Thu, Sep 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Osama trail runs dry

Armies have been mobilized, phones tapped, huge rewards offered -- but Osama bin Laden is still at large. Does anyone have the faintest idea where he is?

By Declan Walsh  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

To find Osama bin Laden, try Peshawar's smugglers' bazaar on the road to the Khyber Pass. Walk past the small mountains of almonds, lemongrass and green tea. Turn at the stacks of TVs and cheap cosmetics. Stop at the stalls with the topless women.

Down a cramped alley, bearded shopkeepers squeezed behind tiny counters offer a fine selection of fanciful sex products. "Delay sprays" carry the promise of lingering pleasure. For the discerning lover there is Lovely Curves, a product that claims to be a "bust-developing cream."

If all else fails, there is plenty of knock-off Viagra at knock-down prices. Worry not about the quality: "Made is Germany" reads the label.

The merchandise hidden under the glass counters, however, caters to a different kind of customer. For a discreet inquiry and US$1.50, the smiling traders offer a wide selection of jihad DVDs. Slickly edited footage shows beheadings of alleged collaborators, bombs that flip US Humvees into the air and the last words of suicide bombers.

Then there are the images of the lanky Saudi tycoon's son with a bad back, a scraggly beard and a dead-fish glare.

"I've sold about 100 since Friday," says Abdul at one of the stalls, sifting through a stack of discs. "Some ask for [Afghan militant] Gulbuddin. Some ask for Taliban. Some ask for Osama."

The sheikh, the director, the emir, even "the Samaritan" -- bin Laden violently changed the course of our world in 2001, and then began his own audacious flight from justice. Six days after the Twin Towers folded into Manhattan, while dazed Americans fumbled for meaning, US President George W. Bush promised to lasso in the al-Qaeda leader, Texas style.

"There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said: `Wanted: dead or alive,'" he told a press conference at the Pentagon.

The order went down the line. Cofer Black, the CIA's counterterrorism chief, later told a subordinate: "I want bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice."

Yet five years on, a pokey video stand on the Pakistani frontier is about as close as anyone has got.

Rarely has so much brought so little. The US has spent billions on the search. It has mobilized armies, bribed informers, bullied allies, emptied bank accounts, tapped phones, abducted suspects and assassinated his henchmen. It has seriously damaged al-Qaeda's ability to carry out terrorist attacks. Yet still the scarlet pimpernel of jihad roams free.

The foolhardy words of the US general who promised a scalp by the end of 2004 have been quietly forgotten. Embarrassment has crumbled into recrimination. The Americans blame the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis blame the Afghans. The Afghans shrug their shoulders. Bush wanted to invade their country and catch bin Laden, they say. So why hasn't he?

Guessing the location of bin Laden's lair is the favored parlor game of South Asia, played out on the 2,400km Pakistan-Afghanistan border where the participants -- spies, soldiers and journalists -- believe he is hiding. It is a massive and daunting arena. Scraps of intelligence and educated guesswork slim the odds, but not much. Theories shift with the seasons. Three years ago, some put bin Laden in Pakistan's Waziristan, nested behind serried ranks of flinty pro-Taliban fighters. Last year it was Bajaur, a tribal agency further north, where a group of harried Arabs were spotted lugging supplies up a mountainside. This year's hot bet is closer to the Chinese border, in Chitral.

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