Target: Bin Laden

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century." His previous book, "Ghost Wars," won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2005.

Osama bin Laden lives among friends, follows news on satellite television or the Internet and reads books about American foreign policy; this much can be safely inferred from his periodic audio and video statements. His latest topical punditry surfaced just a few weeks ago on jihadi websites when he addressed violence in Gaza and the pope’s travels.

Because of his passable grasp of current events, Bin Laden may well understand what many Americans do not: that he is more likely to be killed or captured during the next year or so than at any time since late 2001, when he escaped U.S. warplanes bombing him in eastern Afghanistan, at Tora Bora.

This welcome change in probabilities has almost nothing to do with the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism strategy, which remains rudderless and starved of resources because of the war in Iraq. It is a consequence, instead, of dramatic political changes in Pakistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda’s local mistakes and the restoration of civilian democracy have combined to make him considerably less safe.


Bin Laden’s personal approval rating in Pakistan, as measured by a number of international polls, is plummeting. Beginning last year, Al Qaeda began to support an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings on Pakistani soil; the campaign culminated in the murder of two-time former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December. Before, when Bin Laden targeted the United States and Europe, many Pakistanis saw him as an Islamic folk hero. But although Pakistanis remain deeply skeptical about the United States, they have changed their thinking about Al Qaeda as hundreds of their own innocent civilians have become its victims.

In a poll released in February, Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit group, found that Bin Laden’s popularity had fallen by half over just six months, to about 24%. In the Northwest Frontier Province, along the Afghan borderlands where he is most likely to be hiding, it fell into single digits. Recent British polling in the most radicalized border areas is less encouraging, but there is no doubt that the general picture in the Northwest Frontier is one of increasing anxiety and resentment toward Al Qaeda.

These souring attitudes are important because, in the past, hunts for terrorists hiding in Pakistan have almost always ended when a disillusioned (and generally greedy) local resident has dropped a dime on the fugitive for reward money. During the 1990s, for example, it took a number of frustrating years until the United States tracked down Mir Amal Kasi, a Pakistani who killed two CIA workers outside the agency’s headquarters in 1993. It took about as long to locate Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing; colleagues ultimately betrayed both men. Now that a larger number of Pakistanis see Bin Laden as a nihilistic killer, the chances that such a walk-in informant will surface have grown.

So have the odds that the Pakistani government will act on such information. For six years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration undermined the search for Bin Laden by organizing its alliance with Pakistan in a way that created perverse incentives -- incentives that actually encouraged the Pakistanis not to find him. It did this by providing unquestioning support to the country’s military leader, President Pervez Musharraf, and by sending more than 90% of its $10 billion-plus in aid to the Pakistan army or the army-controlled government. Much of this aid is still paid today as direct “rent” for counter-terrorism operations by the army and its principal intelligence branch.

The structure of this U.S.-aid pipeline, set against the decades-long history of on-again, off-again American support for Pakistan, encouraged Pakistan’s top military commanders to believe that if Bin Laden were ever captured or killed, the U.S. might reduce its support or even go home. A fugitive Bin Laden became their meal ticket.

Now these incentives have been at least partly reversed. Musharraf’s popularity and authority have collapsed in Pakistan following a succession of political blunders. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the newly elected civilian government behind the scenes, claimed before the national vote in February -- both at home and in Washington -- that the restoration of democracy would be a much more reliable means to defeat terrorism in Pakistan than America’s narrow reliance on Musharraf. Zardari’s more sophisticated advisors, such as Pakistan’s new ambassador at large, Husain Haqqani, a long-time professor at Boston University, understand that this theory of democracy-as-counter-terrorism is viewed with considerable skepticism at the Pentagon and inside Washington’s intelligence bureaucracy.

Pakistan’s new democratic government should now be motivated to prove its case. Delivering Bin Laden -- which Musharraf’s government so conspicuously failed to do -- would be a coup of global proportions for Pakistan’s new civilian leaders, and it would bring considerable political and other rewards to Islamabad. It would demonstrate, in the most dramatic way possible, that a democratic government can be as effective a partner in counter-terrorism as the army, if not more so, and by doing this, it would change debate in Washington and Europe about the costs and benefits of investing in democracy in Pakistan.

This new equation of incentives inside Pakistan is highly complex -- for example, the army and the intelligence service have their own institutional interests, and this may lead them to resist entreaties from civilian leaders to step up the hunt for Bin Laden -- but the previous stalemate that governed the hunt, and which led to years of willful and self-conscious passivity in Pakistan’s leadership, has at last been broken. Now, at least somebody in Pakistan’s government has a good reason to find Bin Laden. And striking at a time when the Al Qaeda leader’s local popularity has collapsed reduces the domestic political risks.

Where would they look? All of the best evidence -- the media pipeline that delivers Bin Laden’s statements; the circumstantial evidence visible in his videos; fragments of available intelligence reporting and the known history of his movements -- points to Pakistan. Anything, of course, is possible -- perhaps we will discover some day that he was living all along in a suburb of Paris and conducting the most successful deception operation in history. But that seems unlikely.

Within Pakistan, an urban hideaway cannot be ruled out. Other Al Qaeda fugitives, such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been discovered in Pakistan’s cities. But even if Bin Laden has shaved his beard and filled his wardrobe with baggy jeans, he would be taking enormous risks if he set up in a Karachi condo or a Rawalpindi town house.

By far the most likely scenario, as officials have repeatedly suggested, is that he has hunkered down in a secluded, mud-walled tribal compound along the Afghan border. This is territory where he has had many friends for years and where Pakistan’s national government today has very little presence. The tribal agencies of North Waziristan and Bajaur seem the most likely sanctuaries. Unfortunately, “narrowing” the search to such vast and remote places along Pakistan’s 1,200-mile border with Afghanistan is like narrowing a search to Alaska -- if Alaska’s population were deeply hostile to outsiders.

Would it matter much if Bin Laden were killed or caught? Al Qaeda has grown beyond the point where decapitating its leadership would end the organization, but Bin Laden has been a charismatic leader, and if he were killed, the resulting succession struggles might prove problematic for the organization. If he is not captured, silencing his on-air commentary would also be moderately helpful.

But the biggest reason to find him is the same as it has been since November 2001. That month, a video discovered in Afghanistan showed a notably self-satisfied Bin Laden smiling as he described how, on the basis of his engineering studies, he had calculated that fire and explosions from the 9/11 attacks might cause a few interior floors of the Twin Towers to collapse, crushing those inside, but that he had been surprised -- and delighted, as his tone of voice conveyed -- that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed completely. The simplest principles of justice remain more than ample in this cause.