Monday, September 11, 2006

OBL's location?

The hunt

Armies have been mobilised, phones tapped, huge rewards offered - yet Osama bin Laden is still at liberty. Does anyone even have the faintest idea where he is? Declan Walsh investigates

Guardian September 11, 2006

To find Osama bin Laden, try Peshawar's smugglers' bazaar on the road to the Khyber Pass. Walk past the small mountains of almonds and lemongrass and green tea. Turn at the stacks of duty-free TVs and cheap cosmetics. Stop at the stalls with the topless women. Down a cramped alley, bearded shopkeepers squeezed behind tiny counters offer a fine selection of fanciful sex products. "Delay sprays" carry the promise of lingering pleasure. For the discerning lover there is Lovely Curves, a product that claims to be a "bust-developing cream". If all else fails, there is plenty of knock-off Viagra at knock-down prices. Worry not about the quality: "Made is Germany" (sic) reads the label.
The merchandise hidden under the glass counters, however, caters to a different kind of thrill. For a discreet inquiry and 75p, the smiling traders offer a wide selection of jihadi DVDs. Slickly edited footage shows beheadings of alleged collaborators, bombs that flip American Humvees into the air, and the last words of suicide bombers. And then there are the images of the lanky Saudi tycoon's son with a bad back, a scraggly beard and a placid, dead-fish glare. "I've sold about 100 since Friday," says Abdul at one of the stalls, sifting through a stack of discs. "Some ask for [Afghan militant] Gulbuddin. Some ask for Taliban. Some ask for Osama."
The sheikh, the director, the emir, even "the Samaritan" - Bin Laden violently changed the course of our world in 2001, and then began his own audacious flight from justice. Six days after the twin towers folded into Manhattan, while dazed Americans fumbled for meaning, President George Bush promised to lasso in the al-Qaida leader, Texan style. "There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: dead or alive'," he told a press conference at the Pentagon. The order went down the line. Cofer Black, the CIA's counterterrorism chief, later told a subordinate, "I want Bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice." Yet five years on, a pokey video stand on the Pakistani frontier is about as close as anyone has got.
Rarely has so much brought so little. The US has spent billions on the search. It has mobilised armies, bribed informers, bullied allies, emptied bank accounts, tapped phones, abducted suspects and assassinated his henchmen. It has, without a doubt, seriously damaged al-Qaida's ability to carry out terrorist attacks. Yet still the scarlet pimpernel of jihad roams free.
The foolhardy words of the American general who promised a scalp by the end of 2004 have been quietly forgotten. Embarrassment has crumbled into recrimination. The Americans blame the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis blame the Afghans. The Afghans shrug their shoulders. President Bush wanted to invade their country and catch Bin Laden, they say. So why hasn't he?
Guessing the location of Bin Laden's lair is the favoured parlour game of south Asia, played out along the 1,500-mile Pakistan-Afghanistan border where the participants - spies, soldiers and journalists - believe he is hiding. It is a massive and daunting arena. Scraps of intelligence and educated guesswork slim the odds, but not much. Theories shift with the seasons. Three years ago, some put Bin Laden in Pakistan's Waziristan, nested behind serried ranks of flinty pro-Taliban fighters. Last year it was Bajaur, a tribal agency further north, where a group of harried Arabs were spotted lugging supplies up a mountainside. This year's hot bet is closer to the Chinese border, in Chitral.
Peaceful, mountainous and sprawled across the lower Himalayas, until recently Chitral's main attractions were hiking, rare falcons and a rather rough version of horse polo. Then, one day last winter, three Americans arrived, and all that changed. The strangers checked into the Hindu Kush Heights, a luxury hotel with sweeping views over Chitral's main valley. The owner, Siraj ul Mulk, a genial former air force officer and a prince of the local royalty, offered his help. "They said they wanted to develop the area," he recalls. "They said American development money was coming." Ul Mulk whipped out his maps, which the Americans eyeballed enthusiastically. But when the conversation turned to talk of tourism, their faces glazed over. "You could tell it was going in one ear and out the other," he says.
As it turned out, the Americans were only interested in one tourist. By last May, word spread that the CIA or the FBI - nobody was ever sure which - had come to Chitral on the trail of Bin Laden. Locals grew angry. A cleric organised protests and a politician kicked up a fuss in parliament. Reporters snooped around a house that the now-absent Americans had rented, noting a fitness machine and a satellite dish on the porch. The Americans never came back, leaving locals scratching their heads and wondering if the bizarre episode was a blessing or a curse. "I'm thinking of spreading new Osama rumours," says Ul Mulk sardonically. "It seems a good way to bring in visitors."
For America, it was another dead end in a long manhunt. The "development experts" had come from the US consulate in Peshawar, a colonial-style house ringed with enough razor wire to protect a small prison. It is the sort of place where visa inquiries are politely referred elsewhere. Behind its fortified walls is a major nerve centre in the Bin Laden hunt - some of the world's most sophisticated decryption and eavesdropping equipment. And yet western intelligence has not had a bead on Bin Laden in years, says Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who set up the Osama bin Laden cell in 1996 and resigned two years ago. "As far as I know there's been no serious credible information about his location since Tora Bora," he says.
That high-octane cave chase in December 2001 was probably Bin Laden's luckiest break. After Kabul fell, he fled south to the saw-toothed White mountains, on the border with Pakistan, and burrowed into Tora Bora, an underground warren that the CIA once helped fortify. Surrounded by an estimated 1,000 al-Qaida diehards and pounded by a blitz of American bombs, it was a harrowing time. According to one account, American officers listening on a captured radio set heard Bin Laden apologise to his fighters for leading them there. But then, many believe, the American generals made a mistake. Instead of sending in the elite rangers to finish the job, they turned to unreliable Afghan militias. As daisy-cutter and bunker-buster bombs exploded around him, Bin Laden slipped through the dragnet and into North Waziristan, a remote Pakistani tribal agency of fortress-like compounds and stern tribesmen. An American general, Tommy Franks, disputes this account, saying it was never clear if Bin Laden was in Tora Bora. Nevertheless, in 2004, under intense American pressure, Pakistan dispatched tens of thousands of soldiers to Waziristan, by then a major haven for al-Qaida fugitives. But it was too late. The sheikh had fled.
Since then, the trail is mostly conjecture. In interviews with Pakistani army officers, western officials and local reporters, a common theory emerges. Bin Laden is surrounded by two or three concentric circles of security with a small corps of battle-hardened men at its centre. He has not used his satphone - the old number was 00873 682505331 - in years and communicates only through handwritten notes carried by trusted couriers. He travels only at night, possibly in disguise. At an early stage, Pakistani police were instructed to check all burkas in case he was hiding underneath, John Simpson-style. "He's morphing all the time," says one western official.
The armour has two possible chinks. Since 2001, al-Qaida has released at least 37 video or audio recordings. The latest, produced last week, shows Bin Laden meeting with the 9/11 bombers. Earlier this year, he released five audio tapes. Could the tape trail unravel his cover? The early cassettes were delivered to the office of al-Jazeera in an Islamabad suburb. America was watching, but to no avail. "They did it at night using cut-offs," says one official, using the term for someone who does not know his employer. "It's one of the most reliable measures in spycraft." Now Bin Laden's messages are distributed via an even more elusive channel - the internet.
His other weakness is his health. Rumours of sickness have swirled around Bin Laden for years. The French newspaper Le Figaro reported in 2001 that he had visited Dubai for kidney treatment. Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar journalist who interviewed Bin Laden in 1998, noticed his copious consumption of water and green tea, which may indicate kidney disease. At the time, Bin Laden walked with a cane, he says, and complained of back problems. "He said he used to love playing soccer and horse riding, but had to stop," says Yusufzai. But when he photographed a stooped Bin Laden shuffling into a tent, his followers erased the digital images. "They said they didn't want him to look weak or disabled," he says.
Even if Bin Laden is ailing, he enjoys an ideal sanctuary. The Pashtun tribal belt is a broad swathe of high-walled villages, sprawling orchards and fiercely conservative tribesmen that straddles the Pakistani-Afghan border. Pashtunwali, the strict Pashtun code of honour, dictates that all guests must be treated to warm hospitality, no matter who they are. But the tribal belt can also be a tough place to keep a secret, which leads many to believe that Bin Laden has a powerful protector. "It seems that someone very important has given him refuge," said Yusufzai. "Someone we don't suspect and someone the Americans don't suspect. Someone with so much commitment that he would risk losing everything."
That may help explain why America's $25m bounty - advertised on Pakistani television and hawked on cheap State Department matchboxes bearing his picture - remains untouched. Assumptions that a sweaty-palmed Pashtun tribesman would trade his loyalty against a fistful of dollars have proved fantastically misplaced. "Everyone thought they were feckless, that they would sell him for the money. It hasn't happened," laments a US official in Pakistan. "These people are direct and forthright. They can't be bought."
And they call Bin Laden their Robin Hood. According to a poll released last year, 51 per cent of Pakistanis, 60 per cent of Jordanians and 35 per cent of Indonesians support Bin Laden. They share his worldview not, as Bush claims, due to some irrational hatred of American elections and women who work, but because the Saudi has flamboyantly defied a superpower they see as a threat to their religion and way of life. "We underestimate Bin Laden's popularity," says Scheuer, arguably the intelligence agent who has followed Bin Laden most closely. "For better or worse, he stood with the Afghans for 25 years. And whether we like it or not, he's a hero. We're going to be awfully lucky to find a source willing to turn him over."
In the tribal belt that popularity has been nourished by a current of radicalism that swelled after 9/11. The provincial assembly is controlled by the MMA, a pro-Taliban coalition that has steadily attacked women's rights. Last week, the Pakistani government signed a peace deal with fundamentalist militants in Waziristan who publicly execute accused thieves and shut down music shops. Broiling hostility against America and the military president, General Pervez Musharraf, has never been higher.
The Bin Laden we know was forged in the hot fire of frontier radicalism. He arrived in Peshawar in the early 1980s, one of thousands of Arab idealists drawn by the jihad against the godless Soviets who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Armed with nothing but his tycoon father's bank account, he set up an office in the well-heeled University Town neighbourhood under the mentorship of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian academic who had once lectured him in Jeddah. Azzam later died in a bomb blast that some blame on an ambitious Bin Laden. However, other allies from that period have proven more enduring. Intelligence officials believe that Bin Laden is supported by the forces of Younis Khalis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, two of the seven mujahideen leaders whom the CIA and Saudi intelligence used to arm during the 1980s jihad.
Kunar, where Hekmatyar's men roam large, had the strongest Arab presence during the 1980s jihad. Not coincidentally, it is currently the province with the greatest concentration of American troops in Afghanistan, and some of the highest casualty rates. Some believe that Bin Laden is hiding there.
The other wild card in the Bin Laden puzzle is Pakistan. Cynics accuse the country's powerful ISI intelligence agency of, at best, not looking very hard for him and, at worst, helping him out, a notion that Pakistan angrily rejects. Officials point to the 600 al-Qaida suspects they have killed or detained, including the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, now being transferred to Guantánamo Bay for trial. "They are on the run," Musharraf told me during an interview at his office last April. "Wherever we locate them, we hit them." Intelligence cooperation with America is close. When an American Predator drone fired missiles at a mud-walled house in Bajaur last year - thinking, mistakenly, that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's deputy, was inside - Musharraf protested loudly. In fact, he had approved of the strike in advance. "For domestic reasons, we had to say we knew nothing," admitted a senior aide.
But after five years of searching, with the trail still cold, the recriminations have started. The US, frustrated at the limitations of its electronic surveillance, wants to develop more "human intelligence" - essentially, local tribesmen it can pay for information. "The outer shells [of his security] are more attenuated. They are the ones that can be turned," says one US official in Islamabad. But Pakistan's ISI refuses permission to roam the tribal areas, saying that it is too dangerous for any white man, much less an American. Tensions are rising. "We give Musharraf $300m a year in military aid alone," says the official. "People will start saying, 'What the hell are we getting for this? What are the results?'"
Americans also admit that they have themselves to blame. Infighting is one problem. The CIA recently shut down the specialised Bin Laden unit due to bureaucratic wrangling, Scheuer recently disclosed. The US official blames President Bush for employing the shoot-'em-up tactics that have alienated Muslim opinion in places where the US needed help the most. "It should have been presented as a search for justice using intelligence and law enforcement. If we kept it in that ideological space, simply asking Muslims for help in tracking down a criminal, we would have made headway," he says. "Instead, we regarded it as a war we could fight through the military with heavy and blunt instruments that were telegraphed for hundreds of miles."
The other pressure is Iraq. As with the army, many intelligence assets have been transferred from Afghanistan to the Middle East, Scheuer says. "What is left is now engaged almost fully in trying to prevent the fall of Hamid Karzai's government, not looking for Osama bin Laden," he says.
It may already be too late. Bin Laden has evolved into more of a symbol than an operator, some argue. Maulana Muhammad Alam, a radical preacher in the Dir valley, 80 miles above Peshawar, says: "Osama is not the name of an individual; it's a movement ... Osama is the right of every individual to fight and defend Islam." And anyway, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, is the true brains of the outfit. Scheuer disagrees. "This business that he's the puppet and Zawahiri is the string-puller is completely wrong. Bin Laden is dangerous because he is talented. He is a genuinely historic personality."
But capture, even if possible, would also bring problems. If it happened in Pakistan, Musharraf would face colossal public protest. In the US, they would face the prospect of the world's most potent media manipulator in a New York courtroom, on CNN, for possibly three years. "You only have to look at the trial of Saddam to see how that can go wrong," says one diplomat. In that case, the only solution is assassination, even at the risk of creating a martyr - perhaps the only thing that Bin Laden himself agrees with. In speeches, he repeatedly stresses that his own survival - a "slave of Allah" - is unimportant. One rumour has it that his bed is surrounded by landmines hooked up to a trigger.
In the meantime, we await the next tape or the next attack. A video message last weekend by Adam Yehiye Gadahn, a 28-year-old American al-Qaida convert urging US soldiers to embrace Islam, passed off largely unnoticed. But it could have an ominous significance. After 9/11, Islamic scholars criticised Bin Laden for failing to follow a Qur'an teaching that enemies should be offered a chance to convert before an attack. Now that obligation has been fulfilled, says Scheuer.
"The tape was directed at Muslims to show that [al-Qaida] has gone the extra mile to get us off the hook," he says. "It's a mug's game to guess when, but I wouldn't be surprised to see another attack in the United States before the end of this year"
Then again, who really knows? One man does. He is sitting in a concealed room, ringed by cagey men ready to die, sipping from a flask of green tea, thinking and plotting. He knows. But he's not saying - at least for now.


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