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The CIA has taken over control of the terrorist search-and-destroy mission. While some 1,100 analysts and covert operatives staff the terrorism hunt, operating out of Virginia, the special bin Laden station has 50 officers who focus solely on the terrorist leader. (Bin Laden unit is a cover; the office is actually named after the child of the CIA officer who first organized it, but that name remains secret to protect the child from retaliation.) They even have a "red cell" made up of a dozen analysts who try to think like bin Laden and dream up ways he might attack. But on the ground the CIA must count on local agents who can blend in to do surveillance or gather information. Theoretically, there are four ways to take him out:
1) Spot him with a Predator drone and drop a precision-guided weapon on him. Fast, cheap, simple. It worked in Yemen on Nov. 3, when a drone's missile obliterated a car carrying a former bin Laden bodyguard and five other al-Qaeda operatives. But an air strike inside Pakistan would require more cooperation from President Pervez Musharraf than the U.S. has. Pakistan only reluctantly agreed to allow the U.S. to use its airspace and bases to stage the Afghan invasion; it would balk at Predator drones flying all over the country.
2) Detect him electronically, triangulate his position quickly, listen long enough to make sure he's the right man, then drop a bomb fast. But U.S. snoopers would need to be able to eavesdrop, and he's not talking over cellular or satellite airwaves anymore.
3) Track him down the old-fashioned way, paying off locals until he's just around the corner, then surround him, strap on the night-vision gear, take out the guards and do him in. Problem: in the tribal lands of Pakistan, he's a hero, and the U.S. has few agents who can blend in among the people.
4) Persuade someone else to get him. But it's virtually impossible for anyone to infiltrate his tiny, devoted circle. The long mountainous stretch of tribal lands in western Pakistan probably remains the best place for bin Laden to hide. It presents a formidable geographical defense for U.S. hunters to penetrate. The CIA has fewer than 100 paramilitary officers in the region at any time.
U.S. spooks believe bin Laden is squirreled away in a locale where he doesn't move around much. Photo reconnaissance has not captured any "signatures" showing regular movement by guards or vehicles that might belong to bin Laden. He apparently communicates only by personal couriers who ride motorcycles and buses to pass messages from the tribal areas to al-Qaeda's enclaves in cities like Peshawar and Karachi. U.S. experts suspect his presence is known only to the hard core of no more than 20 dedicated guards who are pledged to die rather than give him up.