LONDON, U.K. — "They seek him here, they seek him there ... the drones they bomb from everywhere. Is he in Ghazni? Or in Baden-Baden? That damned elusive Osama bin Laden."
Once again the whereabouts of that modern Pimpernel, Osama, are in the news. You may have missed it but at a press conference in London late last week Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said Osama bin Laden was not in his country any longer. That might have been dismissed as an example of, "He would say that wouldn't he?" rhetoric aimed at a Pakistani audience, but then on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged on ABC's "This Week" that, "We don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is." He added: "It's been years since we had good intelligence" about the Al Qaeda leader's whereabouts.
Don't pass too quickly over Gates' honest comment. Think about it for a few minutes. Let it raise a few questions for you. It certainly did raise some for me.
The latest bout of Osama speculation follows a sequence of events that raises conspiracy alarms. First, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, needing to justify increasing Britain's troop presence in Afghanistan to his voters, demands the Pakistani government do more to apprehend bin Laden. Then, Brown and Gilani face the press in London and the Pakistani prime minister makes his assertion that Osama is not in Pakistan. The next day the BBC's Orla Guerin reports from Islamabad that a member of the Taliban, detained in Pakistan, has told his interrogators that a contact he trusts claims to have seen the Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan early this year. That's what led to the question for Secretary Gates.
So here's my first question: Is this just an example of public diplomacy? Gordon Brown playing to his electors and Gilani playing to his with some help from a convenient leak to a BBC reporter to emphasize his point.
Here's my second question: Whatever the reason for the latest round of where's Osama, how is it possible that eight years after 9/11, with billions of dollars spent using the most sophisticated spying equipment in the world, not to mention drones and special forces scouring his likely hiding places, does nobody have the remotest idea of how to find him?
Some quick calls around London think tanks to those who study and advise on Pakistan and Al Qaeda reveal that the people most in the know don't really know much. Farzana Sheikh of Chatham House is certain Gilani believes what he says, he is not making something up, his assertion that Osama is gone is based on the best information he has. Gareth Price, also of Chatham House, says no one knows where bin Laden is or even if he is alive. The best educated guess is he is in Pashtun territory, living under the code of protection — pashtunwali — that is the bedrock of their tribal culture.
No one I spoke to was able to say with any degree of certainty whether the man was even alive. Now the questions grow deeper and more speculative.
Why should Osama only be in the AfPak area? Might he be in another part of Pakistan? Say, Baluchistan, where reporters are barred from traveling? Might he have made it to Karachi? Got on board a small boat and gone across the water to the Arabian Peninsula where he is hiding among kinsman on the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border?
Is the failure to find him due to his remarkable skill at eluding capture? Or, is he allowed to stay on the loose because limbo is the place where all the governments concerned prefer him to remain?
For example, would America or Pakistan actually want to capture him and put him on trial? Consider the security risk — particularly to the latter — of putting Osama in a courtroom. As for the U.S., just look at the screaming and hollering that has gone on over holding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City and shutting Guantanamo and moving prisoners onto American soil. You would have to multiply that by a factor of at least a thousand to gauge what the public reaction would be to putting bin Laden on trial in an American court.
Do any of the countries pursuing the man want to kill him? Yes, of course. But do they want to own his execution and provide pictorial proof of death, thus giving an image to the world that would replace Che Guevara on a billion T-shirts, not to mention painting a target on themselves for the rest of the century?
These are very difficult questions to answer. So limbo may well be the place Osama must reside for the rest of his life and we may all spend years wondering where that elusive Desert Pimpernel ended up.