The Biggest Fish of Them All

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The trail went cold sometime in December 2001, when Osama bin Laden slipped away from the caves and forests of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan into the wild White Mountains that stretch along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The precise date on which he left Tora Bora isn't known. Pakistani intelligence claims that he was gone as early as Dec. 8, when a bungled operation by American special-operations troops and their local allies to flush al-Qaeda leaders out of the mountains had only just begun. But one former Taliban fighter says bin Laden slipped away when the besieging forces were tricked into granting a cease-fire on Dec. 16. Whatever the truth, for 15 months his existence has been revealed to the outside world only by means of occasional audiotapes exhorting the faithful to continue the battle. Like Pancho Villa hiding from the forces of General John Pershing, or Che Guevara flitting through the jungles of South America, bin Laden is a man whose legend endures despite his invisibility.

George W. Bush must hate that legend. The President doesn't talk much these days about the man he once wanted captured "dead or alive." In fact, Bush hasn't mentioned bin Laden in a speech since February 2002 and has not spoken his name in public at all since last July. But snaring the al-Qaeda leader would be a huge coup for Bush, damaging the network of international Islamic extremists and proving that U.S. preparations for a possible war in Iraq have not compromised the fight against terrorism. With the capture on March 1 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chairman of al-Qaeda's operations committee who is thought to have masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hopes ran high that bin Laden—the most wanted man in the world—would be the next terrorist kingpin taken.

Dampening expectations, a senior Administration official counsels caution; the U.S., he says, is no closer to finding bin Laden after Mohammed's capture than it was before. But although sources give different shadings to the consequences of Mohammed's arrest and interrogation, it is plain that the raid in Rawalpindi has produced some leads. Pakistani and U.S. officials confirm to TIME that the trove of papers, computer records and other information taken with Mohammed included communications with bin Laden, possibly a pair of handwritten letters. Both Pakistani and U.S. sources tell TIME they are certain bin Laden is in Pakistan or just across the Afghan border. Some officials from both countries suggest he may be in the tribal areas in the north of Pakistan, in whose wild hills and deep ravines the writ of the central government has never run. But other leads seem to point elsewhere. U.S. warplanes last week dropped leaflets with pictures of bin Laden, offering a $25 million reward for his capture, on the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak, much farther south, and four U.S. intelligence agents carrying satellite phones and bags full of gear arrived at the nearby Pakistani town of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province. At the same time, persistent reports, denied by Administration officials, came in of a gunfight involving two of bin Laden's sons close to Ribat, a smuggler's crossing in the far west of Baluchistan where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran meet.

The reports of the fighting in the southwest were intriguing for two reasons. Pakistani intelligence believes that members of bin Laden's family are hiding somewhere in eastern Iran. Moreover, Pakistani sources tell TIME that on the second day of his interrogation in a safe house in suburban Islamabad last week, Mohammed said he had met bin Laden in December somewhere in the desolate stretches of western Baluchistan, a wasteland inhabited mainly by armed smugglers. But the Pakistanis aren't sure how much credence to give the tale. "We've got some good leads from Mohammed," says a senior Pakistani intelligence officer, "but we can't pin Osama down to one place yet."

Still, bin Laden may at least be on the run, hiding in remote villages, communicating—almost certainly—only by sending messages by couriers, never talking on a satellite or cell phone. Mohammed, up to the day he was caught, was an operational leader of al-Qaeda, using his many international contacts and four languages to keep the terror network alive. He had moved to Rawalpindi from a base in Quetta that was raided by local police and fbi agents on Feb. 13. Mohammed and another man escaped by leaping from roof to roof. A third man was detained; he turned out to be Mohammed Abdel Rahman, the son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric currently in a U.S. federal prison for plotting to blow up New York landmarks in 1995. After the son's arrest, the two missing men were traced to the house in Rawalpindi where Mohammed was eventually arrested. "We weren't sure we had the right man," said a Pakistani officer involved in the raid. "He wasn't at all like his photos; he seemed fat and droopy." But when Mohammed's fingerprints were checked eight hours later, the Pakistanis knew they had their prey. To the unconcealed delight of U.S. officials, the other captured man proved to be Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the alleged paymaster of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Mohammed was interrogated first by Pakistani authorities, who were anxious, says a source, that he might have been planning an assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf. A senior Pakistani intelligence officer denies that Mohammed was tortured. "We used temperature discomfort and sleep deprivation," says this officer, who claims that no more was needed. "Khalid was talking. He was cooperating. He wasn't defiant at all." A few days later, according to Pakistani sources, Mohammed was flown in a U.S. Chinook helicopter to the American air base at Bagram, Afghanistan, north of Kabul. U.S. sources will not confirm that Mohammed was taken to Bagram, but an Afghan general tells TIME that he saw Mohammed taken off the helicopter, hooded and manacled. He may or may not still be there. A Jordanian official has told TIME that at the end of last week, Mohammed was being held and questioned in Amman, Jordan. U.S. sources will not comment on the claim.

Wherever he is, Mohammed is a tremendous catch. The documents, files and cell phones taken from the house in Rawalpindi were flown to the U.S. and are being pored over at the cia's Counter-Terrorism Center in Virginia. The items seized have already yielded the names of at least a dozen men in the U.S who were known to be al-Qaeda associates and were under surveillance; other names are new to the authorities and are being checked out. So far, fbi officials say, there have been no electrifying breakthroughs, identifying previously unknown cells.

"There aren't any eye-openers," says an fbi official. But there's still a lot of material to absorb. Law-enforcement authorities are especially concerned that al-Qaeda may be planning attacks on national monuments in the U.S. and trying to disrupt the economy. New York authorities and the fbi have been paying particular attention to securing the bridges into New York City's Manhattan island, especially the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an icon and a vital economic artery. At the same time, officials are anxious to see if al-Hawsawi's files reveal detailed records of al-Qaeda's finances. It's Mohammed who may hold the greatest intelligence treasures. He may be the only man able to fill in the holes in the authorities' knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. (Why did the hijackers spend so much time in Las Vegas? What role, if any, was intended for Zacarias Moussaoui, arrested in Minnesota in August 2001?) But Mohammed's significance in international terrorism goes far beyond Sept. 11. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official says Mohammed's name came up so often in the communication intercepts that triggered last month's orange alert that he seemed capable of simultaneously orchestrating several different plots in the U.S. and elsewhere. "If I had to choose who was a bigger catch, Osama or Khalid Shaikh," says a senior Pakistani intelligence official, "I'd say Khalid Shaikh."

Rohan Gunaratna, author of an admired study of al-Qaeda, goes further. Mohammed's arrest, he thinks, has "cut al-Qaeda's operational ability by 50% at least in the next one to two years." Gunaratna's judgment is based on Mohammed's experience and his ruthlessness. Mohammed has been involved in international terrorism at least since 1995, when he and his nephew Ramzi Yousef—who organized the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center—planned to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific. Mohammed, says Gunaratna, "always thought big. His capacity to conceptualize, plan and implement low-cost, high-impact operations has been constantly underestimated by the international security and intelligence community. A large 9/11 operation is simply not possible now without him."

That's a big claim. Official U.S. judgments don't go quite so far. But last week's classified fbi Intelligence Bulletin did say the arrest of Mohammed "deals a severe blow to al-Qaeda's ability to plan and carry out attacks against the United States." That includes "spectacular" operations. The bulletin says Mohammed met last year with Jose Padilla, an American convert to Islam who was arrested in Chicago last summer on his return from meetings with al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Mohammed, says the bulletin, discussed with Padilla "a plot involving the detonation of a radiological device" in the U.S. Mohammed, speaking to his interrogators last week, referred to himself as the Brain, according to a U.S. intelligence source.

He might also have called himself the Graybeard. Though only 37, Mohammed was one of the older members of al-Qaeda's leadership—old enough to have fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and to have forged there the ideological and personal links that have sustained al-Qaeda's strain of terrorism ever since. Of the most wanted Islamic terrorists still at large, very few—they include bin Laden, his chief ideologist Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer who is thought to be al-Qaeda's head of security—are older than Mohammed.

Increasingly, the foot soldiers of international terrorism are too young to have taken part in the Afghan war. That doesn't mean that they are any less brutal. They include members of Algerian terror groups whose favored modus operandi in the civil strife of the 1990s was to slit the throat of every person in a village. Nor are they necessarily less tested in combat: some have fought in Bosnia and Chechnya. But the absence of a common, annealing experience in Afghanistan may mean that the younger men lack the long-term commitment to the struggle and networks of trust their elders possessed in abundance.

Still, the international terrorist network has proved itself infinitely adaptable. There are plenty of potential lieutenants waiting to replace Mohammed, even though they may lack his experience. In that regard, Gunaratna and U.S. sources mention Tawfiq bin Atash, otherwise known as Khallad, a Yemeni. Bin Atash attended a notorious meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, at which two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were also present, and is thought to have run—under Mohammed's guidance—the operation later that year to bomb the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor. According to reports out of Pakistan, bin Atash's brother, Umar al-Gharib, was arrested in the raid in Karachi last September that collared Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who allegedly ran the logistics for the Sept. 11 attacks out of Hamburg. Other possible replacements for Mohammed include three of his nephews. One is named Ali Abd al-Aziz; the other two—Abd al-Karim Yousef and Abd al-Mun'im Yousef—are brothers of Ramzi Yousef, now serving a life term in a U.S. prison. One of these three men—authorities will not say which—was arrested overseas about a month ago. A coun- terterrorism official identifies al-Karim Yousef—who, like Mohammed, attended North Carolina A&T State University in the 1980s—as the man most likely to fill the void left by his uncle.

However the command structure of al-Qaeda may evolve, the pattern of international Islamic terrorism has been set for some time. Since the destruction of the training camps in Afghanistan in 2001, terrorists have dispersed either to their home nations—like Indonesia, Yemen or Somalia—or gathered in new locations such as Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. Robbed of the advantages that came from having a state-within-a-state in Afghanistan, terrorists have fallen back on local networks for logistical and financial support. None of this implies that the threat is over. Information gathered after the recent rash of arrests of Algerians in France, Britain and Spain testifies to a continued ability to plan attacks, and there are plenty of experienced analysts who are convinced that a war in Iraq will fuel the supply of recruits to Islamic extremism.

All the same, since last summer there has been a steady drumbeat of arrests of significant al-Qaeda figures. Finding them is dangerous work. In the past four months, according to a Pakistani source, six suspected informers have been killed by al-Qaeda sympathizers in the tribal area of South Waziristan. Still, the worldwide hunt is having an effect. Describing conversations among suspected terrorists in the past few months, a top investigator in Milan remarks, "They aren't discussing attacks anymore. They talk about their brothers arrested here or killed there." Somewhere in the shadowy landscape of international terrorism, there are surely discussions this week on the fate of Mohammed, a man who, as much as anyone, deserves the credit for turning an idea for global jihad into an awful reality. In the mind of at least one official close to President Bush, that fate is sealed. "He killed over 3,000 of our citizens in one attack," said this official. "We will try, and execute, him." And dream, no doubt, of finding the man whose trail went cold 15 long months ago.

—With reporting by Timothy J. Burger, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/ Washington, Simon Elegant/Kuala Lumpur, Tim McGirk and Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Ghulam Hasnain/Quetta