The Hunt for Osama, The Noose Tightens


The good news for Osama bin Laden is that he probably won't have to live in a cold, dank cave along the Afghan-Pakistani border for much longer. The bad news is that he'll most likely be staying at Hotel Gitmo, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

The day of reckoning appears near for the terrorist mastermind, as the recent capture of his top lieutenant, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed makes clear. At the time of Mohammed's capture, they found a treasure trove of cell phones, computers and date books that some expect could lead them to bin Laden in a matter of weeks if not days.

A meeting last week between Central Intelligence Agency director George J. Tenet and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf fueled speculation that bin Laden might have been captured already, which officials from both governments deny.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and military Special Forces will bring the al Qaeda leader to ground, in President Bush's words, "Dead or alive." While they stop short of putting a specific timeframe on his capture, it is well-known in Washington that the administration would like to see him brought to justice before the war in Iraq begins.

"This would be a feather in our cap, no question about it," said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject and the ongoing nature of the multinational manhunt. "There's a real buzz in the halls of the Pentagon these days, a feeling that anything is possible, that things have really turned our way."

With $25 million wanted posters fluttering in the breeze through the Khyber Pass and American forces working hand-in-hand with the Pakistani government, bin Laden's capture appears to be drawing near.

Within the CIA, a dedicated team of experts from the Counterterrorist Center and other agencies, has been engaged in a game of cat and mouse with bin Laden since 1996. The group, known as Alec Station, represents America's best hope for bringing the Qaeda leader down.

At least one representative of the Pakistani government sounded a note of caution. "We're not really sure where he is," said the official. "If narrowing it down to a few thousand square kilometers is close, then we're close."

"When do we catch him? Still not exactly clear," the senior defense official said. "But we'll get him. You can write that down, but don't use my name."

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