Where is Osama bin Laden?

Anton La Guardia, diplomatic editor of the London Daily Telegraph, examines what we know about the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The short answer, apparently, is “Not much.”

What’s become of bin Laden since he gave us all the slip?

Some think he is dead, others that he is hiding because he is scared of being killed.

Whatever the reason for the strange disappearance of Osama bin Laden, not seen alive since his last mocking video statement a year ago, he is no longer the face of the global “jihad” against the West. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Iraq, has become the hero of the hour on militant Islamist websites. Western intelligence sources believe that he now receives most of the donations and recruits for the “jihad” against America and its allies. And they fear that he is already planning to expand his attacks to the Arab world and Europe. “Zarqawi is the world’s number one terrorist. There is every indication that he thinks he has outgrown Iraq,” said one western source familiar with intelligence reports. “It is bound to happen sooner or later.”

And while bin Laden performs his vanishing act, his “deputy”, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also performs ever more frequently as al-Qa’eda’s chief television propagandist. The Egyptian doctor, regarded by many as the real ideological force of al-Qa’eda, has made at least six video and audio broadcasts this year – discussing everything from Iraq’s elections, the London bombings and, most recently, the Kashmir earthquake.

This has puzzled the professional al-Qa’eda watchers. “There are three main theories,” said one western security source. “Perhaps bin Laden is acting as president, who only speaks on big ‘state’ occasions, while Zawahiri is the prime minister who deals with day-to-day business. “Perhaps bin Laden is alive, but too ill to show on television without demoralising his supporters. “Or perhaps he is dead. But this is unlikely – if he had died we would have heard about it.”

Bin Laden was last seen alive in a video recording addressed to the American people ahead of last November’s presidential election. Then he taunted President George W Bush, saying: “It was easy for us to provoke this administration and pour it into perdition.” He also boasted of “the success of our plan to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy”.


Whether or not bin Laden is dead, his network has been permanently changed. “There is no al-Qa’eda,” argues one western security source. “It is now an ideology rather than an organisation.” By this analysis, members of the old Afghan-based “core” of leaders around bin Laden and Zawahiri have been killed, captured or scattered to the point where they find it difficult to mount a major attack on the West. Instead they focus on spreading the ideology that inspires others to carry out attacks from Bali to Baghdad. “Think of it as a McDonald’s franchise,” said the security source. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri own the copyright to the golden arches, but Zarqawi is the one selling the hamburgers – and very successfully.”


Denied a physical base in Afghanistan, al-Qa’eda now uses the internet as a virtual base from which to proselytise and provide training. The problem for western counter-terrorist officials is that regardless of what happens to bin Laden, Zawahiri or Zarqawi, it may now be impossible to eradicate their ideology. “The virus of al-Qa’eda is already out there in the population,” said one security source. Or, as bin Laden once put it:”This will be nothing to do with the poor slave bin Laden, whether dead or alive. With God’s grace, the awakening has begun.”

Of course, al Qaeda was always more an ideology than an organization. Bin Laden’s chief contribution was redirecting dozens of disparate Islamist terrorist groups’ efforts toward a common target, the United States, rather than against the domestic leaders of their own countries.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Nice, T-bird.

    One possibility is that making videos, or even audiotapes, is dangerous for the clues it might yield to CIA et al., as well as for any travel that doing so might provide (tho with the camcorder, this latter’s probably no biggie).

    I would like to think we had that much pressure on him.

  2. ken says:

    The thing about all conservatives is that they are just too stupid to know that books have to be balanced. If the government will not balance the books, the market will do it for them.

    Reckless deficit spending, beginning with Reagan, has been the central element in any conservative fiscal policy ever implemented. Under conservative misleadership my country has gone from the largest creditor nation in the world the largest debtor nation in the world.

    People like Steve are ok with that as long as they get to pass the costs along to their, and my children. But the problem is that America may end up as unable to pay it off as the conservatives are unwilling to.

    The whole lot of you are immoral.

  3. McGehee says:

    Maybe so, Ken — but at least we post our comments in the right thread.