Osama? Oh, yeah, we’re still after him

President Bush broke from his custom of ignoring Osama bin Laden in public on Thursday, offering assurance that the United States remains “on a constant hunt” for the Saudi terrorist and that the administration is still vigilant in warding off potential threats.

Appearing at the swearing-in ceremony for Michael Chertoff, the nation’s new secretary for homeland security, the president cited recent accounts indicating bin Laden has been in touch with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leading figure in the Iraq insurrection, in an effort to convince him to attack within the United States.

Bush characterized that report as “a telling reminder that al Qaeda still hopes to attack us on our own soil.”

“Stopping them is the greatest challenge of our day,” he said.

Bin Laden is the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network responsible for the 9/11 attacks that killed about 3,000 people.

The assault led to the war in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban that had harbored bin Laden. Despite Bush’s promise to bring bin Laden to justice _ famously asserting he was wanted “dead or alive,” bin Laden’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Abdul Muqtader Frozanfar, the Afghan consul general in Karachi, Pakistan, told reporters on Wednesday that none of the al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, remain in Afghanistan.

The inability to corner bin Laden has proved to be something of a sore point with the administration. Bush rarely mentions his name in public, usually speaking generally about bringing all terrorists to justice.

Bin Laden remains a danger _ last year al Qaeda was involved in the bombing of a commuter train in Madrid, Spain, that left scores dead. Bin Laden’s continued freedom also raises questions about the Bush administration’s competency in conducting the war on terror.

But the president stressed during the Chertoff ceremony _ and later after a visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. _ that many of the key players in al Qaeda have been brought to justice, rendering it increasingly difficult for the organization to carry out more terrorist attacks. Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, said about three-quarters of the al Qaeda leadership has been “brought to justice in one way or another.”

“We’re on a constant hunt for bin Laden,” Bush said. “We’re keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding.”

Asked at CIA headquarters when he anticipates bin Laden’s capture, Bush responded, “it’s a matter of time as far as I’m concerned and the CIA is concerned. It’s a matter of time before we bring these people to justice.”

“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Bush said. “We’ve had great successes but that doesn’t mean we should stop.”

U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden started turning against the United States in the 1980s when he embraced a radical form of Islam that sought to free Islamic nations from foreign influence. He also is offended by the tight relationship between the United States and the Saudi royal family.

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com.)