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George Friedman: U.S. intelligence and the hunt for Bin Laden

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden  

George Friedman is the chairman of STRATFOR, a consulting firm that specializes in providing businesses with private intelligence, analysis, and forecasting of international events. A frequent lecturer, Friedman is also the author of two books, "Intelligence Edge" and "The Future of War." He joined the chat room from Texas.

CNN: Government reports recently suggested that Osama bin Laden may be contained within a 30 square mile area in Southern Afghanistan. Would you agree?

FRIEDMAN: I think those are less government reports than government hopes. We're relying on human intelligence here, which means rumors, sightings by people, and so on. We're probably not getting much electronic intelligence. Osama is probably not using cell phones, etc. We're relying on human intelligence. On the other hand, 30 square miles is a lot of territory for a few hundred troops to cover. It's a big job, anyway.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: If these caves contain weapons (especially suitcase nukes), how in the world do we get him out of them?

FRIEDMAN: If you remember the tunnel rats in Vietnam, you go in and dig them out. It's among the most dangerous work in the world. If we make the giant assumption that he's in those tunnels, one of the better solutions may be to just cover the area, so he can't show his face aboveground. But we're making a huge assumption when we say he's in this area. There are other reports that say he's left the country.

CNN: Does the $25 million bounty on bin Laden's head help or hinder the hunt?

FRIEDMAN: The person who collects the 25 million dollars has to wonder if he'll live to spend it. So far, it's not provided the definitive information. So, my guess is that it's not going to determine a whole lot. Of course, one of the critical questions is whether or not getting bin Laden would destroy al Qaeda.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you make of the Taliban's comment that "they are no longer in contact with Osama?"

FRIEDMAN: It's like the United States government being in contact or not in contact. There is no such thing as the United States government, just individuals, and there are thousands of individuals in the Taliban. So it's not clear that no one in the Taliban is in touch with him. They're certainly not going to say "we're talking to him every day, and we know where he is."

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are the chances that Osama has friends or contacts on the border and do you think he would be able to slip through with their help?

FRIEDMAN: It's 100 percent chance that he has friends and supporters along the frontier, and it's equally as certain that he has friends and supporters inside of Pakistan, and inside of Pakistan military and intelligence. Certainly, if I were Osama, I would be trying to get there, because from there, I could probably get out of the country fairly efficiently.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much do you think intelligence played a part in the rapid retreat of the Taliban from most of Afghanistan?

FRIEDMAN: That has to be stated two ways. To what extent did the Taliban retreat as part of its own strategy of reverting to guerilla warfare, and to what extent did they retreat under U.S. military pressure. Remember that they pulled out of cities that were not under particularly heavy attack. So, the real question is whether or not this is an attempt by the Taliban to execute its own war plan, and whether or not that attempt will be successful. That really is the intelligence question now. Have the Taliban collapsed, or have they repositioned themselves for an extended guerilla war?

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What good is it going to do at this time to catch Osama bin Laden? Won't he immediately be replaced by someone not much different?

FRIEDMAN: I completely agree, or to be more precise, al Qaeda is built and designed to withstand the loss of not only one leader, but many leaders. The most frightening issue, from my point of view, is whether task forces have already been deployed in the United States with a great deal of autonomy to carry on more attacks, regardless of what happens in Afghanistan.

CNN: Is the United States headed toward possible war with Pakistan over all of this?

FRIEDMAN: That is a possibility, because if the Taliban were to move into a guerilla mode, they would have to access to sanctuary and supplies from Pakistan. While the current Pakistani government is committed to sealing the frontier, it's not clear how effective they're going to be, how much resistance they will have, or if that government will survive. So one of the things we've argued now for several months is that it's about Pakistan at least as much as Afghanistan. That's why the Indians are heating up the Kashmir frontier, and being so cooperative with the United States.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you see this, then, as an ongoing intelligence war, going on for years, once the military has done its job in Afghanistan?

FRIEDMAN: This has been an ongoing intelligence war, going on for years. Al Qaeda is not new. Unfortunately, we haven't done very well in that war. Hopefully now we'll take it much more seriously, and can be much more effective, but certainly the intelligence war will go on indefinitely throughout the world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you have any concerns with the Northern Alliance with regards to the structuring of the new Afghanistan government?

FRIEDMAN: First, there is no such thing as the Northern Alliance. The term Alliance is completely inappropriate. There are a group of organizations that have in common being defeated by the Taliban. Beyond that, they share very little, and the probability of them being able to work together, let alone govern Afghanistan, is nil.

CNN: What are your feelings about any future terrorist attacks either on American soil, or against American interests overseas?

FRIEDMAN: There is no question that these attacks are being planned as we speak. Mullah Omar stated that very clearly. The question is whether they'll succeed or not. Right now, there is a terrific intelligence operation going on, in Europe in particular and in Africa, which is showing some signs of success, capturing command cells. What's really critical now is that this intelligence war be fought very efficiently and even ruthlessly. But I would say that the chances of further terrorist action in the United States are extraordinarily high.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Given Osama's demonstrated capability to plan long term, isn't there a likelihood that he will employ something like a "dirty nuke" to take out both himself and his would-be captors?

FRIEDMAN: I think he is less likely to use nuclear weapons in a dramatic suicide than to use his long-term planning skills to figure out how to carry out expensive warfare against the United States globally. If he has a nuclear weapon, I don't think he'll do us the favor of using it on himself. One thing we know, he had plans for nuclear weapons, but a laboratory was found in Kabul that contained biological agents and chemicals. That sort of attack strikes me as more dangerous and likely than nuclear attack.

CNN: Your company tracks intelligence. Did you have any indication that the events of September 11 might occur?

FRIEDMAN: We knew that something was coming, but we honestly thought it was coming in Japan. Osama was extraordinarily skillful in that he didn't try to hide his general plans, but he confused everybody about his specific plans. So, from our point of view, we didn't do very well on this.

CNN: Why Japan?

FRIEDMAN: The point was that we saw or heard that some of Osama's people were moving through the Phillipines in that area. The whole reason for that move was to divert our attention from other targets. When you can't deny that something is going to happen, confuse everybody about where it will happen.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are the Taliban just keeping their powder dry, or do they feel that inflicting zero casualties on U.S. troops increases their negotiating position?

FRIEDMAN: I think the Taliban is attempting to withdraw from the cities and disperse into the countryside to reorganize themselves and their allies for long-term guerilla war. Remember that they defeated all comers in the 1990's, and remember that the U.S. has very few forces on the ground. So yes, they are keeping their powder dry, and waiting for better opportunities. On the other side, the U.S. is doing everything it can to turn a retreat into a disaster for them. At this moment, no one knows how it will turn out.

CNN: Can the CIA and other agencies recover from missing September 11?

FRIEDMAN: Well, they're going to have to. Like the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor, that's all we've got. They're going to have to reorganize and rethink how they do things. But the CIA, however reorganized, is our covert arm, and they've got a job to do.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

FRIEDMAN: I think that people who have seen the sudden collapse of Taliban are assuming that it's all over. I think that's a mistake. I'm not sure it's over, even in Afghanistan, and it certainly isn't over in the United States. Omar has said that he is going to take the war to the United States, and after September 11, we have no right to dismiss that claim. While things may have certainly improved, it's too early to declare that victory and go home.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

FRIEDMAN: I enjoyed it. I hope this was valuable to you.

George Friedman joined the chat room via telephone from Texas and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, November 21, 2001 at 1 p.m. EST.



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