Inside One American's Hunt for Bin Laden

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Larimer County Sheriff's Office / Reuters

Gary Brooks Faulkner, a Colorado man whom authorities allege tried to sneak into Afghanistan in order to hunt and kill al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden.

How close did Gary Faulkner, the shaggy Colorado construction worker arrested in Pakistan on Sunday, come to tracking down his prey, Osama bin Laden in the mountains along the Afghan border? Very close, according to his brother, Scott, a physician in Fort Morgan, Col. Scott says that during his last two visits to Pakistan, wanna-be bounty hunter Faulkner had located a cave on an 18,000 ft mountain where he saw "a bearded man in a white robe speaking on a walkie-talkie".

The 52-year old American was arrested in a forest in northwestern Pakistan while trying to cross into Afghanistan's wooded Nuristan province, a known lair of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Police thought he was joking about hunting bin-Laden until they searched Faulkner and found a pistol, a 40-inch sword, a dagger, a pair of handcuffs, a small chunk of hashish, and Christian literature (presumably for his own inspiration rather than to convert the al-Qaeda leader). "I was surprised to hear that Gary had been caught in a forest," his brother told TIME. "Everything Gary had told me about this cave was that it was on a barren, high mountain with no trees. Maybe he found out that bin-Laden had moved on."

Having spent from 2001-2006 in the region as TIME's Bureau Chief hunting for bin-Laden like thousands of other soldiers, mercenaries and reporters, I have to admit: I was impressed by Faulkner's ingenuity. Here was a self-taught terrorist tracker, a backwoods MacGyver. He had no military training, no knowledge of spycraft, and no language skills other than a few words in Urdu. He had a criminal record. And Faulkner was no indestructible Rambo: He also had a kidney disease and needs regular dialysis.(His target, bin Laden is also rumored to be suffering from a kidney ailment, though this has never been proven.) Still, Faulkner claims to have managed six journeys to Pakistan, eluding the secret police and the thousands of jihadis who would have happily lopped off the American's head with his own over-sized sword. There are, of course, grounds for skepticism about his story.

Even wearing the traditional Pakistani salwar kameez tunic and baggy trousers and sporting his prodigiously woolly beard, there are a thousand things that would have tipped off Pashtun tribesmen that Faulkner was no local on walkabout in the Hindu Kush. His faulty Urdu would have been a give-away since the tribesmen in these mountains speak a complex language known as Pashtu. His trendy glasses, his sturdy American boots in a land where men wear sandals, and the fact that he ignores the Muslim call to prayer would have all exposed him in an instant.

Had Faulkner confided to anyone that his mission was capturing bin-Laden, he would have been immediately beset by a horde of rascals and con-men either eager to turn him over to the Pakistani secret police or to fleece him out of his cash in a wild goose chase. That has happened several times to me, and to every other reporter I know who has tried to penetrate the tribal borderlands, which the Pakistani government has declared off-limits to foreigners unless they have special permits — which are seldom granted.

If it is, in fact, true that on a previous visit Faulkner did see a man with a walkie-talkie in a cave on top of some 18,000 ft mountain in Pakistan, why didn't he just notify the CIA or the Pentagon and collect the $50 million reward? "No way," says his brother. "They would have told him to cease and desist, and Gary wasn't going to do that. He had this passion about finding Osama. And Gary isn't like you or me. Because of his faith, he lived in a spirit free from fear."

Scott drove his brother to the airport on May 30, fully aware of his quixotic mission and that he might not see Faulkner again. "I needed to know if this was a suicide mission," he says. "Gary told me that no, he didn't want to die, but he was prepared to." His brother showed him a pair of plastic handcuffs, proof, says Scott, that Faulkner had every intention of catching bin Laden alive, if he could.

When the phone rang in the physician's Fort Morgan home at 4am on June 6, Scott expected it to be from the U.S. embassy in Islamabad telling him that his brother was dead and being shipped home in a body bag. "I was ecstatic to hear that he was alive and okay," Scott told TIME.

Faulkner has been quizzed by Pakistani authorities and by medical doctors to determine his mental state. Although Faulkner's solo mission to hunt down bin-Laden may have been hare-brained, there does appear to have been some method to it: If his story pans out, he was at least canny enough to go looking for the al-Qaeda leader in the right places — without being killed or kidnapped.