By Peter Bergen
Adjust font size:
Editor's note: CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen met Osama bin Laden in 1997 and has written two books about al Qaeda and its leader. Here, he shares with CNN.com his analysis on the hunt for bin Laden.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. intelligence officials say Osama bin Laden is likely hiding in Pakistan, and the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit says the United States will have to be "extraordinarily lucky" to get the al Qaeda leader.
"Sometimes you get lucky," Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996-1999, told CNN. "But looking for Osama bin Laden in the Hindu Kush is not like looking for Eric Rudolph in North Carolina."
Gary Berntsen, who led a CIA paramilitary unit pursuing bin Laden shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, said Pakistan is a country bin Laden knows well. He feels at home there and enjoys popular support. It's also a country where the U.S. military is not welcome.
"It's likely that he's in Pakistan," he told CNN as part of a documentary, "In the Footsteps of bin Laden."
Berntsen said there are Pakistanis who remember bin Laden's work from the 1980s, when he set up what is known as the Services Bureau in Peshawar to help refugees fleeing the Soviets in Afghanistan.
"They have as a custom [of] not turning in individuals," Berntsen said. "He has sought refuge among them." (Watch bin Laden's 1997 declaration of war -- 1:42)
The bottom line: Nearly five years after he escaped the U.S. siege at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is believed to be still alive and still inciting terror. And it's the consensus view of both the U.S. intelligence community and the American military that bin Laden is in Pakistan.
Mahmud Durrani, the Pakistan ambassador to the United States, said Pakistan remains "fully committed" to the war on terrorism. Pakistan is not only pursuing bin Laden, but all his associates, he said.
"Our commitment is total and absolute," Durrani said. "This is in our national interest. We want to get rid of extremism and terrorism."
Would he like bin Laden captured or killed?
"I would like to see bin Laden strung up from the tallest pole," Durrani said. "He is no friend of Pakistan."
He added that he believes bin Laden is "somewhere in Afghanistan." (Watch how bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora -- 2:04)
Hiding with minimal security?
According to a U.S. military intelligence official familiar with the hunt, bin Laden is likely hiding in an area called Chitral, in the far north of Pakistan, bounded by Afghanistan to the west and China to the north.
Contrary to popular belief, the official said, bin Laden most likely isn't living in a cave but in a house, possibly with a family and no more than two bodyguards.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the hunt, said the thinking that bin Laden is in Chitral is based in part on trees that are peculiar to that region that can be seen in a 2003 video of bin Laden walking in a mountainous region.
In addition, the official said, the conclusion that bin Laden is in Chitral is based on the length of time it takes for bin Laden's audiotapes to make their way to news outlets like Al-Jazeera when he comments on important events, such as the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It took three weeks for bin Laden's reaction to appear on the world's television screens.
However, Durrani said Chitral is "the last place Osama bin Laden would be," citing both cultural and religious differences.
"They don't like him," he said. "In Chitral, he would stand out like a sore thumb." (Watch Peter Bergen describe meeting bin Laden -- 2:07)
Scant intelligence on elusive terror chief
Even with the knowledge of bin Laden's possible whereabouts, a longtime American counterterrorism analyst said "there is very limited collection on him personally."
That's intelligence community shorthand for the fact that the usual avenues of gathering information on a target such as bin Laden are yielding little or nothing. Those avenues typically include intercepts of phone calls and e-mails, as well as intelligence from spies.
Durrani said Pakistan and the United States are working cooperatively to share intelligence.
The belief that bin Laden is in Pakistan is also based in part on common sense. Every senior al Qaeda leader who has been captured since September 11, 2001 has been run to the ground in Pakistan. Also, the terrorist organization has deep roots in the country, where it was founded by bin Laden in 1988.
Bin Laden started visiting Pakistan in the early 1980s and is comfortable there. He enjoys a degree of safety there because while there are some 20,000 U.S. troops and 15,000 NATO troops inside neighboring Afghanistan, none are able to go into Pakistan because no Pakistani government will allow foreign troops on its territory.
And despite what the Pakistan ambassador says, some believe the Pakistani government has had little appetite for hunting down bin Laden as he arguably enjoys more popularity in Pakistan than any Pakistani politician. (Click here for a slide show on bin Laden's appeal)
Intercepting the messengers
And so bin Laden is benefiting from a stalemate, hunkered down in Pakistan safe from the U.S. military and unlikely to face a concerted Pakistani effort to find him. This situation has gone on for nearly five years, and it could carry on indefinitely.
According to the U.S. military intelligence official, bin Laden is not in the same place as al Qaeda's No. 2; the far more visible Ayman al-Zawahiri already this year has released 11 videotapes to bin Laden's five audiotapes.
Al-Zawahiri likely is based in the Pakistani tribal territory of Waziristan, which is about halfway up Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. The official said that while the "center of gravity" of al Qaeda is in Waziristan, "nothing tells me that [bin Laden] is there."
The official said bin Laden relays messages to other members of al Qaeda through a system of couriers, adding that in the past there has been some success in intercepting these messengers.
"We have hit couriers from time to time," this official said.
The official said bin Laden likely has access to news by listening to BBC radio and possibly via an Internet connection using an HF modem, an inexpensive device that connects users to the Web using radio waves.
As to whether bin Laden remains important to al Qaeda and the wider jihadist militant movement, the U.S. military intelligence official said that the terrorist leader continues to have "iconic value -- Stalin and Hitler could not talk to a billion people."
"Bin Laden can [release] a tape, and the day after it's heard by a billion people."
CNN.com producer Wayne Drash contributed to this report.