( An updated version of an article titled "The Oracle of Al Qaeda" written by me on October 3,2003, available at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers9/paper808.html )
"Watch out if you are over six feet tall. The CIA's Predator aircraft have been programmed to kill all those above six feet, hoping one of them would turn out to be bin Laden." So said the graffiti in villages in the Pashtun tribal belt of Pakistan in 2003, reflecting the extent to which the US hunt for Osama bin Laden had become a butt of ridicule amongst the tribals.
Osama, Osama everywhere, yet nowhere to be found. The US has been desperately hunting for him ever since he reportedly escaped from the exotic-sounding Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan in 2002, injured and slightly incapacitated by a sharpnel, but alive and kicking.
And leading. So claimed his followers. His hand was felt, but not seen from Bali to Mombasa, from Riyadh to Casablanca, from Madrid to London.
He became like Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Feared, but not seen. Hunted relentlessly, but not found.
Offers of rewards of millions of dollars did not help. Naturally, said an intelligence analyst. The tribals are so poor and illiterate that they don't know what is a million dollar reward. If one offered them instead a plot of land or a few dozen goats they would join the hunt with gusto. So it was said. And so it was done. But without results. Neither offers of dollars nor plots nor goats would interest the tribals.
Why? The answer is simple, my dear Americans, wrote Mr.Afrasiab Khattak, a well-known Pashtun leader of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), in the "Dawn" of May 10, 2003. Osama was nowhere in the tribal belt, according to him.
He wrote: "The myth of no-man's land and the wild north-west comes quite handy as a spin and as a diversion when the Government fails to muster the required political will for taking the bull of terrorism right by the horns."
Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's then military dictator, sent the Americans on a wild goose chase in the forbidding tribal land. "Osama can't be alive," he said in 2002. He always moved around with a large entourage to protect him. Even if one failed to notice him, one would not fail to notice his retinue. So he used to say.
Then, tricky Mush, as his retired seniors in the Army used to call him, had a different spin. He was alive, he admitted, but in the no-go land of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where no British soldier had ever gone and come back alive. "We Pakistanis are of a different mettle," said the legendary commando. "We will go where no British dared. And we will find him dead or alive. "
The Americans were duly impressed. Gave him another three billion dollars at Camp David.
Lollipops kept pouring into Pakistan in the expectation that Musharraf would help the US rid the world of Osama and his terrorist hordes. Hadn't he already delivered nearly 500 Al Qaeda types?
What he did was to round up many poor Arabs living in Pakistan who had become a social pest and make them a charge on the US tax-payers' money. Only five Al Qaeda leaders of real consequence were caught and handed over to the US. And that too, only after the US intelligence came to know of their sanctuaries in Pakistan and he had no other option but to arrest them.
Where were they found? asked the Pashtun leader. Abu Zubaidah in Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab;Ramzi Binalshibh and Waleed bin Attash in Karachi, Musharraf's home town after he migrated to Pakistan from India, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the so-called master-mind of 9/11, in Rawalpindi, where the Army's GHQ is located. Nowhere in the tribal belt. Only Abu Faraj al-Libi was found in the tribal belt in 2005.
And in Karachi was harboured the injured Osama till August ,2002. In the Binori madrasa, which has produced more terrorists than all the other madrasas of Pakistan put together. That was the one place where Musharraf should have searched for him, if he was really sincere about wanting to help the US.
And that was one place where he did not search for him. Why? Because he knew Osama was there. And the Americans did not.
After Osama knew that the US intelligence traced his presence in Tora Bora through his communications with his followers, he totally stopped using modern means of communications.
After Binalshibh was caught in a different hide-out in Karachi in September 2002, because he had indiscreetly used the telephone, Osama was whisked out of Binori and possibly Karachi.
Is Osama still alive or dead? If alive, where is he? There are only three who know the answers to these questions definitively. Allah, the ISI and those who produce and disseminate through Al Jazeera videos and audios purporting to be his provided they are authentic.
Why doesn't the ISI arrest and hand him over to the US and get a few more billions of dollars? Because of a fear that he might spill the beans about his links with the ISI.
Why doesn't the ISI get him killed and be rid of this nuisance? Because of a fear that Osama's terrorist hordes may no longer help Pakistan in India and Afghanistan. And an equally strong fear that Pakistan may lose its importance in the eyes of the US, if Osama and Al Qaeda were no longer there.
The Pakistanis know their Americans. How naive and trusting, the Americans can be. Didn't Ahmed Chalabi and other anti-Saddam money-makers make millions from the CIA and the DIA by feeding imaginary reports about Saddam's WMD and by telling the then US Vice-President Dick Cheney and the then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Iraqi people would welcome the US troops as liberators.
And since November 2002 an oracle started getting disseminated one tape after another purportedly of Osama and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri. These tapes started coming out of Pakistan and reaching Al Jazeera and other Arab channels like rabbits out of a magician's hat.
The tapes kept coming at periodic intervals. The Congressional committees kept holding one session after another with testimonies by the top guns of the US intelligence and Armed Forces regarding the whereabouts of bin Laden. We know now he is in North Waziristan, they said.
US Drones went after him----attacking one suspected hide-out after another. They killed a lot of people. The world was told they were top guns of Al Qaeda. "We may not have got OBL, but we are eliminating others around him".
"Al Qaeda is weakened even if we have not caught or killed OBL," said one Al Qaeda watcher.
The then President George Bush came out with his own gem: " The fact that Osama has not yet been caught shows that he is trying desperately not to get caught."
Many Al Qaeda cadres---- each of them projected at the time of their capture as the No.3 of Al Qaeda--- were caught in different cities of Pakistan. " We will now know where OBL is. The No.3 will know. We will get it during the interrogation."
Apparently, their interrogation revealed nothing. Either they were tough nuts to crack or they themselves did not know where the hell was OBL.
So the hunt goes on. There has been no business like Al Qaeda and OBL business. How many Al Qaeda watchers must have minted fortunes by claiming to know all that is fit to be known about them!
How many billions Islamabad must have made by pretending to help the US in its search! How much of that must have gone into the jihad chest of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban!
In an interview to the ABC news on December 6,2009, a sheepish Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has finally admitted: "The US has had no reliable information on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in years. Well, we don't know for a fact where Osama Bin Laden is. If we did, we'd go get him."
Well, Mr.Gates, search for him where you have not searched for him so far. You are till now looking for him in the sparsely populated tribal areas of the FATA. Start looking for him in the populated tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province and in the other provinces of Pakistan. Set up a special group to re-interrogate all the top guns of Al Qaeda arrested in Pakistan. Find out how the tapes are reaching Al Jazeera from Pakistan. Trace them back to wherefrom they started their journey. Seek the co-operation of the Sindhis, the Mohajirs, the Balochs and the Shias of Pakistan in the search for him.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )