George W. Bush hadn't mentioned Osama bin Laden's name in months, but he said recently that the U.S. was "slowly but surely" dismantling bin Laden's terrorist operation. As the hunt for Saddam Hussein intensifies, some U.S. officials are suggesting that the focus on the former leader of Iraq has come at the cost of eliminating the eccentric Saudi millionaire behind the 9/11 attacks.
For nearly two years, bin Laden has been on the run in isolated parts of Afghanistan and eastern Pakistan, U.S. officials believe, staying out of sight, relying on the help of local tribes and traveling only in very small groups of devoted followers. Last fall, as the U.S. began planning the invasion of Iraq, Washington shifted many of its highly classified special-forces units and officers who had been hunting bin Laden in Afghanistan, moving them to Iraq, where they performed covert operations before the war began. By December many of the 800 special-forces personnel who had been chasing al-Qaeda for a year were quietly brought back home, given a few weeks' rest and then shipped out to Iraq. "They all basically picked up and moved," says a senior U.S. official. When the A-team members left, they took a lot of their high-tech equipment (and Arabic speakers) with them. And while they were replaced by fresh troops, many of the new units comprise reservists who, rather than specializing in countering Islamic threats, were trained for operations in Russian-and Spanish-speaking countries.
The Administration was warned by skeptics inside the government that the switch-out would take some of the pressure off al-Qaeda, but the impending war with Iraq--which emphasized special forces as no war plan ever did before--took precedence over all other issues last winter at the Pentagon. Now some have come to believe that the change in emphasis allowed bin Laden to disperse to other parts of the world operatives who survived the initial months on the run. "The reason these guys were able to get away," says a former Bush official, "was because we let up." --By Michael Duffy and Massimo Calabresi