in 2000, Zawahiri and Atef
may have prepared a refuge for bin Laden. The al-Qaeda chief would have
found Aceh attractive. Located on the busy Strait of Malacca, it
possessed significant natural gas, oil, and petrochemicals, and an
extensive network of madrasahs and Islamic charities. Insiders have
labeled Indonesia Asia's most corrupt nation. Government control broke
down throughout the country after the resignation of President Suharto
in 1998, and inadequate banking regulations have encouraged
money-laundering. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any
nation in the world, and local fundamentalists would have welcomed him.
His portrait appeared in villages throughout the archipelago, and young
people wore bin Laden T-shirts. Indonesia has nearly 17,000 islands: It
is the perfect hideout.
Al-Qaeda has been active in this region
for years. In 1994, senior al-Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq accompanied
the leader of one of the training camps in Afghanistan to Camp Abu Bakar,
run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines.
After a direct request by bin Laden to MILF chief Salamat Hashim, al-Faruq
established three training facilities on the islands. He subsequently
moved to Indonesia to set up eight others, including one at Poso, on the
island of Sulawesi. He spent three days in North Aceh late in 1999. Al-Faruq
was captured in Java in 2002, but escaped.
At least everyone agrees that bin Laden
remained at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, until mid-December 2001. As U.S. and
British troops closed in, President George W. Bush diverted significant
forces to Iraq, and Pakistani troops failed to block bin Laden's flight.
The al-Qaeda chief first sought asylum among warlords in Pakistan, then
may have left the country through Baluchistan, proceeding by boat to
Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed
Jalam Khalifa, purportedly coordinated a series of attacks with Riduan
Isamuddin ("Hambali") and Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the
Jemaah Islamiyah. These included simultaneous bombings in Indonesia and
the Philippines in December 2000; an attempt to assassinate Indonesian
president Megawati Sukarnoputri; and, with the assistance of
Kuwaiti-born Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, suicide attacks against U.S.
interests in Southeast Asia. The October 2002 bombing by Jemaah
Islamiyah at the Sari Nightclub in Bali killed over 200 persons. A Saudi
sheikh linked to bin Laden had wired $74,000 to Bashir to buy four tons
of explosives, some of which were used to destroy the popular nightspot.
Bin Laden would have been in Indonesia at this time.
Jafar Umar Thalib, a Yemeni, headed
another Indonesian terrorist organization, Laskar Jihad, established in
the Malukus in early 2000. He fought in Afghanistan during 1987-89, and
met bin Laden in 1987 at Peshawar. Bin Laden offered him money, but
Thalib claimed he found the al-Qaeda leader insufficiently learned in
Islam, and turned him down. Indonesian authorities arrested Thalib in
May 2002, and Laskar Jihad subsequently disbanded. In any case,
Indonesia quickly became a popular destination for Afghani jihadist
refugees after 9/11. Significant numbers of Afghans were fighting for
Laskar Jihad against Christians in Sulawesi by late 2001.
Many Indonesians joined al-Qaeda.
Indonesian Fathurrahman al-Ghozi served as operations chief for Jemaah
Islamiyah, and handled al-Qaeda operations in the Philippines before
being killed in Mindanao. Born in Aceh, a radical named al-Chaidar
participated in campaigns in Afghanistan prior to heading a faction of
Darul Islam terrorists. He received $243,000 from al-Qaeda after sending
100-200 Indonesian guerrillas to Afghanistan every year since 1989.
Indonesian al-Qaeda member Parlindungan Siregar set up a terrorist
training camp near Poso before moving to Italy and Spain. Omar Bandon,
another Indonesian who served in Afghanistan, managed the camp. A fifth
al-Qaeda operative, Reda Seyam, a German of Egyptian descent, arrived in
Indonesia in September 2001, and was arrested there a year later. In
June 2008, Indonesian authorities captured a Singaporean national named
Alim, aliases Abu Hazam, Taslim, and Omar. Police detained him after
raids near Palembang in South Sumatra province. The bomb-maker had
traveled to Afghanistan prior to 2001, and had met bin Laden on several
occasions. Linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, his unit was planning to attack
It is understandable that the search for
bin Laden has centered on Pakistan. Abu Zubaydah, who served as his
military commander, was captured in Faisalabad in March 2002, and
al-Qaeda leader Ramzi Bin al-Shibh was arrested in the country in
September 2002, shortly after he had been intereviewed on al-Jazeera
satellite tv. Authorities apprehended Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in
Rawalpindi in March 2003. All were key players in the World Trade Center
attacks, and all certainly knew bin Laden's plans. Many in Washington
had expected to find him after a close associate disclosed his location,
but, as time has passed, this outcome has become increasingly
improbable. None of the top al-Qaeda captives has revealed his
whereabouts, while under duress and facing a death sentence, and no one
has claimed the $25 million reward for the al-Qaeda chief.
More than 30 audio and videotapes by bin
Laden have surfaced since September 11, 2001. The videos initially
showed footage of him wandering the Afghan hills or speaking against a
neutral backdrop. Bin Laden made one tape standing before a cloth
background at a safehouse in Qandahar. It was discovered on December 13,
2001, in Jalalabad, Pakistan. More recent tapes have revealed that he
has a reliable source of electricity for lighting and moderately
sophisticated recording equipment, that is, he is not living in a cave
or in a completely isolated area. A cave would need to be sealed,
ventilated, and heated.
After an American geologist recognized a
rock formation in Afghanistan that served as bin Laden's background for
one videotape, and the region was heavily bombed, bin Laden has spoken
before cloth backdrops. Enlarging the cloth and examining its weave
should permit identification of the country or region of origin.
Bin Laden never experienced difficulty
delivering tapes to al-Jazeera in Qatar. This suggests he is not in
Afghanistan or Pakistan, where an army patrol might have intercepted
couriers and confiscated tapes. News items mentioned in bin Laden's
statements usually have trailed events by at least ten days, about right
for a slow boat from Indonesia. In a tape played December 8, 2002, bin
Laden mentioned the attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in
Mombasa, Kenya, which had occurred on November 28. In an audiotape
released on December 16, 2004, bin Laden blessed the suicide bomber who
had attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on December 6.
A tape released on November 19, 2001,
referred to a mosque bombing at Khost which had occurred on November 16,
but bin Laden was in Afghanistan at the time, so editing and delivery
caused no delays. The difference between three and ten days implies he
is long gone from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
No secret messages to confederates have
been hidden in the text of tapes. None has warned of a specific attack
or provided clues to future incidents, and the release of videos and
audiotapes has not preceded attacks, as many experts first suggested.
The closest connection involved a tape from October 1, 2004. Militants
bombed a Shia mosque in eastern Pakistan the next day, killing
twenty-five persons. This tape had not referred to an imminent assault,
or to this particular attack, and the timing appeared coincidental. It
is easy enough to find links where none exists.
Another video was left at the gate to
the offices of al-Jazeera in Islamabad, Pakistan, on October 29, 2004.
In it bin Laden admitted responsibility for the 9/11 operation. This
delivery did not fit the pattern. Bin Laden might have attempted to
mislead the West about his whereabouts, or the hypothesis that he is
outside Pakistan misses the mark.
Commentators at al-Jazeera stated that a
tape from September 19, 2007, sought to show bin Laden had survived the
earthquake in Pakistan which killed 79,000 people. Analysts subsequently
concluded the tape had been made before the earthquake. Bin Laden
survived because he was not there.
Several days earlier, on September 7,
bin Laden appeared in his first new video in almost three years. He
moved around for three and a half minutes, but also spoke as the
voice-over for a still photograph. The long interval between tapes
suggested fear or caution. He may not have dared to shift locations, or,
on the contrary, did not see a need, having resided safely in the same
place for several years. That would contradict the assumption of some
Western analysts that he constantly moves from one safehouse to another,
as did Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. One media
report claimed that bin Laden and his cohort raced around Afghanistan on
motorcycles, but bin Laden is over 50, too old to play Easy Rider on
icy, winding mountain roads in winter.
This three-year interval between tapes
is significant, but difficult to explain. Devastation from the 2004
tsunami in Aceh special territory persuaded GAM to make peace with the
Indonesian government. The tsunami or peace may have forced bin Laden to
curtail his activities. The vast reconstruction of Aceh during the
ensuing period might also have inhibited bin Laden's movement and
behavior. In 2006, for example, he released four audios and a videotape
with old footage, but no new video. Perhaps he could not get new
high-powered lights to produce videos after the tsunami.
For the videotape released on September
7, 2007, he dyed his beard black to appear more youthful. He probably
had been out of touch with al-Qaeda operational leaders, and this tape
sought to prove his vigor and to reassert his control over the
organization. He had looked his worst—pale and pasty—in the "gaunt
video" of November 19, 2001. That was because he actually had been
living in a cave. Ever since, he has appeared healthier. Bin Laden's
quarters are presumably roomy enough for him to endure restricted
movement and to persevere with his crusade, despite his prolonged
Journalists Richard Beeston and Zahid
Hussain noted in the London Times (September 8, 2007) that
conservative Muslims sometimes dyed their beards henna, but not black,
which is considered vain, and they rarely trimmed their beards, as had
bin Laden. The hairs of his beard seemed thicker than when he was last
seen in October 2004. The beard was false¸ the Times supposed,
and bin Laden had shaved to avoid being recognized. Muslim men went
without beards in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Despite rumors, the al-Qaeda leader has
not suffered from kidney disease requiring dialysis, from any other
debilitating ailment, or apparently from wounds, although he did not
move his left arm in a video dating from November 2001, or his left hand
in a segment from September 2007. Although tall and thin, he has
maintained his weight, which means that he has had no difficulty
Some tapes have run long and required
considerable editing. One discovered on July 15, 2007, lasted 40 minutes
and included a 50-second segment featuring old clips of bin Laden. It
was intercepted before appearing on Islamist websites. A videotape from
September 11, 2007, interspersed with outdated film segments, ran a full
47 minutes. Videos have contained scrolls in Arabic or English running
along the bottom. All this required sophisticated equipment. NBC's
Richard Engel has reported that bin Laden speaks flowery Quranic when
his audience is Muslim, and modern Arabic when it is Western.
If bin Laden relocated to Indonesia, he
would not be hiding in the jungle or forest, but living in style on the
estate of a wealthy Muslim sympathizer. During the 1980s, bin Laden was
never fond of caves or fighting, but distributed funds and collected
worldwide data on Muslim fundamentalists, hence the name "Al-Qaeda,"
meaning "data base." Since he had outsmarted Western intelligence
agencies, he would have chosen to live comfortably near the capital,
Banda Aceh, or close to another sizeable port, where he could could
follow events on cable or the Internet. Many Muslims pass through the
provincial capital on pilgrimages, enabling him to maintain contacts
without arousing suspicion.
Bin Laden's recent recorded statements
have been general in nature, largely warnings and exhortation. In a 2004
tape, he demanded the overthrow of then Pakistani president Pervez
Musharraf. A message dating from 2007 emphasized the importance of
Muslims becoming martyrs. On April 15, 2004, he offered European nations
a truce if they refrained from interfering in the affairs of Muslim
countries. A few months later, on October 1, he urged resistance to
"crusader America." In a tape from September 7, 2007, he discussed the
contradiction between the military might of the United States and its
international political weakness, the former superpower having been
"bled dry economically." An audiotape from November 29, 2007, admonished
European nations to end their involvement in Afghanistan. Another
communication urged Americans to embrace Islam. In early October 2010,
he released two videotapes on climate change and the need to create a
foundation for flood relief in Pakistan. The floods had begun in July
2010. Observers noted that in these messages he appeared more the elder
statesman than the fiery Islamic fundamentalist.
In his latest audiotape, released on
October 27, 2010, bin Laden asserted that the kidnapping of five French
citizens by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on September 16, 2010, at
Arlit, Niger, had resulted from France's oppression of Muslims. He
warned that protecting French security required such oppression to end,
as well as French withdrawal from the "ill-fated Bush war in
The so-called oppression presumably
referred to a ban of the burqa in France, where some Muslim women wear
this full-body covering. The French Senate passed the ban on September
14, and the al-Qaeda leader did not respond for six weeks.
Maamoun Youssef of the Associated Press
has reported that bin Laden and Zawahiri recently have posted their
tapes on the al-Jazeera website rather than on sites operated by
militant Muslims. He speculated that the shift reflected technical
difficulties or closure of several militant websites. On the contrary,
the pair may now be so isolated from militant fundamentalists that they
have returned to the always reliable al-Jazeera.
On May 6, 2004, in his most specific
message, bin Laden offered ten kilograms of gold to anyone who
assassinated L. Paul Bremer III, then U.S. administrator of the
Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, or Kofi Annan, U.N.
secretary-general. No one took him up on these offers. If bin Laden were
actually running operations, he would secretly plot these assassinations
instead of pleading in public.
During the mid-1990s, bin Laden built a
farm 20 miles south of Khartoum, Sudan. The location was sufficiently
remote so that no one could approach without being seen. Bin Laden had
no power or telephone lines to the farm to prevent evesdropping. He also
owned a a three-story apartment surrounded by a high wall topped with
barbed wire, located in the Riyadh district of the Sudanese capital.
Photoanalysts should be searching for a walled compound protected by
barbed or concertina wire, especially large residences with arrays of
antennae and high levels of human or vehicular traffic.
The search in Indonesia can be narrowed.
The earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004, flooded low-lying Banda
Aceh inland to five kilometers. Flood depths along the coast reached
nine meters. Assuming bin Laden was in the area, he had to have been
living beyond this five-kilometer limit. About 65 square kilometers were
inundated between Banda Aceh and Lhoknga. Tidal waves destroyed
beaches to 1.5 kilometers, so he would not have been hiding along the
west coast. The tsunami did not affect the port and industrial city of
Lhokseumawe in North Aceh. He might very well have been staying in this
vicinity, even at the Lhokseumawe Islamic Center. Bin Laden would have
avoided Central Aceh, which had flooded in 1996, and stayed out of the
vast areas in this region that had been or are being deforested.
In August 2008, the Middle-East
Foodstuff Consortium announced a $1.53 billion investment in southeast
Sulawesi through the Bin Laden Group of Saudi Arabia. No evidence links
this enterprise to terrorism, but this intriguing development adds
another piece to the puzzle.
Admittedly, such speculation is based on
circumstantial evidence. Skeptics will respond that he could be
anywhere, but to say this misses the point. The situation recalls the
drunk crawling around a lamp-post at night looking for his keys. Someone
asks him why he is only searching in the light, and he replies that he
could never find the keys in the dark. One should look only where one is
likely to find bin Laden, that is, where he has cultivated extensive
Indeed, bin Laden may be exactly where
intelligence agencies think he is hiding, along the Afghan-Pakistani
border. And yet, Predator drones overflying Afghanistan have not
seen him and U.S. special forces raiding inside Pakistan have not found
him. Casting our nets more widely seems an excellent idea after nine
unproductive years of searching.
Reagan biographer Edmund Morris once noted that Americans admire people
who are intelligent, but embrace those who are brave. Locating bin Laden
will require both. It is time to find and fix America's mortal enemy.
About John L. Scherer
John L. Scherer is the editor of "Terrorism: An Annual
Survey," the quarterly Terrorism. He has published
extensively on this topic and on foreign policy.