NEW YORK – America's Most Wanted Man seems to be The Invisible Man, as Usama bin Laden continues to elude U.S. forces at every twist and turn.
The terrorist mastermind's disappearing act, experts say, is probably helped along by look-alike Usama decoys — a tactic used by a number of other notorious villains over the years.
"It's a very good guess that he's got a number of body doubles," said Joe R. Reeder, a former undersecretary for the U.S. Army from 1993-1997. "He's eluded the search for a long time. Every time someone says they had a sighting, we don’t know whether it was him or a double."
Manuel Noriega had as many as four impersonators, according to Reeder, who was involved in the manhunt that led to the arrest of the former Panamanian leader. So did onetime Haitian strongman Gen. Raoul Cedras, the target of another long, tense chase Reeder took part in.
The late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Cuban ruler Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein all used body doubles. In fact, the Iraqi leader boasted of his collection of half-a-dozen look-alikes, who did everything from impersonating him in limousines to tasting his food.
Noriega's body doubles were so sly, meanwhile, they actually managed to trick his would-be captors. "They were good," recalled Reeder, a former Army Airborne Ranger who is still associated with the U.S. military. "They practiced his gait, his manner of speech and his modus operandi – what he did during the day and night."
Bin Laden may have a tougher time finding suitable doubles, in large part because of his size. Reeder said the average Afghan man stands about 5 foot 7, while bin Laden may be as tall as 6 foot 5.
"He's got to choose fellows who enjoy that same height," Reeder said. "They've got to be bearded and robed."
Body doubles can be particularly useful to bin Laden now because no one is quite sure what he looks like these days. He has worn a heavy beard for years, but may have shaved. He could also be disguising himself in other ways.
"He's apparently gained a lot of weight and his complexion is very pale, which might suggest he's been spending an inordinate amount of time below the surface – in tunnels, caves, dark and dreary places like that," Reeder said.
Like other nefarious characters who have used look-alikes, bin Laden can be clinically defined as a "malignant narcissist" – someone who is both paranoid and narcissistic – according to psychiatrist Jerrold Post.
Post, a professor of political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University, said the malignant narcissists who have earned a place in political or religious history have typically led movements that form at times of extreme crisis called "destructive charismatics" – with a charismatic leader and a group of followers.
Those followers are willing to do anything, even risk their lives by posing as their revered leader. And the leader has no qualms about asking subordinates to die for the cause.
"They unify people by pointing at an enemy," Post explained. ""You have people whose main identity comes from being a follower of the particular leader, of belonging to this mass movement. They accept uncritically the exalted leader's feelings, his demands."
Apart from being devout believers, would-be impersonators are often desperate for money or status, according to Reeder. Acting as a decoy is, after all, a powerful, dangerous job, one that requires a good deal of savvy and skill.
Reeder speculated that if bin Laden does have body doubles, they're probably not kept close to him. They may also have already managed to fool at least some people, particularly anti-Taliban Afghans.
But as the number of Al Qaeda members dwindle, the effectiveness of bin Laden impersonators might cave as well, said Reeder.
"In order for it to work, the body double has to have an entourage," he said. "As the numbers go down, the ability to create credible entourages has to go down." He estimates bin Laden probably has six doubles at most.
Despite what can seem like an insurmountable challenge, catching someone as cunning as bin Laden isn't impossible, even with all his body doubles.
"You just have to track them all down," Reeder said. "There can only be so many of them."