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Osama bin Laden: Wanted Dead or Alive??

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Osama bin laden from FBI most wanted terrorist page

3/2004 - reward now $50 million | page updated 10 Sep 2007


Why all the attention on Saddam Hussein, when we haven't figured out what happened with bin Laden, who is listed as a Most Wanted Terrorist?

Al Qaeda continued threat to US, notes a 5 August 2005 New York Times report: Confidential government assessments say that Al Qaeda remains intent on attacking targets in the United States and that suicide bombings are clearly "a preferred method of attack among extremists" in the wake of last month's terror attacks in London. The July 7 attacks on the London transit system, as well as others overseas, have prompted American officials to reassess potential threats to targets in the United States. Their conclusions, circulated among law enforcement officials by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, differ little from many earlier assessments since the Sept. 11 attacks but make clear that officials see Al Qaeda as a continued threat at home. ("Assessments Find Threat of Suicide Attacks in U.S.")

Bin Laden is back in the news recently because the military has stepped up operations in Afghanistan and said they will get him before the year is out. At the same time, there is a great deal of publicity surrounding a new book called Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll, a Washington Post reporter who covered the region. An excerpt is available through the publisher's website (if you buy the book, please do it through the link on this page to support the site)

The Washington Post has run two articles by Coll and an online discussion. Free registration is required, but worth it for the detailed discussions.

See also, Why catching bin Laden is difficult: The US has launched a new effort in Afghanistan, yet still faces hurdles such as internal mistrust and false information (Christian Science Monitor 3/18/04). Blogger Bob Harris has some pointed comments on President Bush's priorities when it comes to who is a security risk. 

Great (brief) background on rise of bin Laden and U.S. Foreign policy from Middle East Historian Juan Cole. (Read his blog regularly for some of the most thoughtful analysis of terrorism.)

Al Qaeda has suffered some setbacks, but attacks in Bali, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere (see below) indicate the organization still poses a threat. Those events give operatives operational experience, which allows Al Qaeda to replace the senior people who have been captured or killed.

bin Laden is also the mastermind and a charismatic leader who can motivate followers. Because we didn't follow through on getting him, he's rebuilding and plotting against us still - and as the links to the right indicate, he has an active chemical, biological and nuclear program. 

This page contains more information about the threat posed by bin Laden & Al Qaeda; the history of Bush backing off his statement that bin Laden is wanted 'dead or alive'; and a bio of bin Laden. 

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) & Usama bin Laden from Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Osama bin Forgotten - good article from the New Yorker on the lost trail of bin Laden.
U.S. Fears Bin Laden Made Nuclear Strides: Concern Over 'Dirty Bomb' Affects Security (Bob Woodward, Washington Post)
Al Qaeda documents outline serious weapons program: Terrorist group placed heavy emphasis on developing nuclear device (CNN)
Video tapes aired on CNN indicated to anyone watching that Al Qaeda was far more sophisticated than anyone gave them credit for

Bin Laden still threat to U.S.

FBI Most Wanted Terrorists - Saddam's not there

Afghan War Faltering, Military Leader Says: Myers Cites Al Qaeda's Ability to Adapt (11/7/02, Washington Post)

From Views of a Changing World 2003: War With Iraq Further Divides Global Publics (Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes Project)

"But 87 percent agreed on this point: If Afghanistan's Taliban government is toppled, but Osama bin Laden and his top aides aren't captured or killed, the US will have failed in its first objective of the war. That clear idea of what constitutes victory may eventually pose a problem for the Bush administration, which has recently begun asserting that its goal is the fall of the Taliban and not necessarily the elimination of Mr. bin Laden" (Christian Science Monitor, 17 Nov 2001)

10 Sept 2003: New purported bin Laden tape raises fear of new attacks. Audiotape: 'The real battle has not started yet' The taped voice warned that "the real battle has not started yet. Prepare yourself for the punishment for your crimes." The CNN story contains a subheading 'Something big and nasty is coming'. bin Laden's aid says in the video tape's voice over: "the real battle has not started yet. Prepare yourself for the punishment for your crimes." 

5 Sept 2003: "The acquisition, production, or theft of [chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons] materials and subsequent dissemination is a top al Qaeda objective," the Homeland Security advisory said. "We believe it continues to research more advanced CBRN operations, including production of pathogenic organisms and toxins, as well as high-impact dissemination methods such as contamination of water and food, and aerosolization of an agent in enclosed densely populated space.''

But some of its most pointed warnings focused on commercial airliners. "A growing body of credible intelligence indicates al Qaeda continues to develop plans for multiple attacks against targets in the U.S. involving commercial aircraft," the bulletin said. "Some plans [call] for hijacking airliners transiting near or flying over the continental United States -- but not destined to land at U.S. airports." (U.S. Officials Warn of New Tactics by Al Qaeda, Washington Post, P A02)

6 Aug 2003 - bombing at Marriott in Indonesia tied to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group that US officials say acts as Al Qaeda's franchise in Southeast Asia. Tuesday's car bomb also follows more than a month of heightened US warnings about the increased risk of Al Qaeda attacks, particularly on so-called "soft targets." The US State Department had issued specific warnings of possible attacks in Indonesia. US and Indonesian officials say American interests were the likely target. (Indonesia car bomb echoes Bali
A group linked to Al Qaeda is fingered in a deadly blast Tuesday at a Jakarta hotel
. Christian Science Monitor)

U.S. officials have raised the nation's terror threat level again, saying the intelligence community believes al Qaeda has entered an "operational period worldwide" and might attack within the United States. (CNN 22 May 2003) ~ story from Washington Post

U.S. Expects More Strikes By Al Qaeda (Washington Post 16 May 2003; Page A01) Intelligence officials and terrorism experts said Monday's strikes in Saudi Arabia, which left 34 people dead, demonstrate al Qaeda's patient adaptability and continued ability to coordinate multiple attacks. Monday's assault was carried out in three locations by numerous armed men who coordinated their tactics to overwhelm and kill guards stationed at the entrances of the protected compounds.  

U.S. and Pakistani authorities have broken up an al Qaeda plan to fly an explosives-laden aircraft into the U.S. consulate in Karachi, a suicide plot reminiscent of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that shows the weakened terrorist network is still capable of pursuing serious assaults, officials said yesterday. (Washington Post, 3 May 2003; Page A01) 

Feb 11, 2003: On Tape, Bin Laden Calls for Iraqis to Fight U.S. With Suicide Attacks: FBI Director Calls Al Qaeda 'Most Urgent Threat' to U.S. (Washington Post)

Although the US has done a great deal to dismantle Al Qaeda, the directors of both the CIA and FBI have recently said the organization is as dangerous as it was prior to 9/11. "Osama [bin Laden] may be saying, 'Yoo hoo, US, don't count us out,' " says Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler. (10 Feb 2003 Christian Science Monitor)

CIA Director Tenant is warning that an attempt to conduct another attack on U.S. soil is certain (10/17/02). 

Below is a timetable from Bush's early statements wanting bin Laden 'Dead or Alive' to 'we don't where he is' and 'he's not really so important..." 

The basic point is well summarized in a New Yorker article: "As months went by without a successful capture Bush rarely mentioned bin Laden’s name in public. The Administration’s attention shifted to building support for the war in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein seemed to replace bin Laden in the role of the world’s most notorious “evildoer.” In June, a reporter asked where bin Laden might be, and Bush’s response was muted and cautious. “If Osama bin Laden is alive . . . slowly but surely we’re dismantling the networks, and we’ll continue on the hunt,” he said. He added that locating bin Laden “could take years.”

President Bush's Remarks at Pentagon, 17 Sept 2001 (from Whitehouse.gov):

Q Do you want bin Laden dead? 

THE PRESIDENT: I want justice. There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, "Wanted: Dead or Alive." 

Q Are you saying you want him dead or alive, sir? Can I interpret -- 

THE PRESIDENT: I just remember, all I'm doing is remembering when I was a kid I remember that they used to put out there in the old west, a wanted poster. It said: "Wanted, Dead or Alive." All I want and America wants him brought to justice. That's what we want. 

CIA Told to Do 'Whatever Necessary' to Kill Bin Laden: President Bush last month signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to undertake its most sweeping and lethal covert action since the founding of the agency in 1947, explicitly calling for the destruction of Osama bin Laden and his worldwide al Qaeda network, according to senior government officials. The president also added more than $1 billion to the agency's war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action. "The gloves are off," one senior official said. "The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. (Bob Woodward, Washington Post: Oct 20, 2001)

Bin Laden's whereabouts remain mystery: U.S. officials still do not know where Osama bin Laden is, but capturing the al Qaeda leader isn't a prime mission of the Bush administration, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday. (24 Feb 2002, CNN)

White House Press briefing, 25 Feb 2002:

Q Ari, does the White House hold the view that Osama bin Laden is still alive? 

MR. FLEISCHER: The simple answer is we do not know. There have been no indications that he is dead. And, therefore, the most likely suspicion is that he is alive.

How bin Laden got away: A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerful military machine. (Christian Science Monitor)

Remarks by the President to Republican Party of Florida Reception (8 March 2002 - Whitehouse.gov)

And by the way, the war against terror is bigger than any single individual. Oh, I know there are some always talking about this bin Laden fellow. But, remember, he's the kind of fellow who, he asks youngsters to go commit suicide and he tries to bury inside a cave. We haven't heard from him in a long time. He's been kind of quiet for months. I don't know if he's alive, I don't know if he's dead. But I know this, if he is alive there is no cave deep enough for the United States. We're going to find him.

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer (3 July 2002, Whitehouse.gov)

Q: the President said that before September 11th, 9/11 this year, he will bring to justice top al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden. He has any information where he is or how he is going to bring him -- 

MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing has changed with Osama bin Laden in terms of any information
that we have. We do not know whether he is alive or dead. 

Vice President Honors Veterans of Korean War (29 Aug 2002): In the case of Osama bin Laden -- as President Bush said recently -- "If he's alive, we'll get him. If he's not alive, we already got him." [Same comment repeated on 2 Oct 2002 - see below)

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer (6 Sept 2002, Whitehouse.gov - notice total non-answer to question about bin Laden, raised in context of Afghan President Karzai's near assassination. Notice how now, the problem is one for the rest of the world...)

Q There was bloodshed in Afghanistan. That means al Qaeda and Taliban or somebody is directing them, somebody -- some boss is still there. What the President thinks and what is the future of Afghanistan now, because -- and his slogan, "Osama bin Laden wanted dead or alive," still alive or not? 

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the world needs to tip its hat to President Karzai for his
strength, for his determination, for his courage. President Karzai is leading Afghanistan to a better future and a peaceful future. And the President was relieved to know that President Karzai was unhurt in yesterday's attack. 

This is a reminder to the world about the importance of honoring their obligations and
commitments to Afghanistan. Many nations around the world have made commitments
financially to support the stability of the Afghani government, to provide Afghanistan with the needed funds to provide that stability. And not all the nations in the world have honored their commitments by following up with delivery of money to Afghanistan. This is an appropriate time to remind the world that Afghanistan does need the world's help, the mission is not over, and the world needs to do its part. 

The Vice President makes remarks at the NRCC Gala Salute to Dick Armey and
J.C. Watts (2 Oct 2002 - whitehouse.gov): In the case of Osama bin Laden, as the President said recently, if he's alive, we'll get him. If he's not alive, we already got him.

11/8 (BBC) Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is alive and planning further high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, the head of Interpol has said. Mr Noble, who became Interpol's secretary general two years ago, added: ''Intelligence experts all agree that right now al-Qaeda is preparing a high-profile terrorist operation, with attacks targeting not just the US but several countries at the same time.''  The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner says this is the strongest yet assessment of the risk of al-Qaeda attacks. [Bin Laden is alive - Interpol ]

New tape suggests bin Laden is alive because it mentions recent events like the bombing in Bali. The voice seems like bin Laden's although some experts claim phrasing and inflection suggest he is ill. 

LONDON, Nov. 14 – In an unbroadcast video tape made last month, Osama bin Laden declares that his al Qaeda network "instigated" the Sept. 11 attacks, the British government said today, and explains that "if avenging the killing of our people is terrorism, let  history be a witness that we are terrorists." "Bush and Blair . . . don't understand any language but the language of force," bin Laden goes on, according to Blair. "Every time they kill us, we will kill them, so the balance of terror can be achieved." [Blair Reveals Evidence Against Bin Laden]

Bin Laden: Architect of New Global Terrorism Evolving Movement Combines Old Theology and Modern Technology in Mission Without Borders A defining characteristic of the movement's development has been its success in combining two seemingly incompatible sources of strength: a conservative interpretation of Islam and a comfort with aspects of the modern world that have given birth to a highly mobile, popular, wealthy, technologically savvy transnational enterprise.

Bin Laden Recruits With Graphic Video: The film is a powerful bit of work, tailored for young Arabic men in the manner of a well-done army recruitment tape. The film uses freeze frames of dying Arab children, zoom shots of the USS Cole before and after the
explosion, and grainy footage of Americans lying dead in the wreckage of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A plaintive voice narrates much of the video, backed by snatches of poetry and ecstatic religious singing.

"This is not a film aimed at the intellectual," Bulliet said. "The target audience is an 18-year-old boy who is not particularly aware of the world but feels the visceral pain of the images." Nor does bin Laden play the lunatic or the fool. To the contrary, he is filmed clad in a white kaffiyeh, his beard streaked with gray. His voice is soothing, his manner gentle, even as he counsels followers to embrace death's liberation. To die after the horrors shown in the film, he suggests, is an act of altruism.


Biography of bin Laden from Salon.com Excellent six part profile: brief excerpts below, but please check out the original on Salon. The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism has an exceptional page with more information on bin Laden

"Bin Laden's mother, Hamida, was not a Saudi or a Wahhabi, but a stunningly beautiful, cosmopolitan, educated 22-year-old daughter of a Syrian trader. She shunned the traditional Saudi veil in favor of Chanel trouser suits and this, coupled with the fact that she was foreign, diminished her status within the family. She was Mohammed bin Laden's tenth or eleventh spouse, and was known as the "the slave wife." 

bin Laden's time fighting the Russians was critical. It was during this period that he changed from a contemplative, scholarly young man to a respected, battle-hardened leader of men. And though he had yet to fully develop his extremist ideas, the war in Afghanistan gave him crucial confidence and status.  "He came to the jihad a well-meaning boy and left a man who knew about violence and its uses and effects," said one former associate interviewed by The Observer in Algeria last year. 

Journalists in Pakistan at the beginning of the 1980s remember hearing stories about the "Saudi sheikh" who would visit wounded fighters in the university town's clinics, dispensing cashew nuts and chocolates. The man would note their names and addresses and soon a generous check would arrive at their family home. Such generosity -- perhaps learned from his father with his wad of notes for the poor -- is something that almost all who have fought for, or alongside, bin Laden mention. 

bin Laden was in for a rude -- and profoundly upsetting -- shock. The last thing the House of al-Saud wanted was an army of zealous Islamists fighting its war. Bin Laden was received by senior royals, but his offer was firmly rejected.  Worse was to come. Instead of the Islamic army he envisaged protecting the cradle of Islam, the defense of Saudi Arabia -- and thus of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina -- was entrusted to the Americans. Bin Laden, seething with humiliation and rage, could do nothing but watch as 300,000 U.S. troops arrived in his country and set about building bases, drinking Coke and alcohol and sunbathing. Bin Laden saw their presence as an infidel invasion. 

In early 1997 the Taliban discovered what they said was a Saudi plot to assassinate bin Laden. The Islamic militia, who by then controlled about two-thirds of Afghanistan, invited bin Laden to move to Kandahar for his own security. Bin Laden agreed and his relationship with the Taliban's upper command by funding huge military purchases, building mosques and buying cars for the leadership. Bin Laden set up a system to cream off the elite from the existing training camps to al-Qaida. His aides would pick the most promising and send them to more specialized camps where, instead of basic infantry techniques, they had psychological and physical tests, combat trials and finally instruction in the skills of the modern terrorist. Within a year, bin Laden had created the terrorist version of special forces.  

Finally, in February 1998, he felt strong enough to issue a fatwa in the name of the "World Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." It was signed by bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the heads of major Islamic movements in Pakistan and Bangladesh and endorsed by dozens of other groups throughout the region. It was, according to one Western scholar of Islam, "a magnificent piece of eloquent, even poetic, Arabic prose."  There was nothing poetic about its message. The fatwa said that killing Americans and their allies, even civilians, was a Muslim duty. Shortly afterwards bin Laden told an interviewer that there would be "radical action" soon. 

At about 11 a.m. on August, 7 1998, a blast had demolished the U.S. embassy, an office block and a secretarial college, killing 213 people and wounding 4,600. Almost simultaneously a second bomb, at the U.S. embassy in Tanzania, exploded, killing 11. Thirteen days after the bombings in Africa, 75 American cruise missiles slammed into six training camps in the eastern Afghan hills. Other missiles demolished a medical factory in Sudan. The Muslim world exploded in anger and outrage. Bin Laden was launched onto the global stage. 

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