In a world in which anybody with a computer can peer into anyone else’s yard, the long-term fugitive feels like a throwback to an era of pigeon post and pith helmets. However, Osama bin Laden’s long evasion of America’s formidable reach demonstrates just how easy it can be, given the right connections and requisite chutzpah, to hide from the world.
The primary lesson bin Laden seems to have learned is the efficacy of hiding in plain sight – in his case, hilariously, in a middle-class neighbourhood near a military academy. He had, perhaps, heeded the undignified extraction of Saddam Hussein from a short stay in a literal hole in the ground. He would also have known of his fellow former Khartoumian, Carlos the Jackal, who overestimated the goodwill of his hosts (Sudan gave him up to France). And it is not fanciful to suspect that bin Laden also learnt from another famous ducker of justice’s crook, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
During Karadzic’s years at large, informed opinion regarding his whereabouts had him hiding in Serbian monasteries, cloistered in the Greek religious enclave of Mount Athos and skulking in Russia. He was eventually discovered, ponytailed and bearded, trading as new age quack Dr Dragan Dabic in a Belgrade suburb. Karadzic’s fellow Bosnian Serb war crimes indictee, Ratko Mladic, has still not been apprehended, despite a €10m reward offered by a Serbian government aware that their country will never be an EU member while Mladic’s collar remains unfelt. All things considered, those seeking Mladic should examine the area immediately beneath their noses.
Precautions must be taken, of course. Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs lived openly for decades in Brazil, after careful reading of its extradition treaty with the UK. Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, might have prospered longer in Argentinian exile – he was arrested by Mossad agents in 1960, and hanged in Israel – if he’d told his son to keep his yap shut in front of his girlfriend. A support network is vital – Pakistan’s inevitable assertions that they had no idea that bin Laden was living a short drive from their capital will provide an amusing postscript.
The irony is that bin Laden may have been too careful – American intelligence focused on his compound because they thought it odd that such a big home had no telephone or internet connection. The key to long-term success as a lamster may just be to lead a normal life. Still on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists is Abdullah Abdullah, also allegedly complicit in the 1998 embassy bombings. According to the FBI’s website, he was last seen in Karachi, and “may wear a moustache”. If he’s not presently behaving in any untoward manner, ask yourself what sounds easier: picking a needle out of a haystack, or finding one guy called Abdullah, who may or may not have a moustache, in a city of 13 million Pakistanis.