The cover story in the February 2010 edition of Middle East Magazine, “Hunting Bin Laden“, leads with the statement that time may be running out for Osama bin Laden. It goes on to say.
“Over the last two years or so, the elusive leader of Al Qaeda has seen dozens of his lieutenants and allies assassinated one after the other in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a whirlwind of attacks, often in the dead of night, by remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The stealthy craft, operated by the Central Intelligence Agency and the US air force, have become a weapon that has revolutionised warfare.”
Anyone studying military history could not agree more. The technological advances developed by the U.S. military since the first Gulf War have been staggering. The combination of global positioning systems, laser guidance, detailed maps, radar, J-Stars, and moving target indicators made the delivery of bombs by piloted aircraft extremely accurate. Now, with unmanned aircraft, tactical and strategic bomb delivery is ever more a major force multiplier. Make a note here, however, that accurate and timely intelligence is the difference maker between bombing mistakes and successful air strikes.
The article alleges that American intelligence has improved over the last two to three years because of improved cooperation from Pashtun tribes.
“As the US braces for a major escalation in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is engaged in a new drive to kill or capture Bin Laden, declaring that he is the key to defeating Al Qaeda as a global threat.”
“That may be a rather fanciful rationale, but eight years after the Americans let him slip through their fingers at his Afghan mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, his last confirmed location on or about 16 December, 2001, they admit they haven’t a clue where he is now. The best guess is that he’s holed up in the lawless Waziristan tribal belt that runs along the rugged border with Afghanistan.”
“According to Pakistani intelligence, the last verifiable sighting of Bin Laden was in September 2003 near Bush Mountain in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan.”
“However, the 30 December suicide bombing in a Central Intelligence Agency base in Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian jihadist turned collaborator blew up seven CIA people and his handler from Jordanian Intelligence, pointed to a renewed effort to get at Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian jihadist and strategist considered by many to be the real brains behind Al Qaeda.”
“The defector was supposed to lead the CIA to Zawahiri, the first known effort to strike at Al Qaeda’s core leadership in a long time, underlining the renewed drive to hunt down Bin Laden. Before the Jordanian blew himself up, he was considered by US intelligence to be the most promising informant in years on locating Zawahiri, and presumably Bin Laden himself.”
In summary, then, capturing or killing Bin Laden might be the key to defeating Al Qaeda as a global threat, the unmanned aircraft attacks may be threatening Bin Laden, the last confirmed location known to the United States was in December 2001, the last verifiable location known to a foreign intelligence service was September 2003, and perhaps US intelligence’s best source of humint intelligence on Bin Laden’s location was a double agent who killed himself and several CIA officers and was, in fact, not a valid source at all.
When you look at the unmanned aircraft killings of terrorists, all open source indications are that US intelligence is using technological methods to gather information on terrorist locations. The terrorists that are being located are using methods of communication that US intelligence can exploit to locate them. That information is then used by the unmanned aircraft to attack and kill the terrorists.
Why then can’t they collect information on Bin Laden? He is probably hunkering down in a cave somewhere, not using any technology that can be intercepted, and hoping that his mere survival is his contribution to the cause. If he is communicating, he is not using technology and that’s why he can’t be located. He can make his contribution by just staying alive and remaining a frustrating symbol of US intelligence’s failure to find and capture him. Or, he can also still be an active influence on all terrorists by sending his communications via non-technological methods.
Can Bin Laden, hiding out in the remote recesses of tribal Pakistan, be located by technological means and then killed with an unmanned aircraft? In a word, no.
Can US intelligence recruit human sources, with access to Bin Laden, or the ability to find out where he is? So far, using the traditional tradecraft of the Cold War, the kind used in the capitals of the world, the answer has also been, no.
Can the special operations community, either military or civilian, plan and direct actions that will penetrate the remote recesses of Pakistan or Afghanistan to find Bin Laden? Again, probably not, because military preferred methods always include all American or American led special operations teams and such teams stick out like a very sore thumb. The one way, probably not tried yet by US intelligence, is to direct indigenous only special operations assets into the remote areas to collect the intelligence and then get it out so that unmanned aircraft can be used to attack the terrorists hiding out there. Who in military or civilian special operations knows how to do that?
Thomas Leo Briggs