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Obama administration to ratchet up hunt for bin Laden

  • Story Highlights
  • President-elect Barack Obama to renew efforts to hunt down Osama bin Laden
  • "We will kill bin Laden," he said in a debate last month
  • Intelligence officials say it won't be easy; one says spies on the ground is key
  • "I don't think the American people will accept him surviving and us leaving"
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By Kelli Arena
CNN Justice Department Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect Barack Obama wants to renew the U.S. commitment to finding al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to his national security advisers.

Osama bin Laden remains on the run despite a $25 million reward for his capture.

Osama bin Laden remains on the run despite a $25 million reward for his capture.

The Obama team believes the Bush administration has downplayed the importance of catching the FBI's most-wanted terrorist because it has not been able to find him.

"We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority," Obama said during the presidential debate on October 7.

But tracking down bin Laden won't be easy.

In May, al Qaeda released an audiotape featuring bin Laden. But U.S. intelligence officials say they haven't had a solid lead on the terrorist mastermind's whereabouts since late 2001, when he was nearly captured in a battle with U.S. forces near Tora Bora, Afghanistan.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer, told CNN he's talked to "a dozen CIA guys who've been on the hunt for him, and half of them told me they assumed he was dead, the other half said they assumed he was alive, but the key word here is assume. They don't know." Video Watch the hunt for bin Laden »

Intelligence officials believe bin Laden is hiding in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, a remote and primitive region with mountain peaks as tall as 14,000 feet (4,270 meters) that make the terrain difficult to navigate.

"If you think of this as sort of a combination of [the hunt for] Eric Rudolph, who was the Olympic bomber, and the movie 'Deliverance,' multiplied by a factor of 10, that's really what you're focusing on in trying to find bin Laden," said Robert Grenier, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan.

The region is divided into tribes, some of them warring. Developing sources in the area has been extremely difficult. See a timeline of bin Laden's terror messages »

"What you literally need to have is an army of individual informants, hopefully focused on the areas that you think bin Laden is most likely to be hiding in," said Grenier, now a security consultant with Kroll.

"But again, you need to have a whole lot of them, because one individual who may have access to the families and the clans in a particular valley, if he goes to the valley next door and starts asking questions, he's probably gonna end up dead pretty quickly."

The U.S. government is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's capture, but officials who have worked in the region say the people living there would consider it dishonorable to take the money.

The United States has had some success killing al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan using unmanned drones equipped with Hellfire missiles, but those attacks have killed innocent civilians as well, complicating the political situation between the two countries.

Obama plans to send more troops into Afghanistan to push back the growing Taliban insurgency, but experts warn there could be severe consequences.

"The president is going to inherit the problem the Soviets had roughly 15 years ago during the Soviet jihad. You cannot tame the people in the North-West Frontier Province and on the border in Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Dalton Fury, the commander of special operations at Tora Bora.

"The only army that has been successful has been Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde. They cut off heads and killed everyone in the villages, and since we have self-imposed rules of warfare, we are not going to do what they did."

Cooperation from Pakistan's military has been touchy, and most experts agree finding bin Laden is not a priority for Pakistan's troops.

Fury says the best route for the president-elect to take would be to change the dialogue about bin Laden. Intelligence officials do not believe he is playing an operational role and so has no reason to move around or communicate.

"I think it's important to understand that bin Laden had his chance at martyrdom. He was in the mountains of Tora Bora, he ran away. In my opinion, I think we ought to promote this," Fury said.

He believes taunting the al Qaeda leader may force him to prove he's relevant and, in the process, lead the United States right to him.

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Despite the challenges, many experts agree it is important to capture bin Laden.

"I don't think the American people will accept him surviving and us leaving. We will be the laughingstock of the world," Fury said.

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