- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Osama bin Laden is dead, according to Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. This week he stunned the world with the exciting news that Pakistan’s intelligence services have “obviously” concluded that bin Laden “does not exist any more, that he is dead.”

Au contraire, says Pakistani Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. “Osama bin Laden is still alive and is directing the jihad against American and Western forces in Afghanistan,” he told the Saudi daily Al-Watan. But Mr. Haqqani admits he hasn’t seen bin Laden lately. “It has been a long time since I lost contact with al Qaeda’s leader,” he said, but he remains confident that bin Laden is “still alive and leading al-Qaeda combatants against foreign forces.”

We last heard from bin Laden on March 19 in his latest tape release, “Fight on, Champions of Somalia,” which received the usual heavy media attention. The hunt is still on by the U.S. intelligence community. CIA Director Leon E. Panetta says he asks “every day” where bin Laden is hiding, and presumably he keeps getting the same answer. “The Americans tell me they don’t know,” Mr. Zardari said, “and they are much more equipped than us to trace him.” Armed drones are flocking to remote Chitral in northwestern Pakistan, high in the Hindu Kush mountains, which intelligence reports indicate is the most probable hiding place.

Another suspect location is the picturesque town of Kalam, in the northernmost reaches of the Shariah-friendly Swat Valley. Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan recently rolled out the welcome mat to al Qaeda. “Osama can come here,” Mr. Khan said. “Sure, like a brother they can stay anywhere they want. Yes, we will help them and protect them.”

It is regrettable that bin Laden is still at large 7 1/2 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. So long as he lives, he is a symbol and inspiration to his co-religionists, the terrorists who got away with murdering thousands of Americans and bringing war to our shores. For many years, Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf kept the United States at arm’s length, stubbornly denying that bin Laden was in Pakistan and forbidding U.S. covert operations to settle the case. When Mr. Zardari took power late last summer, President George W. Bush authorized increased use of armed drones to track down and kill terrorist leaders inside Pakistan, and those operations have been remarkably effective.

Eleven of the top 20 terrorist targets have been taken out, prompting Pakistan to release a new Top 20 list. If he is alive, bin Laden cannot feel comfortable. But has he expired or not? “The question is whether he is alive or dead,” Mr. Zardari said, getting back to basics. “There is no trace of him. But there is no evidence, you cannot take that as a fact.” His bottom line? “We are between facts and fiction.” In other words, we are back where we started. The hunt continues.

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