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Officials: Bin Laden Running Out Of Space To Hide

Members of the U.S. Army 1-6 Field Artillery division patrol in a small herding community  in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.
Spencer Platt
Members of the U.S. Army 1-6 Field Artillery division patrol in a small herding community in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

On the eve of President Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday, a recording, believed to be of Osama bin Laden, also made headlines. The message is the latest sign that the al-Qaida leader is alive, up on current events and communicating with the outside world. But a number of factors may now be combining to make bin Laden's safe haven in Pakistan less so.

"The trail for bin Laden was allowed to get stone cold over seven years," says CIA veteran Bruce Riedel.

The CIA is analyzing the tape closely for clues to figure out if it's really him, where he might have recorded the message, if he sounds healthy and the big question: Where is he?


'The Administration Smells Blood'

Riedel, a career intelligence officer, says the U.S. has not gotten close since bin Laden slipped away in the Tora Bora mountains back in December 2001.

Juan Zarate, the top counterterrorism official in President Bush's White House, says, "The administration smells blood here. I think al-Qaida is on its heels."

Zarate, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points to three things that show the space where bin Laden can move freely is shrinking.

First is the Pakistan army's offensive against the Taliban in Swat Valley and other areas.


It's too soon to tell how that operation will play out, but Zarate says Pakistan's policy could serve as a "dual anvil along with U.S. activities from the Afghan side, to actually pressure al-Qaida, make them feel uncomfortable and perhaps make the senior leadership make mistakes."

The second element shrinking bin Laden's possible location is the 21,000 additional U.S. troops pouring into Afghanistan. And Zarate points to a third factor: drones.

Predator Strikes

U.S. Predator strikes in Pakistan are controversial; they cause civilian casualties and stoke anti-Americanism.

But in a rare public speech last month, CIA Director Leon Panetta defended Predator attacks as precise and limited in terms of collateral damage.

"And very frankly," he said, "it's the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership."

Predator strikes aren't a new tactic. But the pace and precision of attacks has increased considerably since last summer.

Predator attacks have killed 11 out of 20 on the Pentagon's most-wanted list along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, say U.S. officials.

And it's not just the top leadership, says a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition he not be named. The official says al-Qaida has also lost trainers, explosives experts — people across all levels of the network.

"This is the most pressure they've been under since they left Afghanistan" back in 2001, the official adds.

Hank Crumpton is a career CIA officer who led the agency's Afghan campaign after Sept. 11. He says Predator strikes are useful on two fronts: They have disrupted terrorist attacks, and they help in the hunt for bin Laden.

"Using the Predator and other drones, it gives us an opportunity to create a great deal of uncertainty, a fear among enemy leaders. It forces them to communicate more, forces them to move more, which provides other opportunities," he says.

"Opportunities" for the CIA and other spy agencies to exploit.

But Crumpton cautions that drone strikes are just the first step in what should be a broad counterinsurgency campaign.

Riedel agrees. He led the Obama administration's recent strategy review for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"In the end, they're a tactic," he says. "They can be a very effective tactic, but they're not really a strategy. It's a little bit like going after a beehive one bee at a time. You may be successful, but it's gonna take a long time to go at it that way."

Still, if one of those bees could be Osama bin Laden, that would mark a huge success, says Zarate.

"If bin Laden — the senior leadership of al-Qaida — can be killed or captured, you've really set al-Qaida back," he says. "And you've closed a chapter in the war on terror that al-Qaida, I don't think, can recover from."

Bin Laden, Al-Qaida 'Still In The Fight'

Not everyone agrees that catching bin Laden would cripple the global jihadist movement, but that's another debate.

But what's clear from the new recordings this week from both bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is they are not, as Riedel puts it, "cowering in the back of a cave."

"I've been a student of their statements for well over a decade now," he says, "and I don't see any sign in them that these are individuals who think time is running out for them. To the contrary, much of what they talk about betrays a sense of optimism on their part ... They're still in the fight, that the intel agencies of virtually the entire world have been looking for them, and that they've successfully eluded their pursuers."

But for how much longer?

After so many years of chasing shadows, it's unfashionable for U.S. intelligence officials to betray even guarded optimism.

Still, they say, the combination of Pakistan's military push, the U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan and the stepped-up drone strikes add up to a uniquely promising moment.

Crumpton says he's "cautiously hopeful." Of course, he adds, "I've been cautiously hopeful — for years."