Important Note: I'm a loyal American. I don't admire the enemies of my country; but I do respect them, even knowing they wouldn't return the favor. I believe some of their grievances against the U.S. are legitimate. And while I'm sure some of our enemies are no better than thugs, I think the leaders are brave men, sincere in their beliefs, who perceive themselves as being in the right.

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Scenario 1.

"Confirmation," Osama bin Laden said heavily. "If our brother Khalid was free, he'd be in this chat room now."

Ayman al-Zawahiri closed his eyes, and his lips moved in what bin Laden recognized as a silent prayer. Their young bodyguard turned his head away to hide his face.

Bin Laden left the chat room and disconnected the computer. He plugged a lamp into their one electrical outlet, turned it on and the battery-powered lantern off.

He watched his rapidly moving hands as if they belonged to someone else, surprised at their steadiness.

Electricity was undependable in this windswept mountain village. It might cut out at any moment and leave them in pitch darkness. But it was essential that they use it for lighting whenever they could, to conserve their precious batteries.

"Emir?" the bodyguard ventured.

Even here, even now, thinking what I know he must be thinking, he still calls me that...

"Yes, my son?" Unlike his reference to Khalid Mohammed as a brother, "son" was meant literally.

"The other man, the one they said was captured with Khalid. Could it have been Saad?"

Al-Zawahiri winced.

"I don't know," bin Laden said gently. "There are three or four operatives who might have been with Khalid. Your brother is one of them."

He decided not to state the obvious: that the loss of any of those men would be a blow to al-Qaida--and the loss of a child would also break his heart.

Instead, he continued, "It's crucial now that we don't panic, don't make phone calls or shoot off e-mails trying to find out. That's what the enemy wants."

Young Mohammed bin Laden nodded in understanding.

Al-Zawahiri shifted uncomfortably. "Khalid, uh, doesn't know exactly where we are, does he? Just the province?"

"That's right. He knows we're in Waziristan. And if he follows the instructions I gave him in case of capture, that's what he'll tell the CIA."

Al-Zawahiri didn't explode with, "What? You're having him tell the truth?" He got the point immediately. "Ah. You mean he'll give it up a little too quickly, so they'll think it's a lie."

"Right. Especially with two body doubles staging 'sightings' of me in Baluchistan."

Those body doubles, bin Laden reflected, had the most dangerous--and most undervalued--job in al-Qaida. Yet they never complained. The dedication of men like that inspired him, drove him to fight on and prove himself worthy of his followers' trust.

He was in fact hiding out in one of Pakistan's tribal regions, but everything else the enemy had been tricked into believing was wrong. He wasn't in Baluchistan. He wasn't changing his location daily. And he wasn't accompanied by a large contingent of bodyguards.

He, his son, and al-Zawahiri were living in a secret sub-basement under a village elder's home. Despite the likelihood that everyone in the village would be willing to die for them, they were taking no chances: only the host family knew they were there. All of them, family and al-Qaida men alike, were subsisting on short rations so the family wouldn't be suspected of having three extra mouths to feed.

The secret room was a legacy of previous conflicts--built for the purpose it now served, sheltering fugitives. It couldn't be called comfortable. But it was well enough ventilated that they wouldn't suffocate, and its amenities included a sink, toilet, fire extinguisher and gas masks. It had three cots (not long enough for either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri), a wobbly table, and three straight-backed wooden chairs.

It was reasonable that their host would own computers. He had bought the one they used, and there was another upstairs. The al-Qaida leaders never sent e-mail, and visited only websites their host might plausibly visit. (That included some very political sites, given the known allegiance of the region.) They never spoke over the phone.

At 6-foot-2, al-Zawahiri could stand in the secret room without stooping.

At 6-foot-6, bin Laden could not.

The men had not left their cramped quarters in six months.

Yet they were far from idle. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri spent most of every day in policy discussions. Furtive couriers came and went under cover of darkness. Thanks to the courier system and the Internet, bin Laden was as firmly in control of al-Qaida as he'd been in Kandahar.

But now, he told himself, this little vacation is coming to an end.

Aloud, he said, "Now that we're sure about Khalid, we have a decision to make."

Al-Zawahiri sighed. "You're right. Someone has to take over his work in the cities. Fund-raising, recruiting, coordinating."

"And it has to be one of us." Bin Laden met his friend's eyes. "Namely me."

"No!" Al-Zawahiri almost knocked his chair over as he erupted out of it.

Mohammed gave a stifled gasp.

"If it's going to be either one of us, better me," said al-Zawahiri. "Much better me. But let's consider other possibilities. Saad, maybe, if he hasn't been captured?"

"No. Not enough of our operatives know him by sight." The CIA probably has a better idea of what he looks like than our people do. "Abu Zubaydah was perfect--all our men knew him from the camps, and the Americans only had one grainy photo. Most of our men knew Khalid because he'd been in the movement so long, but the Americans knew him too. Who else is there, who isn't so far away that it might take a year to get him back to Pakistan?"

Al-Zawahiri pondered that, then admitted, "You have a point. But there's another factor to consider. The importance of preserving the leadership. It's a high-risk assignment, no one seems able to last long--"

"For that very reason, the enemy won't expect either of us to take it on." Bin Laden adopted his most persuasive tone. "Consider what we've been picking up from their media. The Americans have convinced themselves that Khalid was the brains of al-Qaida--that I'm a figurehead, and you're nothing but my doctor and spiritual advisor. With the implication that we have to stay together because I need a doctor.

"They underestimate both of us. They don't think we're capable of handling the operational end of things."

Al-Zawahiri frowned. "I've never understood that. Abu Zubaydah supposedly told them Khalid was the mastermind behind the World Trade Center attack. But why would he have said that? Khalid didn't bring us a fully thought-out plan! It grew out of a brainstorming session that included a half-dozen of us. You, me, Mohammed Atef...Khalid was a part of it, but no more important than the others."

"Maybe our brother Zubaydah was trying to protect us by directing the Americans' attention elsewhere."

Or maybe our brother Zubaydah never told them any such thing. I've suspected all along that he died of his wounds soon after he was captured.

Maybe the American leaders had already learned Khalid was traveling from city to city to carry out a high-risk assignment. They told their people he was the brains of al-Qaida, and disparaged us, because they knew he'd be easier to capture.

If that's true, they don't really underestimate us.

That's all right. I don't underestimate them either.

Al-Zawahiri gave a reluctant nod. "I suppose that was it. In any case, I know you're right about one of us having to go into the cities. But not you, Osama! Me!"

"Why? Spell it out."

"You're the indispensable leader. You're the one with charisma--"

"No man is--or can be allowed to be--indispensable. But I know many people believe that. Go on."

"Do I have to say it? Osama--you're 6-foot-6, you walk with a limp, and you use a cane! You might as well carry a sign saying 'I'm Osama bin Laden'!"

Bin Laden said quietly, "Now play back what you just said. Isn't that what the enemy will be thinking, even if they realize one of us has to do it?"

Al-Zawahiri sputtered briefly, then rallied. "I see what you mean. You're the last person they'll be looking for. But that doesn't change the fact that you're 6-foot-6 and so forth."

"No. But no one will notice my height or my limp--because I intend to be an invalid in a wheelchair!"

"Oh yes, Emir!" Mohammed had been keeping his mouth shut, as befit his junior rank in al-Qaida. Now, it seemed, he couldn't contain himself. "You can make yourself up as an old man. A feeble old man, hunched over in the wheelchair--and I can be your grandson, pushing it!"

Al-Zawahiri collapsed in his chair, speechless.

Bin Laden beamed at his son. "Wonderful!"

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Four hours later, the al-Qaida leader lay in the dark on his lumpy cot, planning the journey to Islamabad. It would take six weeks to arrange details.

Al-Zawahiri was snoring.

A whisper came at bin Laden's ear. "Father? Are you awake?"

He smiled. "Yes. What is it, Mohammed?"

"Father...I support you, no matter what. In anything you want to do. And I understand that either you or Ayman must take over Khalid's duties.

"But I don't buy the rest of it. You might be the last replacement the enemy would expect, but Ayman is still less conspicuous. He could do it without an elaborate disguise. What's the real reason it has to be you?"

I have bright children. I'm so proud of them.

"The truth, Mohammed?" he whispered into the darkness. "It's because of the risk.

"It has to be done. One of us. Risk notwithstanding.

"And Ayman has already known imprisonment and torture. No man should have to endure that twice."

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Scenario 2.

"Confirmation," Osama bin Laden said heavily. "If our brother Khalid was free, he'd be in this chat room now."

Most of the dozen men around him groaned.

The one looking over his shoulder was silent. Bin Laden knew that wasn't because his son Saad didn't care, but because he, like his father, had realized the news reports were credible. They had already grieved and prayed; this check was a mere formality.

Bin Laden left that chat room--devoted to soccer--and dipped into several others, dealing with topics that ranged from archaeology to psychic phenomena. Along the way, he confirmed that three of his operatives were in place and awaiting orders.

At last he stood up, stretched his lanky frame, and strolled to the window. Saad followed, getting out of earshot of their bodyguards.

They stood side by side, watching through a grimy curtain and grimier pane as night fell on the millennia-old city.

This was the first chance they'd had to talk; Saad had arrived only a few minutes before, to escort his father to another safehouse. Bin Laden wasn't surprised by the young man's urgent question: "Does Khalid know where you are?"

"No," he assured him. "He knows I'm in a city, but not which one. And he'll resist telling the CIA even that much. He'll try to convince them I'm with Ayman." Ayman al-Zawahiri was visiting their new training camps in eastern Afghanistan. "He doesn't know exactly where you are, either."

"But he does know about our attack plan?"

Bin Laden grimaced. "Unfortunately, yes."

After a long, unhappy pause, he amplified that. "He knows, but this is the last piece of information Khalid would give up. If he's being tortured, if he can't take it, he'll give them something, anything, to stall them. Not this! He won't have to hold out long."

"So...you won't consider moving up the date?" Saad's already low voice had dropped even lower, as if he feared saying something that might be taken as criticism.

Bin Laden said quietly, "No."

It was important that this attack take place after the U.S. began its war on Iraq. If all went as planned, the al-Qaida strike would lead to a wider war. More Muslims would suffer and die in the short term, but bin Laden took a long view.

"What if there's no war?"

He shrugged. "Then we rethink the whole thing."

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They waited till midnight to slip out of the tenement and pile into SUVs.

As usual, bin Laden found the element of risk exhilarating.

The only change he'd made to his appearance in recent months was to cover the premature gray in his hair and beard. He was managing without that telltale cane. When he had much walking to do, he walked with an operative disguised as a woman and covertly let "her" support part of his weight.

He'd passed unrecognized through scores of dark streets and alleys.

His seeming invisibility was, of course, due in part to no one's expecting him to be anywhere near here. At one point in his travels, he'd had to crawl through the mother of all tunnels.

He didn't know which was more responsible, the newly dark hair and beard or the prospect of waging a new battle; but he felt as young as his son as they sped through ancient al-Quds.

Or as the enemy called it, Jerusalem.

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Scenario 3.

"Confirmation," Osama bin Laden said heavily. "If our brother Khalid was free, he'd be in this chat room now."

His son Mohammed said, "Father--"

The young man faltered. He had clearly realized that was a slip, a form of address that usually brought a stern reprimand.

Bin Laden sighed. "It's all right, son. I'm speaking freely. You may as well do so too."

He knew the walls didn't have ears. His staff had swept the suite and pronounced it free of bugs.

The only danger was the development of bad habits. If I someday make a mistake in public, Mohammed may be able to pose as an innocent and save himself. If he makes a mistake, we're both dead.

Mohammed asked the question he'd been expecting. "The other man, the one they said was captured with Khalid. Could it have been Saad?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "There are three or four operatives who might have been with Khalid. Your brother is one of them.

"All we can do is wait and pray. There's no one I can safely contact who'd know for sure."

Mohammed nodded in understanding, but his mouth was set in a grim line as he resumed assembling documents.

Bin Laden left that chat room--devoted to soccer--and dipped into several others, dealing with topics that ranged from archaeology to psychic phenomena. Along the way, he confirmed that three of his operatives were in place and awaiting orders.

He checked his e-mail, weeding out the normal amount of spam, and sent a half-dozen replies.

Then he glanced at the watch on his left wrist. "Time to go," he announced, pushing his chair back from the table while his right hand moved to disconnect the laptop.

"All the papers are ready," Mohammed said in his most businesslike voice. He was stacking them neatly in his father's briefcase.

"That's good. Thank you."

Bin Laden checked his appearance in a mirror, and approved what he saw. Short dark hair, a clean-shaven face, fashionable glasses. To be on the safe side, the glasses had prescription lenses, even though the "correction" was unneeded and slightly impaired his vision. His suit wasn't an Armani--that would be too flashy. But it was just as expensive, custom-tailored.

He wouldn't need Osama bin Laden's trademark cane. The underlying medical problem was that he'd been wounded in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, and had lost some of the toes on his right foot. As a result, he limped and required support when he did any significant amount of walking. But a specially constructed shoe helped a great deal, and wasn't noticeable. He wouldn't be able to hike for hours without limping, but he could get through a typical businessman's day.

He could, of course, have used a shoe like this from the beginning. He'd chosen instead to display his war wound as a badge of honor. Later, in Afghanistan, he might not have been able to have special shoes delivered without giving away his location. But in a modern metropolis, a man of his means could buy almost anything without leaving a paper trail.

While he was adjusting his conservative tie, the room-service waiter arrived to pick up their breakfast tray. Remembering the tip that had been added to the bill, he left with a smiling, "Thank you, Mr. Binladin."

The man who called himself Ibrahim Binladin--the spelling used by most of the family--replied in his perfect English, "You're welcome."

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Not for the first time that morning, he mentally thanked the real Ibrahim--a half-brother who'd freely surrendered his identity several years ago, even undergone plastic surgery to change his looks.

Osama bin Laden: Age 45, looks older because of his graying hair and beard. Limps and needs a cane. Left-handed. Speaks no English.

Ibrahim Binladin: Age 35, dark-haired and clean-shaven. No sign of a limp. Right-handed. Speaks fluent English. Looks pained at any mention of the terrorist half-brother to whom he bears a slight, unfortunate resemblance.

It worked.

It had been working for years, with most of the fabulously wealthy Binladins in on the secret. There were so many of them that "Ibrahim" could safely drop out of sight for months at a time. Every so often, Osama had been spirited out of Afghanistan to play the part.

The enemy had never guessed that in many of his photographs, Osama wore a false beard.

Save for Mohammed, none of his al-Qaida comrades knew where he went during his mysterious absences. Not even Saad.

Mohammed, a young adult, couldn't be Ibrahim's son. He didn't look like Osama, so he was posing as an employee of the Saudi Binladin Group, an unrelated intern.

If I someday slip up, I might not take him down with me.

But I will take dozens of other kin.

And Saudi Arabia still executes by beheading.

I won't slip up.

He turned away from the mirror, took a quick look at the papers in the briefcase, and snapped it shut decisively.

"All right," he said with a forced smile. "Don't worry about Saad. Don't worry about anything that's beyond our control.

"Let's get through this boring business meeting.

"Then we can enjoy the rest of our day in New York."

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The End