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Rumors and estimates

By Henry Schuster
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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.

(CNN) -- Osama is dead. No, he's not. Osama is sick. Well, maybe. Experts say this, intelligence sources say that.

Does it even matter? No, says this colonel. Yes, says that report.

Confused? So am I -- and I cover this story!

Let's review the bidding, from the "bin Laden is dead" rumor to the newly-partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate.

Dead or alive?

The latest round of "is he or isn't he dead" rumors began when a regional French newspaper, L'Est Republicain, published a story claiming that a confidential French foreign intelligence document said bin Laden was dead.

The source quoted in the document claimed the Saudis had received confirmation that bin Laden might have died of typhoid in Pakistan in late August.

Rumors about bin Laden's health or his whereabouts are usually just that, but this report came on the heels of a tape from bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which al-Zawahiri mentioned that bin Laden had asked him to announce that an Algerian group, GSPC, was joining al Qaeda.

Bin Laden's absence from the flurry of al Qaeda tapes released around the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was noticeable. Although several sources in the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia quickly knocked down the story that bin Laden was dead, that wasn't the end of the story.

U.S. and Saudi sources are convinced something has changed, they just don't know what.

A Saudi intelligence source now says, "There is still credible information to ascertain that something has happened. But how grave it is to him [Osama] and the people around him is still unclear."

U.S. intelligence sources tell my colleague Barbara Starr something similar, although again they don't know exactly what has changed.

The last time we heard bin Laden on audiotape (his last videotape appearance was October 2004) was at the beginning of July, when he talked about the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Interestingly, the Saudi intelligence source says there have been messages to al Qaeda followers in Pakistan telling them to leave.

But the source doesn't know what that means. It could be because bin Laden is in poor health or it could have something to do with the new deal struck between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in Waziristan or it could be something else entirely.

The one thing the Saudis strongly believe is that aside from making videotapes, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are struggling just to survive and find it very hard to communicate in a consistent manner with their followers.

Does Osama matter?

Every time there are fresh rumors about bin Laden, the issue becomes whether his death or capture would matter to what has become a worldwide militant Islamist movement.

U.S. officials have plenty of reasons to say no, not the least of them being that insurgent attacks in Iraq increased both after the capture of Saddam Hussein and more recently after al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed.

Col. John Nicholson, who runs U.S. military operations along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, tells CNN that defeating the insurgency was his main focus, not capturing bin Laden, who he said was simply not that crucial.

"If, in the course of that, we run across Osama bin Laden, we would be very happy to roll him up and bring him to justice," Nicholson said.

But the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about the war in Iraq and its importance to the worldwide jihadi movement had a different take on the importance of getting bin Laden.

"The loss of key leaders, particularly Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups. Although like-minded individuals would endeavor to carry on the mission, the loss of these key leaders would exacerbate strains and disagreements," according to a declassified portion of the report.

And, according to the NIE, that would mean -- at least in the short term -- a weaker movement.

In other words, getting bin Laden matters.

Hunting Osama

Which leads back to the other questions: Who is looking for bin Laden? And why haven't they caught him?

Questions which we asked on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

For all its talk de-emphasizing the importance of finding bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (something we also heard from Pakistani officials), the U.S. government does have lots of assets looking for them.

Some are technical -- satellites and surveillance drones -- monitoring the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is known as SIGINT (signals intelligence).

Others are part of what is known as MASINT (Measurements and Signatures Intelligence). An example of this would be looking for unusual amounts of energy used something that might show up during the making of an al Qaeda video.

Then there is HUMINT, or human intelligence. Pakistani journalist Amir Mir told us that for several years now, the United States has put a number of former Pakistani military, intelligence and police officials on the payroll.

And, of course, there are the rewards, including the $25 million being offered for information leading to bin Laden's capture or death.

That hasn't worked so far, says former Pakistani intelligence chief Hamid Gul, because Pakistanis, especially those in the tribal areas where bin Laden is thought to be hiding, don't believe in the U.S. war on terror and don't want to rat him out.

"By just donating out money, you cannot get that kind of information that you're looking for," Gul said. "From their heart they have to believe in what you are doing."

Just who is receiving the reward money for capturing al Qaeda members is unclear.

Consider the case of Deputy Police Superintendent Malik Muhammad Halid from the Pakistani city of Faisalabad. In late 2002, he helped lead the raid that captured Abu Zubadayah, a senior member of al Qaeda.

The policeman says he had his hands on Abu Zubaydah's throat and was able to arrest him after the al Qaeda operative escaped from a nearby house.

Although there was a $5 million reward for Abu Zubaydah's capture, members of the Faisalabad police saw little of that money. Superintendent Malik says he got a few hundred dollars and a commendation, but he doesn't know where the rest of the money went.

In his new book, "In the Line of Fire," Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says "we have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars."

He never says where the money has gone.

A Jakarta, Indonesia, shop dealer sells a painting of Osama bin Laden. The al Qaeda leader hasn't been seen on video in two years.

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