By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 12/9/2009 8:16:53 AM ET 2009-12-09T13:16:53

“We don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we'd go and get him." – Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Dec. 6.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, has evaded capture by the United States for more than a decade. And although his public utterances are few, his capture or death remains a top U.S. priority.

On Tuesday, General Stanley McChrystal acknowledged as much. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that while he doesn’t think it would help defeat al-Qaida if bin Laden were captured or killed, he doesn’t believe the United States can defeat the terrorist organization until he is captured or killed.

Over the past few years, there have been reports of sightings in locations in Pakistan as widespread as Chitral in the north to South Waziristan, a swath of territory equivalent in size to New England and Mid-Atlantic states.

Here’s what we know, based on information from U.S. intelligence sources.

  • Bin Laden is believed to stay in one location for months, moving only when security requires. He is believed to stay not in caves but in the large-walled compounds typical of the region, the guest of friendly natives.  Typical of an event that would cause him to move: the capture or killing of a high-ranking al-Qaida figure, like the organization’s director of international operations.  There were reports in mid-2005 that the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libi in May 2005 caused him to move from a location where he had long stayed.
  • Bin Laden is suspected of receiving some financial support from members of his large Saudi family. He has 53 siblings. 
  • It is known that other al-Qaida leaders have chosen locations near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  In early 2005, for example, the CIA believed it had found the “winter headquarters” of al-Qaida in Pakistan’s Bajaur province.  The location, again a walled compound, was eight kilometers from the border with access across the border via six mountain passes. Al-Qaida operatives were accompanied by their families. However, bin Laden was NOT at the headquarters, nor was Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No. 2. Surveillance of the camp led to the capture a few months later of Abu Faraj al Libni, the Libyan who is suspected of being al-Qaida’s operations chief.
  • Bin Laden is not accompanied by a large security contingent but instead by a small group of loyalists.  In addition to Arabs, the security contingent consists of Chechens and Uzbeks who would fight to the death and who reportedly have orders to kill the al-Qaida leader if the situation appears dire. There have also been reports that his security contingent has intermarried with local tribes to ensure a tighter familial bond.
  • When traveling, bin Laden reportedly uses the lowest profile transportation: mopeds or even donkeys.  The size of the traveling party varies.  Sometimes, the group is large, other times, small, again to keep security forces guessing.
  • Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri haven’t traveled together since mid-2003 because of security concerns.  They communicate via courier networks.  Each high-ranking al-Qaida official has his own separate network.  Thus if one is taken down, the others do not have to fear their own network has been compromised.  The United States has not targeted al-Zawahiri in a Predator attack since February 2006, when they missed him by about a half hour. 
  • The last bin Laden video surfaced in September 2007, and that was the first since October 2004.  In both, bin Laden appeared to be wearing the same clothing and set against the same background. Some experts believe the two were actually taped back in 2004 in separate tapings. One proponent of a single taping noted that those sections of the message that could be dated to 2007 were delivered over a still, not moving video. 
  • There are many myths surrounding bin Laden’s health.  He has not, contrary to popular belief, ever undergone kidney dialysis, but instead was treated for kidney stones back in 1998.  It is unknown whether he still suffers from that condition.  He does suffer from an enlarged heart and chronically low blood pressure, which is treated through medicine.  He is also missing two toes from a war wound in Afghanistan.  He was, according to credible reports, wounded at Tora Bora in December 2001. 
  • There is some speculation among the diplomatic community in Islamabad that Bin Laden may no longer be in the border areas.  One likely location, according to Western diplomats, would be Yemen.  U.S. officials, however, say they have no evidence that he has left the border area and believe he is still there.
  • Bin Laden no longer has operational control of al-Qaida, but instead has delegated much of his authority to Zawahiri and whoever is the director of international operations. His role now is largely symbolic, with his video and audio messages now more commentary than calls to action.
  • Should he be killed, the United States is prepared to get samples of his DNA.  Saudi Arabia has long held matching samples at the Ministry of Interior’s forensic lab in Riyadh to help with verification.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News' Nightly News with Brian Williams.

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