In March 1997, as a producer for CNN, I met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan when I went to film his first television interview. My colleagues and I saw the extraordinary lengths to which members of al-Qaeda went to protect their leader. We were taken to bin Ladens hideout at night; we were made to change vehicles blindfolded; we were electronically swept for tracking devices, and we had to pass through three groups of guards armed with sub-machineguns. The interview took place near the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, where, four years later, bin Laden would stage one of historys great disappearing acts. In a mud hut on a rocky plateau several thousand feet up, we waited for hours for bin Laden, while his bodyguards plied us with tea and what might have been goat meat. Most people will now know an awful lot more about bin Laden than I did then which was only that an obscure Saudi dissident had recently declared holy war on the US and ran an organisation linked to anti-American attacks from Saudi Arabia to Somalia. When he loomed out of the darkness my first impression was that he was tall, maybe 6ft 4in, and rail-thin, with the aquiline features of a Saudi prince. The entourage around him treated him with the utmost deference, referring to him as the sheikh. Bin Laden made no effort at small talk, wanting to get the interview done as soon as possible. Peter Jouvenal, our British cameraman, remembers that bin Ladens handshake was limp, like shaking a wet fish. I dont recall shaking his hand but I do remember that he took frequent sips from a cup of tea, giving him an air that was more feline than fierce, and his blistering diatribe against the US for its policies in the Middle East was delivered in a barely audible whisper. After an hour he was gone, as suddenly as he had arrived. Bin Laden, it seems, had prepared for life as a fugitive for years, adopting a monk-like detachment from material comforts. Abdel Bari Atwan, a London-based Palestinian journalist who interviewed him in Afghanistan in 1996, recalls that dinner for bin Laden and several of his inner circle consisted of salty cheese, a potato, fried eggs and bread caked with sand. Zaynab Khadr, whose family lived with the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan during the late 1990s, says that he did not even allow his children to drink cold water because he wanted them to be prepared for the day when theres no cold water. According to Noman Benotman, a Libyan who once fought alongside al-Qaeda, bin Laden once instructed his followers: You should learn to sacrifice everything from modern life like electricity, air-conditioning, refrigerators, gasoline. If you are living the luxury life, its very hard to go to the mountains to fight. It is clear, however, from videotapes of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that they have not been slumming it in caves for the past eight years. In the tapes, their clothes are clean and pressed. The tapes are well lit and well shot, suggesting access to electricity or generators. In one of al-Zawahiris tapes from March 2006, there are curtains visible behind him. The statements made by al-Qaeda leaders while they have been on the run have been surprisingly well informed about what was going on in the world. In a 2004 video, bin Laden made a reference to the scene in Michael Moores film Fahrenheit 9/11 where President Bush continued to read a story about a goat to a kindergarten class after he had been informed that passenger jets had crashed into the twin towers. In a 2007 tape bin Laden favourably mentioned the work of the left-wing American author Noam Chomsky. For the most part, the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are undeveloped but there are some larger towns that are more urbanised. Around these can be found tribal compounds that have access to modern amenities such as electricity. It is inside a couple of such compounds that al-Qaedas top leaders are probably hiding. The US has not had a solid lead on bin Laden since the battle of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001, when he escaped an operation involving thousands of Afghan fighters, about 50 US special forces troops and a dozen British commandos from the SBS. While there are informed hypotheses on his whereabouts, a US counterterrorism analyst said that there was very limited collection on him personally. In other words, the usual sources, from intercepted conversations to human intelligence from spies, are yielding little or no information. Given the difficulties of intelligence gathering and Pakistani opposition to having American boots on the ground, the US has made increasing use of its Predator and Reaper drones. Officials from the Bush and Obama Administrations are wary of discussing the highly classified drone programme, but a window into their thinking was provided in a speech in Washington by Michael Hayden on November 13, 2008, when he was the head of the CIA.By making a safe haven feel less safe we keep al-Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies, question their methods; their plans, he said. We force them to spend more time and resources on self-preservation and that distracts them, at least partially and at least for a time, from laying the groundwork for the next attack. This strategy seems to have worked, at least in terms of the ability of al-Qaeda and other militant groups based in the tribal areas to plan or carry out attacks in the West. No serious plots against US, British or other European targets have been uncovered that can be traceable back to militants who had received training in Pakistans tribal regions during the year since drone attacks were dramatically increased in the summer of 2008. The conventional wisdom after the fall of the Taleban was that tracking bin Laden down would not make much of a difference to the larger War on Terror. At a March 2002 press conference, President Bush referred to bin Laden as a person whos now been marginalised. In 2005 the CIA even closed Alec Station, its dedicated bin Laden unit that had been given the mission of hunting al-Qaedas top leaders, and reassigned its analysts and officers to other counterterrorism missions. Senior CIA officials believed that al-Qaeda was no longer the hierarchical organisation it once had been. Although it is the case that the global jihadist movement will carry on whatever bin Ladens fate, it is quite wrong to assume it does not really matter whether he is apprehended. First, there is the matter of justice for the people who died in the 9/11 attacks and for the thousands of other victims of al-Qaeda around the world. Second, every day that bin Laden remains at liberty is a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda. Third, although bin Laden and al-Zawahiri do not exert day-to-day control over al-Qaeda, statements from them are the most reliable guide to the future actions of jihadist movements around the world. This remains the case even while both men are on the run. Taking bin Laden alive is unlikely. His former bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri, alias Abu Jandal, told the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper: Sheikh Osama gave me a pistol ... The pistol had only two bullets, for me to kill Sheikh Osama in case we were surrounded or he was about to fall into the enemys hands. In a tape posted to Islamist websites in February 2006, bin Laden confirmed his willingness to be martyred: I have sworn to only live free. Even if I find bitter the taste of death, I dont want to die humiliated or deceived. (The Times) Al-Qaeda: the list of those captured, dead and still at large Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is regarded as one of the most senior operatives in al-Qaeda. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and sent to Guantnamo Bay in 2006 Ramzi Binalshibh, a senior al-Qaeda member, was captured in Pakistan in September 2002. He faces charges over the 9/11 attacks and, at a pre-trial hearing in January to determine whether he was mentally competent to represent himself, he told the court that he was proud of the attacks Mustafa Ahmad al-Hasawi is a Saudi, believed to be one of two key financial figures to have arranged funding for the 9/11 attacks. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003 Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali is accused of serving as a key lieutenant to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his uncle, during the 9/11 operation. His mentor was his cousin, Ramzi Yousef, jailed in the US for masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre Walid bin Attash is thought to have helped two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, to check out US flights in Asia. He was allegedly picked as one of the hijackers himself but was prevented from taking part when he was briefly arrested in Yemen. He is said to have served as bin Ladens bodyguard Baitullah Mehsud was the head of the Pakistan Taleban and commanded about 20,000 militants. He was killed in a US missile strike on August 5 2009. He had a $5 million (3 million) reward on his head Usama al-Kini was the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and on the FBIs list of most wanted terrorist suspects. He died in a missile attack in South Waziristan in January 2009 Abu Jihad al-Masri Khakaina was an Egyptian al-Qaeda operative described by the US as the groups propaganda chief. He died in a Predator strike on North Waziristan in November 2008 Abu Suleiman al-Jazari was an Algerian weapons expert and key al-Qaeda figure thought to have been the director of external operations. He died in a Predator strike in May 2008 Osama bin Laden is the FBIs most wanted fugitive. He has a $50 million reward on his head. Ayman al-Zawahiri is officially the second-in-command of al-Qaeda but in April the US State Department reported that he had assumed operational and strategic control of the organisation. He is believed to be in Pakistan Source: Times database