Where on Earth is Osama bin Laden?

Parents of today’s teens and pre-teens may remember a children’s television show with a similar title which aired for a few seasons in the mid-1990s. In that animated series, title character Carmen Sandiego, the world’s greatest thief, was on the loose and it was up to the ACME Detective Agency to solve her clues and track her down. Most of the time, the wily thief managed to stay far enough ahead of the crime fighters at the detective agency where she formerly worked to elude capture.

Today’s version is not for children and certainly no laughing matter. The world’s most wanted man, the man with bounties on his head in the tens of millions, and the man who plotted the murder of over 3,000 Americans has eluded capture.

The most recent hope that bin Laden may have been struck was last week when a CIA-operated unmanned spy plane, armed with Hellfire missiles, scored what appeared to be a direct hit on three white-robed men in Afghanistan. CNN reported that one was believed to be a senior leader of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization headed by bin Laden.

However, the question on everyone’s mind remained unanswered.

“We just simply have no idea” if bin Laden was among those killed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

President Bush last week praised the military for how much progress has been made in the war on terrorism. But in the same breath, he said defensively that the capture of bin Laden is not the prime barometer for success. His tune has changed since Sept. 17, when he said that bin Laden was “Wanted, dead or alive.”

Despite the current public statements to the contrary, the Bush administration would dearly love to have the al-Qaeda leader in either condition. Like a fisherman focused on a prize catch, the collective U.S. consciousness is frustrated by the one that got away. Therefore, last week’s report from CIA Director George Tenet that nearly 1,000 al-Qaeda operatives have been arrested or detained in 60 countries since Sept. 11 went largely unnoticed and unheralded.

Tenet warned that despite the progress, “operations against U.S. targets could be launched by al-Qaeda cells already in place in major cities in Europe and the Middle East. Al-Qaeda can also exploit its presence or connections to other groups in such countries as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“I must repeat that al-Qaeda has not yet been destroyed,” he said.

Al-Qaeda’s strength is fueled, in part, by its members’ notion that its leader has been blessed by Allah. In their eyes, how else could one man elude the full effort and resources of the evil West, which has surveillance cameras capable of reading automobile license tags from space? It merely adds legendary and mythical qualities to bin Laden’s image of never staying in one place long enough to become a fixed target. Even when it looked like he was trapped in Tora Bora in December, somehow he eluded capture.

Characters of myth, legend and animation achieve more than mortal man. The U.S. has to knock bin Laden out of the former classification and into the latter as soon as possible. Each day that goes by without some determination of bin Laden’s fate or location strengthens the belief and resolve of his followers.

So when Bush, Rumsfeld, Tenet or any other administration official downplays the need to find bin Laden, know that in reality it remains job number one. He is a formidable foe and his eventual capture, dead or alive, will break the resolve of whatever active al-Qaeda cells remain.

Mr. Tom Mitsoff is a daily newspaper editor and syndicated editorial columnist. His web address is http://www.tommitsoff.com.