Where is Osama bin Laden?

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If I knew the answer to that question, do you think I’d be sitting at my desk writing this column?

Hell to the no.

If I knew where bin Laden’s bin hidin’, I’d be at some tropical resort buying liquor and back rubs with the $25 million bin bounty I’d collected from the FBI.

It’s been just over one year since bin Laden last addressed the public. That last message was a rant that popped up on the Web, once again calling for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.

Bin Laden’s last message directed at you and me was the video he released a few days before our presidential election last year. John Kerry says bin Laden’s message (which, by the way, included bin Laden’s first explicit claim of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks) contributed to his Election Day loss. Yeah, that and his incompetent campaign staff, inscrutable position on Iraq, and a face and voice that reminded even his supporters of Lurch from “The Addams Family.” Whatever you say, Senator.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. Among the professional bin Laden location speculators, there are two popular schools of thought.

School one believes that bin Laden is alive and hiding out somewhere in the vast mountain range that straddles the border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bin Laden is thought to have escaped to that area in late 2001. Prior to that, bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Our intelligence believes that bin Laden led the resistance to the U.S.-instigated assault on his mountain fortress in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. We paid Afghans to act as our ground forces during the assault, and we supplied the air bombardment. Unfortunately, some of the same Afghans who were on our payroll were also on bin Laden’s payroll, and he was able to pay for safe passage out of Tora Bora before we got him.

Bin Laden issued audio and videotapes regularly after his escape, but their frequency began to diminish, leading to speculation that ill health was crippling him. Bin Laden is believed to have a kidney condition that requires dialysis. Several people who’ve examined his post-Tora Bora videotapes say that he looks gaunt and so stiff that he may have suffered a battle wound at some point. His page on the FBI’s most wanted website says that he’s between 6 feet 4 inches and 6 feet 6 inches tall but weighs only 160 pounds. I’d call that gaunt.

Members of the “alive and hiding” school don’t necessarily think that just because he’s alive he’s running al-Qaeda. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said he doesn’t think that bin Laden commands al-Qaeda operations any longer. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan agrees. Heck, I agree. The same remoteness that makes it hard to catch someone hiding out along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also makes it hard for the hider to communicate with the rest of the world. He may be still be al-Qaeda’s mascot, but chances are that bin Laden’s involvement in operations has diminished, if not ceased.

The other school of thought says bin Laden is dead. If he was alive and even only a little well, he’d have made a video or at least an audio recording commenting on stuff like the Iraq elections or the London bombings. Bin Laden enjoys taunting us.

Instead, the only al-Qaeda rantings we’ve received from bin Laden’s neck of the woods have come from bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri most recently appeared in a video (received by Al-Jazeera in September) boasting that al-Qaeda was responsible for the London bombings.

Among the “he’d dead” school is Duke University professor (and translator of bin Laden’s rants) Bruce Lawrence. Lawrence thinks that the recent Pakistan earthquake may have buried bin Laden in his cave office.

For those of you hellbent on finding bin Laden, I do have a small consolation prize. There’s a sexy photo spread of Osama bin Laden’s leggy niece Wafah Dufour in the January 2006 issue of GQ (Gal Qaeda?). She changed her name from Wafah bin Laden after 9/11 because she thought it made people suspicious of her. You don’t say.