TIME: Is the U.S. closer to knowing if Bin Laden is dead or alive?

Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
Is the U.S. Hotter on Bin Laden's Trail?
By Tim McGirk / Rawalpindi

Are the U.S. and Pakistan one step closer to hunting down Osama bin Laden? The recent capture of the Taliban's military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as he was leaving a seminary in the Pakistani seaport of Karachi may have given investigators several leads in tracking down the the fugitive al-Qaeda chief.

U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, in Islamabad for talks on Thursday with Pakistani generals and President Asif Zardari, lauded the arrest of the Taliban commander as "a tremendous achievement for Pakistani intelligence and American collaboration." As the Taliban's second in command — after spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, also in hiding — and its top war strategist, Barardar has first-hand knowledge about links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda's operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, if he is willing to share his secrets with his Pakistani and CIA interrogators. And Washington says he is. Unidentified U.S. officials quoted by the New York Times, which broke the news of Baradar's arrest, say he is providing "a wealth of information." (See pictures of Osama Bin Laden.)

On Thursday, possibly acting on information provided to those interrogators by Baradar, security forces arrested three suspected top al-Qaeda militants, who, according to Pakistani intelligence sources quoted in the local press, were in Karachi on a shopping trip for washing machine timers and other parts for triggering bombs. Most important among the trio of suspects was Ameer Mauawia, described by Pakistani intelligence officers as the commander of al-Qaeda's foreign fighters inside the Pakistani tribal lands along the Afghan border. Mauawia is said to be a trusted and long time ally of bin Laden's, whom he allegedly followed when he fled from Sudan in May 1996 to Afghanistan to set up his terrorist training camps.

The Pakistanis were anxious to catch Mauawia for other reasons, too. Pakistani intelligence officials told the local press that Mauawia was chief of operations for the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, which looks upon Islamabad to be as great an enemy as the NATO troops in Afghanistan and has staged dozens of suicide bombings in major Pakistani cities and towns, killing hundreds. Pakistani security forces also arrested two senior Taliban commanders in charge of operations in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan. The Kunduz commander, Mullah Abdul Salam, was captured far from the Afghan border, in the central Punjabi town of Faisalabad. And, according to Pakistani intelligence and tribal leaders, on Thursday a missile fired by a U.S. Drone at a vehicle inside Pakistan's tribal territory killed Muhammad Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, a pro-Taliban commander who masterminded a suicide bombing inside a U.S. base in December that killed seven CIA agents.(See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable North-West Frontier Province.)

If al-Qaeda's Mauawia is all he is cracked up to be, his interrogation might allow bin Laden's trackers to resume their hunt on a trail long gone cold. Every few months, an audio tape purported to be from bin Laden is released; the latest on Jan. 10 praised the failed Nigerian "underwear bomber" and ranted on about global warming.

Bin Laden's last confirmed presence was at the siege of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, in Dec. 2001 when the al-Qaeda chief and dozens of his men bribed Afghan mercenaries hired by U.S. special forces to let them escape, probably into the Pakistani mountains directly across the border. A Pakistani intelligence officer who was the main liaison with the Taliban before 9/11 tells TIME that he informed then President Pervez Musharraf that most likely bin Laden, said to be gravely ill, died several weeks after Tora Bora and was buried in a hastily dug, unmarked grave in the Ghazni desert of eastern Afghanistan. "He was too sick to walk on his own two legs or even ride a horse. His men had to tie him to a donkey," says Brigadier Amir Sultan Tarar, better known to his Taliban confederates by his nom de guerre, "Col. Imam".

But a retired officer from the Pakistani spy agency, Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.), isn't so sure. "I personally haven't met anyone who buried Osama," he said in an interview with TIME at his home in Rawalpindi. "It's possible that he found his way to an urban area where he could have received treatment [bin Laden was said to be suffering from a kidney ailment]. But after word that he was crossing the Ghazni desert, we never heard from him again. But if he is alive, I wish him long life." (See pictures of a jihadist's journey.)

Since then, of course, a steady stream of voice recordings purportedly from bin Laden have surfaced, but very few videos. The last was in Sept. 2007, and showed him looking much the same as before 9/11, perhaps a bit gaunter and his beard whiter. The recordings could have been faked to inspire Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, but one jihadi source in Islamabad tells TIME says he had heard from a trusted but second-hand source that bin Laden was alive as recently as two years ago. "Since then," he says, "Nothing."

U.S. counter-terrorism experts insist that even if bin Laden is alive, he is probably too deep into hiding to be anything other than a symbolic figurehead for al-Qaeda and the many jihadi groups it has spawned globally. Day-to-day running of the operation is said to be handled by his Number 2, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was nearly killed in a Drone attack in the Pakistani tribal territory several years back. Nevertheless, the capture of top Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders in Karachi may help solve the mystery: Is bin Laden still alive, and if so, where is he hiding?