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FAQ: Osama bin Laden

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No one knows for sure. Over the years, the United States has followed leads putting bin Laden in a wide variety of places in the Islamic world, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to Iran. The best intelligence now is that he is in Pakistan, in the northwest agency of Waziristan or Bajaur. [deleted] There have been other reports that he is living in another agency, Mohmand.

The last apparent evidence on his whereabouts was at the Afghan border with Pakistan in December 2001, when a voice believed to be his was overheard in Tora Bora. However, U.S. officials now admit that they are not sure it was bin Laden’s voice since the intercept was not recorded and thus could not be analyzed. In September 2000, a Predator drone captured the only known real-time evidence of his whereabouts, near his compound, Tarnak Farms, in Afghanistan. Most of the current intelligence on his location comes from interrogations of his former associates and intercepts of people talking about him. There have been times both before and after 9/11 where the U.S. learned he had been at a location shortly after he had departed, the most famous being the August 1998 cruise missile attacks on his training camps in Afghanistan. Some U.S. officials believe he was tipped off about the impending attack.

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Before Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence had gotten a better grasp on how he operated and from where. But since then, his whereabouts haven’t been pinpointed. By late 2002, when an audio tape proved he had survived the Afghan campaign, U.S. agents concluded that bin Laden was hiding in a locale where he doesn’t move around much. Normally, he will move only when there is a security threat. Photo reconnaissance has not captured any “signatures” showing regular movement by guards or vehicles that might belong to bin Laden. While an estimated 1,100 CIA analysts and covert operatives staff the terrorism hunt, operating out of Virginia, there are about 50 special officers who focus solely on the terrorist leader.

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During his time in Afghanistan, bin Laden regularly varied the details of his movements, including the number of vehicles in his convoys as well as the type of vehicle. On some travels, he gave his entourage hours’ notice of his departure. At other times, he left at a moment’s notice. Post-9/11, far less is known. U.S. experts believe only a hard core of no more than 20 dedicated guards, some of them relatives,  knows of his presence, and they are pledged to die rather than give him up. His current movements are limited with only small groups of people accompanying him, and using the most basic means of transportation, including motorbikes and donkeys.

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U.S. officials say that he is no longer in charge of day-to-day operations for the organization, which they now refer to as al-Qaida Central or Core al-Qaida. While he has some contact with his No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, they have not traveled together for security purposes since mid-2003. Zawahiri by most accounts runs the organization, provides the intellectual heft for its Islamic underpinnings and has final say over attack plans. Bin Laden retains supreme, if symbolic, leadership. In spite of this, killing him—and not capture — remains a high U.S. priority. Some U.S. intelligence officials and special forces are not optimistic the U.S. will succeed in those plans.

Moreover, the organization he founded continues to morph. It no longer needs him to operate as the U.S. war on al-Qaida has forced the organization into a different role: as an inspirational force for the world’s Sunni extremists in particular, as a resource in terms of money and training, as a recognizable “brand” for jihad against the West.

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His biggest problem remains communications, which the United States has successfully compromised during his time in Afghanistan. For a time, he used satellite phones, but that ended after a leak revealed that the U.S. was listening in. More simple methods followed, primarily based on couriers. Bin Laden’s couriers often carry encrypted floppy disks or thumb drives and meet in third countries. Once in the hands of the target nation’s cell, the disk is de-encrypted. Or the couriers carry spoken messages, using code words they don’t understand, but ones the recipients know. He has also used faxes from remote locations and in some cases, Internet-based e-mail. Among the other means al-Qaida has used are phone cards, postings on Internet bulletin boards, leaving messages in chat rooms, including sports chat rooms, and hiding messages in audio and picture files, using stenography software, which fills the “empty spaces” in those files with coded messages. In addition to encryption, al-Qaida has used various code words and aliases to disguise identities. Bin Laden has been described in al-Qaida communications as “the Sheikh,” “Hajj,” “Abu Abdullah” and “the Director.” Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, mastermind of the embassy bombings, used at least three aliases. Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center, used 15, as well as 11 passports. One law enforcement source said al-Qaida has been trying to recruit Americans as couriers, knowing an American passport is easier to use worldwide. Most recently, he has used Internet video to broadcast his messages and those of his second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri. The process is quite routine. Once a video is completed and in the hands of the trusted posters, an alert, complete with flashing graphics, is put up on key Web sites announcing the impending release of new video. Al-Qaida has been able to shorten the time lag between recording the message and posting it, going from a week to two weeks after 9/11 to a few days now.

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Al-Qaida is expert at using the tools of the global economy to attack his enemies. As Timothy Thomas of the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has written, “We can say with some certainty, al-Qaida loves the Internet.” Thomas has identified several ways in which al-Qaida has used the Internet in the past, including for recruitment, communication, fund-raising, command-and-control and targeting. He also identified several websites where al-Qaida has posted messages or news for its members to pick up, among them:,,,,,,,,, and 

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How is bin Laden’s terror network structured?Bin Laden is the undisputed leader, called “emir” or “prince” by his followers, who must take a sworn oath to him, violation of which is punishable by death. Beneath him is the “shura al-majlis” or “consultative council,” which includes his top lieutenants. His top aide is an Egyptian: Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician and leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad -- believed responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and the attempted assassination of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, in 1995 A former top military aide, Saif Al-Adel [delete] is now believed to be living in Iran. Iranian officials say he is “in jail,” along with several dozen others. U.S. officials say there is an ethnic hierarchy within al-Qaida with Saudis and Egyptians at the top, followed by Pakistanis, Chechens and Uzbeks. At the bottom are North Africans, although recently, the United States has seen a greater reliance on Tunisians.

A “fatwa” committee of the council makes the decisions to carry out terrorist attacks and issue religious orders. In one, for example, the committee approved the killing of Muslims and children in attacks, noting that they would enter paradise as innocents while the infidels would go to hell.

More recently, al-Qaida has morphed from a hierarchical organization to a more decentralized entity, with groups like al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, becoming affiliates of the group. Although leaders operate independently, they have sworn “bayat” to bin Laden. Although this is a simplified description of a complex relationship, it apparently is becoming the model.

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Al-Qaida is believed to have had operations in 60 countries, active cells in 20, including the United States. Among the countries or regions identified as having active cells of al-Qaida are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Chechnya, Philippines, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Southeast Asia nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as well as several European countries.

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Its operations are meticulous, with some plans in the works for months if not years. They are also clever, and bin Laden himself having been very much hands-on in the past. Little is known of his current role although it is believed that he or Zawahiri must sign off on all attacks against the United States and United Kingdom and there is evidence some attacks by affiliated groups have been called off against those two countries when the leadership thought it could interfere with more grandiose plans.

Some examples before the 9/11 attacks:

  • The 1993 World Trade Center bombers cased the Twin Towers multiple times, looking not just at security but the points under the trade center where an explosion could do the most damage.
  • The East Africa embassy bombers phoned in credible threats to the embassy and then observed the embassy response.
  • The 1995 assassination attempt of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was based on surveillance of Mubarak’s security arrangements in Ethiopia two years earlier. Similarly, bin Laden operatives videotaped security arrangements at President Clinton’s 1994 visit to Manila, knowing he had already committed to visiting the Philippine capital for an Asian-Pacific summit two years later. The tapes were sent to bin Laden, then living in Sudan.

“He may have begun as a venture capitalist for terrorism,” said one high-ranking intelligence officer of his evolution as a terrorist. “But there is no doubt now that he is operating like a CEO.”

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How long is an operation in the planning stages?
The minimum appears to be four to six months, with some plans evolving over years. The surveillance of the East Africa embassy bombings began in 1993, five years before the bombing was carried out. The 9/11 attacks took two to four years to plan and carry out. The first plan was brought to bin Laden by Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the late 1990s, then reshaped by bin Laden. Final preparations began a full two years before 9/11.

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Historically, each major operation has had a planning cell and an execution cell, with the execution cell arriving on the scene in some cases only weeks before the attack is carried out. In the case of 9/11, the execution cell, often called the “muscle” of the operation, was unaware of the final plan until the morning of the attacks.

In many cases, like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the embassy bombings, an outsider recruited local country nationals to operate as a cell. Cells rarely number more than 10 people. In rare cases are the bombers — either the planners or the operators — older than 30. At the time of the two bombings, the masterminds were both 25. Mohammed Atta, leader of the 9/11 attacks, was 33.

Plans are made in one location, and then the bomb is made in another. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the planning took place in a Jersey City, N.J., apartment, the materials were stored in a self-storage facility and the bomb was put together in a garage. Similarly in Nairobi, the planning was done at a run-down hotel in downtown, while the bomb was put together in a suburban villa.

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“Terrorism is not an expensive sport,” said one senior Treasury Department official who tracks terrorists’ money. Indeed, the 9/11 attacks, the most devastating terrorist strikes ever, cost only $500,000 at most. Most terrorist attacks are cheap, according to officials. Killing in large numbers and in spectacular fashion does not need to be expensive.

U.S. officials, after culling records and talking to participants, now believe that al-Qaida never spends lavishly on its attacks. The October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen cost a mere $5,000 to $10,000 but still made international headlines. The Bali bombing in 2002 cost more — about $74,000, according to U.S. estimates, paid for out of a $130,000 transfer from al-Qaida to Jemiah al-Islamiyah, the Indonesian terror group. Bali, being a resort area, is a much more expensive place to operate than Aden, the poorest spot on the Arabian Peninsula.

But even in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, terrorism can be carried out on a shoestring. An analysis of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing showed the total cost was around $18,000, including the purchase of equipment, rental of the van used in the bombing, purchase of a car, rental of two apartments, a garage and the self-storage space as well as plane tickets. Not included in the cost: $6,000 in unpaid phone bills.

Although at the time of the East Africa embassy bombings, the CIA and others pegged bin Laden’s wealth at $300 million, subsequent intelligence gathering has resulted in a significant reduction of the estimate. Moreover, the U.S. Treasury now estimates that financial sanctions and other restrictions have reduced the annual budget of al-Qaida from $35 million to between $5 million and $10 million, still enough to mount major terrorist attacks.

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Does he focus on one target at a time or simultaneously plan various attacks?
“He is planning several hits, and at some point he’s going to break through,” one U.S. intelligence official said. The United States believes the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were to be accompanied by other, near-simultaneous bombings in other world capitals. One in Tirana, Albania, was foiled days before it took place, so a series of coordinated attacks is well within their operational capabilities.

U.S. intelligence strongly believed, based on their history, that al-Qaida leaders were working on a second wave of attacks at the same time the 9/11 attacks were carried out. Indeed, interrogations proved they were correct, but the speed with which the U.S. took down the al-Qaida safe haven in Afghanistan hampered their planning.

In a November 2002 audio recording, bin Laden warned of “spectacular” attacks against America and its allies. Officials said at the time they believed some of these attacks might already have been in the planning stages. Similarly in May 2004, the US had intelligence that al-Qaida was planning attacks against the U.S. at the time of the presidential elections in November.

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How important is operational security to al-Qaida?
U.S. officials say they have seen repeated instances where if operatives encounter something unexpected, they will “go back to square one” out of fear that operational security has been breached. There is little autonomy, little spontaneity in operational matters and changes in plans must be approved at higher levels. The cell leader on the scene can call off an operation without consulting anyone higher, said a senior intelligence official. “They have one idea ... alter it for them, then they go back to the drawing board,” one official said. “They are not agile. They have to reload, and that takes months ... about four to six months.”

In fact, the 9/11 Commission Report notes that the two surviving operational planners of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, told their interrogators that if they had known of the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001, they would probably have called off the attacks on New York and Washington.

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Several planned attacks and plots have been foiled by intelligence agencies of various countries working in close cooperation with one another. More importantly, more than two-thirds of al-Qaida’s top leadership at the time of the 9/11 attacks has been captured or killed. Those captured include Abu Zubaydah, who was responsible for training and recruiting operatives; Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind and most recent military commander; Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, organizer of the Hamburg cell which executed the 9/11 attacks, and Hambali, director of Southeast Asian operations and financier of the Bali attack. In addition, Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s top military commander, was killed.

In more recent years, the U.S. has made the al-Qaida director of international planning—the organization’s No. 3 official—the particular target of operations. Abu Faraj al-Libi was captured in Pakistan in May 2005. Not long after, his successor, Hamza Rabia, was killed in a Predator attack and most recently, Abdul al-Hadi al Iraqi, was also captured.

Officials say taking down these operatives as quickly as they are named is a high priority because the U.S. has learned that rather than relying on their successors’ contacts, couriers, communications methods, etc., the new leader will develop his own. The U.S. also believes that whoever succeeds the dead or captured leader will not be as effective.

Without providing details, CIA Director George Tenet publicly testified that the CIA has disrupted “several” terrorist attacks against Americans. U.S. officials confirm those disruptions have involved planned attacks by bin Laden.

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Officials from intelligence, military, emergency management and national security agencies say bin Laden is branching out: planning assassinations using “contact poisons,” obtaining “rudimentary” chemical and biological materials, trying to acquire radioactive material.

Bin Laden also may be returning to an old strategy: assassination. One Pentagon official involved in tracking bin Laden says the man officials call “the terrorist prince” has been obtaining “contact poisons ... KGB-like pellets” that would be used in assassinations and in some cases are difficult or impossible to detect in an autopsy. The official noted that in the early 1990s bin Laden and his al-Qaida network were involved in assassination attempts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Jordanian Crown Prince — now King — Abdullah as well as planning to kill Pope John Paul and former President Clinton.

He added that public U.S. intelligence reports on bin Laden’s training camps have noted the network has instructed terrorists in assassination and kidnapping.
The contact poisons are among “rudimentary chemical and biological stuff” bin Laden has obtained. However, one official said the network’s efforts to obtain such materials are “scattershot and unfocused ... all over the board” without a pattern to indicate what he might be planning.

“He is looking for all sorts of stuff,” adding that twice bin Laden operatives tried to obtain nuclear materials. Bin Laden’s German operation was the victim of a sting operation in 1993 when it tried to buy highly enriched uranium on the Soviet black market. A year later, another similar attempt failed. The bin Laden operatives in charge of those attempts, Mamdouh Salim and Ramzi Yousef, are in U.S. custody. Moreover, Russian intelligence has told the United States that it believes bin Laden has been working with Chechen rebels to obtain radioactive material for a “radiological dispersal device” or “dirty bomb” that would spray the potentially deadly material over a small area. An official involved in planning emergency response to a terrorist attack says the United States has taken the intelligence seriously.

However, officials cautioned that there is “no sense of a technical sophistication” in bin Laden’s camp and that “this stuff is much more difficult to use than people think.”

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Before Sept. 11, 2001, plans to do just that had been discussed by the Clinton and Bush administrations. “We are serious about going after him,” said one senior Bush administration official. Twice, President Clinton discussed going after him, but at the time the intelligence was not perfect and both Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA Director George Tenet advised against it.

Moreover, Attorney General Janet Reno reportedly told Tenet that while killing Bin Laden as part of a capture operation was permissible, killing him as part of an assassination attempt was not.

The Sept. 7, 2000, Predator sighting would have been an ideal time to strike, but the Predators were unarmed at the time

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How is his health?
A senior counter-terrorism official said there is some CIA analysis that he is “a hypochondriac ... but then he has chosen a stressful lifestyle and that can manifest itself in strange ways ...”

Nevertheless, he is known to have an enlarged heart, chronically low blood pressure, kidney stones, and is missing toes on one foot from a battle wound suffered in Afghanistan. He is regularly attended by a physician.

Since Sept. 11, reports emerged that he was dependent on kidney dialysis. But the most recent analysis is that while he has kidney stones, he has never had dialysis.

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Is there any indication he works with governments in the Middle East?
Aside from Afghanistan, where bin Laden had long-standing ties — including some possible family ties — with the then-ruling Taliban, there are indications bin Laden has some contacts with both the governments of Iran and Pakistan.

The connections with Iran were described in Justice Department papers filed in the embassy bombing case. The United States alleges that on two different occasions in the early 1990s, a senior religious leader from Iran met with bin Laden’s representatives in Khartoum to discuss putting aside religious differences — bin Laden is a Wahabi Muslim, Iran is Shiite — and cooperating against Western interests. However, there is no information to suggest any joint operations were ever planned or carried out.

The link with Pakistan is more current. One issue that distresses U.S. officials is intelligence that bin Laden, Kashmiri Muslim rebels in India and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, its quasi-autonomous military intelligence agency, are involved in “monkey business” together. The United States used the ISI in the 1980s to fund, train and arm the Afghan mujahedin, including bin Laden, in its fight against the Soviet Red Army.

Calling it a “stew,” a “crazy soup” and a “cozy relationship,” two officials noted that the key to the relationship is Pakistan’s use of rebel insurgents in Kashmir, the troubled region that has been the subject of three wars between Pakistan and India. Muslim fighters, financed by the ISI but trained by bin Laden, have been operating in the Indian part of Kashmir.

“The Pakistanis have interest in working with people who can help them in Kashmir. Bin Laden has an interest in helping Muslim fighters. It is a cozy relationship.”

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Why did bin Laden declare a “fatwa,” or religious decree, against the United States?
U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden began to turn against the United States in the mid-1980s — a time when mujaheddin still accepted aid and training from the CIA, which was then helping bin Laden and other Islamic groups fight the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. The CIA funneled its aid through the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, to various cells in Afghanistan, one of them known as the MAK. In 1984, bin Laden broke with the MAK and formed a separate, more radical splinter group that espoused a harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam that was dedicated to the liberation of Islamic nations from any foreign influences. Particularly infuriating to him was America’s cozy relationship with the Saudi Royal family since the Gulf War. But bin Laden’s first public “fatwa” came only after the Gulf War. Specifically, he railed against the presence of American and European troops on the soil of the Arabian Peninsula, site of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. Since then, U.S. intelligence officials say, bin Laden has been behind an unprecedented campaign of attacks on U.S., European, Israeli, Russian and other interests around the planet. In 1998, he broadened his “fatwa” to specifically include civilian targets.

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What are the vital facts about Osama bin Laden?Born: July 30, 1957, the 17th of 20 sons of a now deceased Saudi construction magnate of Yemeni origin.
Background: Bin Laden gained prominence during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. In 1989, when the war ended, he returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business, the Bin Laden Construction Group, but his radical Islamic contacts caused friction with Saudi authorities. As a result of his opposition to the ruling Al Saud family, Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship in 1994 and his family disavowed him, though some of his brothers have reportedly maintained contact. In 1996, under strong U.S. and Egyptian pressure, Sudan expelled him and he returned to Afghanistan, where he lived under the protection of the Taliban. On June 7, 1999, bin Laden was place on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and a $5 million reward was offered for his capture. The reward was increased to $25 million after the 9/11 attacks.
Education: Bin Laden received a degree in public administration in 1981 from King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has visited countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.
Leadership structure: Bin Laden is the undisputed leader, called “emir” or “prince” by his followers, who must take a sworn oath to him. Violating the oath is punishable by death. Beneath him is the “shura al-majlis,” or “consultative council,” which includes his top lieutenants.
International reach: Al-Qaida cells have been identified in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Sudan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, the United Kingdom, Canada and allegedly inside the United States.
Fatwa: Issued by bin Laden on Feb. 23, 1998, against all U.S. civilians and military:
“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca, Saudi Arabia,) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

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