Eight Years Later, Bin Laden is Still on the Loose
Less than two months after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, CIA agents tracked al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.
Bin Laden narrowly eluded a search by Afghani and American soldiers, and since then, intelligence analysts say, he's never come close to being caught.
Eight years later, the U.S. government is still waiting to pay the $25 million reward it has offered to anyone who provides information leading to bin Laden's capture. And as the search continues, experts in the fields of terrorism and world politics agree on two things: Getting bin Laden would be satisfying, but it wouldn't do much to advance the war on terrorism.
"Like any other American, I want to see this guy brought to justice," said Dr. James Forest, director of terrorism studies at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center in West Point, N.Y. "But in terms of strategic impact on the global terror threat, he (bin Laden) is only a small part of that."
Forest said the 52-year-old bin Laden is properly credited as the founder and spiritual leader of the al-Qaida network, which began during the Afghan war against the Soviet-occupied government in Kabul more than 20 years ago. A member of a wealthy Saudi family, he helped organize radical Muslim groups that went to Afghanistan to drive the Soviets out of the country, and he provided money for the military campaign.
But the man often thought of as bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician, does a lot more to run the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda than bin Laden, according to Dr. Lewis Brownstein, professor of political science and international relations at the State University at New Paltz, N.Y.
"The organization has morphed in the last 10 years and the key player is Al-Zawahiri," Brownstein said.
Now, al-Qaida is basically a loose network of terrorists.
"Psychologically for us, it would mean a great deal to get bin Laden," Brownstein said. "Would it disrupt the worldwide terror network? No, I wouldn't think so."
Although al-Qaida members are viewed as foreigners by the homegrown Taliban in the close-knit region near the Afghan-Pakistani border where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, "there's an ongoing alliance, and by this time, the two groups have inter-married, so they're working more closely together," Brownstein said.
Given bin Laden's familiarity with the wilderness of Afghanistan and the support and protection he enjoys there, Bard College political science professor Jonathan Becker said, no one in the U.S. intelligence community is optimistic about the prospects of catching him. And the ongoing military campaigns in the area make it unlikely the United States will receive any help.
"When the U.S. misses its targets in that region, it alienates the local population," Becker said.
Dr. Artin Arslanian, professor of history and international relations at Marist College in New York, said that while most experts agree bin Laden doesn't have much direct control over al-Qaida anymore, killing or capturing him would benefit the United States politically.
"It's a matter of national pride," he said, "because we did vow to catch him."