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Where's Osama?

Bin Laden's recent silence may be good sign

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden appears in a video broadcast in late 2004 on Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera.
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(CNN) -- The rumors on several jihadist Web sites say a new message from Osama bin Laden is coming soon.

It's been almost four months since one of those videotapes or audiotapes surfaced.

There was a flurry of bin Laden messages at the end of last year. First, a videotape appeared four days before the U.S. presidential vote -- the one Sen. John Kerry cited in post-election interviews as contributing to his loss to President Bush. Two more messages appeared in December.

It seemed that bin Laden had re-emerged, at least as a propagandist, and that he was becoming increasingly brazen in getting his word out.

But now he's gone quiet, and at least one analyst says that could be good news.

"I don't think he's got anything to say at the moment," says Paul Eedle, a freelance journalist who began monitoring al Qaeda and Islamist Web sites before the September 11 attacks. "At least nothing that bin Laden can point to as a success."

Eedle says the last round of bin Laden's audio and video appearances reflected the rise of the Iraqi insurgency. That was a few months ago when, at least possibly in bin Laden's view -- and the insurgents' -- "victory looked possible," says Eedle, a former Reuters correspondent who specializes in reporting on the Middle East and militant Islam, and is currently writing a book about al Qaeda's propaganda and media strategies.

After the videotape on the eve of the U.S. election, there were two messages in December. One indicated how quickly bin Laden seemed able to respond to news events if he wanted to, praising Saudis who launched a terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah days after it took place.

Praise for al-Zarqawi

The other, which received less attention because it came on the heels of the Indian Ocean tsunami, concentrated on Iraq. Bin Laden cheered on the attacks against the Iraqi provisional government.

He also praised insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saying al Qaeda was joining forces with the Jordanian-born militant. Al-Zarqawi's group, which has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, already had renamed itself al Qaeda in Iraq, and he had publicly pledged his loyalty to bin Laden.

"The dear mujahed brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq, so we ask all our organization brethren to listen to him and obey him in his good deeds," bin Laden said on the audiotape.

That message was before the Iraqi vote. Even though a wave of bloody attacks was feared as the date approached, the real news of the election was its success, Eedle says.

Eedle has been working on setting up a news agency in Iraq. He says the feeling among the Iraqi reporters and editors he's working with is that the elections not only succeeded but also have forced Sunnis sitting on the fence to join in the political process.

Which leaves bin Laden, who has made Iraq a centerpiece of many of his messages and his call for a global jihad, with not much to say, Eedle says.

Still searching for bin Laden

But there is a flip side. A talking bin Laden may be easier to catch -- or at least that is the theory. Trace back one of his messages, and you might find the man.

However, the hunt for bin Laden seems to have gone as quiet as he has.

Last month, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told the BBC that Pakistani forces had their best chance of capturing bin Laden last year that but they lost the trail.

Pakistan is where most intelligence analysts suspect the al Qaeda leader is hiding, probably somewhere along the mountainous border with Afghanistan, so Musharraf's assertion that the trail has gone cold can't be good news.

Musharraf told the BBC that Pakistani forces had come close to bin Laden: "There was a time when the dragnet had closed, and we thought we knew roughly the area where he possibly could be," he said. "That was, I think, some time back ... maybe about eight to 10 months back."

The Pakistani government launched a military campaign in the previously autonomous border area of South Waziristan during the last two years. There were numerous clashes, 48 by the government's count, between the military and what it called al Qaeda militants.

The result? More than 250 government troops were killed, according to a Pakistani official. But that campaign is over, and the troops are largely gone from the border area.

Now a different approach is being tried.

This time, the U.S. government has launched a media campaign in Pakistan, using radio, TV and print ads that call on Pakistanis to give up bin Laden and other leading al Qaeda figures, in exchange for millions of dollars of rewards ($25 million for bin Laden).

So far, there haven't been any takers.


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