The last time the world heard from Osama bin Laden, there was reason to believe his end was near. In a videotape released in December, bin Laden looked sallow; his speech was slow, and his left arm immobile. (The Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi reported last month that bin Laden was nursing a shrapnel wound when he made the tape.) The U.S intercepted chatter in the Tora Bora mountains between bin Laden and his forces that seemed to give up his location. Pakistani forces bottled up the border while American warplanes pounded the caves of eastern Afghanistan and special-ops troops positioned themselves for the big grab. "He doesn't have a lot of good options," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
But he still had a few. Six months after hailing bin Laden's imminent capture or death, Pentagon officials now admit that the al-Qaeda leader "has gone missing" since the siege of Tora Bora. Missing, of course, could mean dead, and a small minority of officials in the Pentagon, CIA and FBI believe that bin Laden's public silence since the December tape suggests he has succumbed if not to U.S. air strikes, then possibly to kidney failure. But the fact is, Washington just doesn't know. "The proof that he's alive is, we don't hear anything from Osama bin Laden," says Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official. "The proof that he's dead is, we don't hear anything from Osama bin Laden."
The White House believes he still walks the earth. Administration officials tell TIME that U.S. intelligence officers are getting credible reports through secondhand sources from people who say they have talked to bin Laden recently. "The guy is alive," says a Bush aide. "He's just being really quiet. It's not in his interest to show where he really is. So he's just maintaining complete silence."
And it's getting louder. While public support for the war against al-Qaeda remains steadfast, frustration with the futility of the hunt for bin Laden, his top deputies and Taliban leader Mullah Omar is mounting among lawmakers, counterterrorism officials and military strategists. "Why haven't we found him?" says an official. "That's the question bouncing around inside." At the moment, the U.S. isn't anywhere close to answering it. A military official says the U.S. had as many as a dozen informed leads last fall about bin Laden's whereabouts, but the number has since dwindled "to the very low digits." The Administration has tried, with some success, to change the subject by ignoring him. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hasn't been publicly asked about bin Laden's whereabouts in more than two months ("He's alive or dead. He's in Afghanistan or somewhere else," Rumsfeld said in April), and White House aides say bin Laden's name rarely comes up in meetings. But that's not a good sign. "I think we've lost him," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "That's why you're not hearing much talk about the hunt because we're not succeeding."
Bringing bin Laden to justice has been a nonnegotiable U.S. war aim since Sept. 17, when President Bush declared that he wanted the al-Qaeda leader dead or alive. But with the trail growing cold, White House aides have lately offered a new definition of victory. "If he's unable to perpetrate terrorist attacks, we win," says one. That's not enough to quiet the private grumbles of dissent in both parties about the failure of the Pentagon and CIA to plink their top target. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero and Democratic presidential aspirant, is among those who argue that the Administration's fear of casualties and reliance on Afghan proxies allowed bin Laden and his henchmen to slip away. "The strategy of Tora Bora failed to target al-Qaeda in an appropriate way to do the job," he says. "Troops were literally held out of certain kinds of actions that might have made a difference." A Bush aide claims that the President "pays [bin Laden] no attention," but Bush has left little doubt he wants bin Laden erased by Sept. 11, 2002. A military official told TIME that U.S. commanders are discussing another major offensive to find bin Laden by the end of the summer.
Even with bin Laden at large, the U.S.-led effort to dismantle his global network is yielding some returns. Last week Saudi officials announced the arrest of 13 al-Qaeda operatives believed to be planning attacks on U.S. military installations. American officials acknowledged that Syria has detained Mohammed Heidar Zammar, a German national of Syrian origin believed to be a recruiter for the Hamburg cell that produced Mohamed Atta (see box). But the arrests of low-level operatives won't necessarily lead the U.S. closer to bin Laden. Some counterterrorism officials believe that al-Qaeda has no middle management, which helps ensure that vital information does not flow beyond bin Laden's closest lieutenants. "There may be a command element and the bombers," says a Pentagon official, "and nothing in between."