In February this year, an academic team at the University of California claimed to have narrowed down the search with the use of satellite imagery and “fundamental principles of geography”. They went as far as to call for a search of three walled compounds in the Kurram tribal area. “If he’s still alive, he honestly could be sitting there right now,” the lead author of the study, Thomas Gillespie, claimed at the time, though it is not clear whether the recommendation has ever been followed.
The area the UCLA geography department pinpointed is less than 20km south of Tora Bora, the cave-riddled Afghan mountain where US-led forces thought they had Bin Laden and the remains of al-Qaida pinned down in December 2001, only for him to slip through their grasp and disappear. A last intercepted radio message on 14 December marks the last time the west had a definitive fix on his whereabouts…
American and British intelligence think Bin Laden is in North Waziristan, in part because he has particularly good friends there. He has a long history with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, a pair of formidable warriors whose militant empire stretches from Khost in Afghanistan to Miram Shah in North Waziristan. The links go back to the 80s, when the inexperienced son of a Saudi millionaire teamed up with the Haqqanis to fight the jihad against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Bin Laden built his first base – the “Lion’s Den” – on Haqqani turf.
There are scraps of intelligence to suggest that he has returned to these jihadist roots. Captured al-Qaida members have pointed to the remote mountain passes and recalled sightings, or rumours of sightings. Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of operations in the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre, says there have been several intelligence reports that Bin Laden was in North Waziristan or nearby, “although none of the information is ‘real time’ … It’s always: ‘He was there, but we’re not sure today,'” Cannistraro says.