Incoming president Barack Obama has pledged to try to succeed where his predecessor George W. Bush failed by catching or killing Al-Qaeda terror network leader Osama bin Laden.
But Obama, who takes office on January 20, is likely to face many of the same challenges his predecessor did in attempting to neutralize the man behind the deadly September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
"Bin Laden is like the great white whale of American counter-terrorism, like Moby Dick," said James Lewis, a counter-terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama said Wednesday that Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden remain the "number one threat" to US security. He spoke after a new voice recording emerged from the terror group’s leader in which bin Laden called for a holy war to restore "Jerusalem and Palestine."
Said Obama: "We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that they cannot create safe havens that can attack Americans. That’s the bottom line."
In an October 7 debate during the presidential campaign Obama said that if elected, his administration "will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al-Qaeda." Bin Laden is widely believed to be hiding in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bush had earlier vowed to catch bin Laden "Dead or Alive," and placed a 25-million-dollar bounty on the Al-Qaeda leader’s head. Striking back at bin Laden and Al-Qaeda was the reason for the US-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
In a late Wednesday interview with CBS News, Obama signaled a more measured approach to catching the ever-elusive bin Laden, refusing to deliver any "dead or alive" ultimatums.
"I think that we have to so weaken his infrastructure that, whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function," Obama said.
"My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he’s in a cave somewhere and can’t even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America."
A US counter-terrorism official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that there "is no reason to doubt that he (bin Laden) is alive and that he does play a role in directing Al-Qaeda efforts, particularly at a strategic level."
But while it is unclear what impact bin Laden’s capture would have on Al-Qaeda’s operations, it would have an undeniable symbolic effect.
Lewis believes that the hunt for the elusive terror network leader has remained intense.
One tactic has been flying drones armed with Hellfire missiles in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, searching for bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
In one successful mission, the head of Al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan and a top lieutenant were killed by missiles fired from an unmanned drone on January 1 in Pakistan.
"That has some success so is there a chance we’ll get him," said Lewis. "Is the chance increasing? Probably not."
Obama has said he is willing to take out bin Laden anywhere.
"If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out," Obama said in the October debate.
Yet the key to catching bin Laden "lies with the Pakistani government," Lewis said.
What the United States wants to do "is secondary to what’s going on in Pakistan, the erosion of the Pakistani government, and its ability to control these jihadist forces in its country," he said.
"If you want to get bin Laden you’ve got to stabilize Pakistan and win in Afghanistan," Lewis said.
Obama, who has said that Afghanistan and Pakistan are now the front-line in the war on terror, reportedly intends to agree to Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, doubling the current US force there.
Vice-president elect Joe Biden recently returned to Washington from a trip that included stops in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and on Wednesday promised "a significant shift" in Afghanistan.
"Things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan before they get better," he said, adding: "Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan is going to affect our ability to succeed."
Obama will try to deepen cooperation with Afghanistan, Pakistan and their neighbors to fight Islamist militancy, secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton said in confirmation hearings in the US senate on Tuesday.
"We have to look at Afghanistan and Pakistan together, particularly (in) the border region," where extremists have taken root, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"It is imperative that we work with their friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan because, it is not only about denying Al-Qaeda and other groups a safe haven," Clinton said.