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Bin Laden: Alive or dead -- and how would we know?

By Henry Schuster
CNN

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

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Osama bin Laden in an image from a video message shown on the Al-Jazeera television channel.

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(CNN) -- We've gone almost a year without hearing from Osama bin Laden.

So, where is he? Is he dead or alive? And, if alive, why can't anyone catch him?

These aren't exactly new questions, but they are certainly worth revisiting. It is now more than four years after 9/11. Four years after Tora Bora, the last place that the U.S. government can say with certainty where bin Laden was.

The last time we heard from bin Laden was late last December, in an audiotape praising Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and designating him as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Bin Laden had actually been quite prolific in his messages in that period - there was a message earlier that month praising the terrorists who had recently attacked the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Most interestingly, a videotape appeared right before the 2004 U.S. presidential election on which we could actually see bin Laden.

Dead or alive?

But that was last year. It has been so long since a bin Laden message (and we always look in those messages for date markers - does he make reference to a specific event, such as the election, which would tell us he was alive at a certain date?) that I keep getting the same question: how do we know Osama bin Laden is still alive?

We don't have proof of life. Not since that last audiotape.

But the evidence suggests the world's most wanted man is not dead.

First, there is a statement from his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has appeared on videotapes. His frequent messages make it clear that al Qaeda's number two, at least, is alive and mocking the United States.

Al-Zawahiri's remarks come from a videotape that was done in September, though some parts just showed up on the Internet in the past week.

"Al Qaeda for holy war is still, thanks to God, a base for jihad. Its prince Osama bin Laden, may God protect him, still leads the jihad," al-Zawahiri said.

Then there are the recent remarks by CIA Director Porter Goss to ABC's "Good Morning America." He was asked why his agency couldn't find bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

"They don't want us to find them and they're going to great lengths to make sure we don't find them. And I assure you we're applying a lot of efforts to find out where they are. And I don't want to get into the depth and the details, but we know a good deal more about bin Laden and Zarqawi and Zawahiri than we are able to say publicly," Goss said.

The commander of US forces in Afghanistan was even more explicit about bin Laden Thursday. "Our working assumption is that he is alive today," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry told Pentagon reporters.

So where are the al Qaeda leaders? The best guess remains that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are hiding somewhere in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Will we ever know?

There were a number of conspiracy theories before the 2004 election that the United States had somehow captured bin Laden and was keeping him on ice until right before the election so President Bush could take political advantage.

start quoteIf he died, everybody will know.end quote
-- Jamal Khalifa, former close associate of Osama bin Laden

It was obvious nonsense, which bin Laden himself proved with his election eve video. If the United States knew bin Laden was dead, or had been captured, it would be hard to imagine such news remaining secret for long (think about Saddam Hussein's capture).

This paranoia plays on the notion that somehow we won't know. Nonsense, says bin Laden's brother-in-law.

"If he died, everybody will know," was the e-mail answer I got from Jamal Khalifa. He was perhaps bin Laden's closest friend for a decade before the two men parted ways in the late 1980s. Khalifa now lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where many of the bin Laden clan also reside, including bin Laden's mother.

"We don't have any news," he added, except for the video from Ayman al-Zawahiri.

When al-Zawahiri's wife and children were killed in Afghanistan by U.S. bombs, word made it back, apparently via jihadi circles, to Cairo, where his relatives live. Funeral notices appeared in at least one Cairo newspaper and the family observed a period of mourning.

Most of bin Laden's relatives have publicly disavowed him, but his mother has not. As a devout Muslim, she would likely observe the same sort of mourning period if somehow she got the news in some non-public fashion.

Which might be one way we find out.

The al-Zawahiri letter revisited

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, from a videotape released in September.

On the subject of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the issue of that alleged letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi won't go away. (Read the letter in Englishexternal link or in Arabicexternal link.)

The United States government believes the letter - in which al-Zawahiri lays out a blueprint for jihad that works outward from Iraq, but also criticizes al-Zarqawi for beheadings - is real.

But Jordanian security sources -- who don't want to be identified -- told me recently they believe the letter is a forgery.

Paul Eedle, a London journalist who has studied al Qaeda's various messages for the last several years, has studied the Arabic version of the letter carefully and also has second thoughts about its validity.

He initially believed the letter was legitimate. Now, however, "I'm not convinced this is genuine. I think it could be a forgery by someone who is extremely fluent in Arabic but is not a native Arab educated to a high level in traditional Arabic literature and Muslim texts."

An interesting twist is that this may not matter. Mohanad Hage Ali of the London-based Arabic al-Hayat newspaper says that the jihadis he's spoken to believe the letter is real. They don't seem to have the same doubts.

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