Analysts: Bin Laden alive but hamstrung
U.S. intelligence agencies think al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden andAymanal-Zawahriarealiveand still plotting attacks, even though both have eluded a massive manhunt for more than five years since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Bin Laden’s few appearances and statementsinrecentmonths,andtwo recent bombing attacks in Pakistan aimedatkillingal-Zawahriprompted recent intelligence reports that both may be dead. But so far there has beennosuccessinlocatingandcatching either extremist leader through his movements or communications, or from intelligence agents on the ground. Both remain powerful symbols for Islamist extremists around the world and the target of scores to hundredsofcovertspecial-operations commandos, regular troops and CIA paramilitary officers.
Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates said on Dec. 5 that he plans to review the tactics being usedbyforcestakingpartinthefiveyear hunt for bin Laden, although he noted that bin Laden has become more a symbol to terrorists and less anactiveplannerandorganizerofattacks. “While it’s important to continuethesearchforOsamabinLaden, I think that his ability to directly organize and plan the kind of attacks againstusthathurtussobadlyinSeptember of 2001 is very limited now,” Mr. Gates said. “And I think that it’s important to keep him on the run.”
ThechallengeinchasingalQaeda leadersis“figuringoutwherethey’re going to be, not where they’ve been, and getting the information in a way that is timely enough to act on it,” Mr. Gates said.
“With that kind of intelligence lacking,” he said, “the way we’ll catch bin Laden eventually, in my view, is that just as in the case of SaddamHussein,oneofhisownpeople will turn him in.”
“I think just as he is not organizing things any longer, but remains a powerful symbol, I think being able to capture or kill him would have a powerful symbolic impact also,” Mr. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte was asked why bin Laden has eluded the manhunt. He said he would not provide “a long exegesis” explaining the failure so far.
“Obviously,we’renotgoingtogive up on our efforts to track him down,” Mr.Negropontesaidafteraspeechat Harvard University. CIA Director MichaelV.HaydentoldWTOPradio two weeks ago that both bin Laden and al-Zawahri are “still alive” and “and working to hurt the people and values of the United States.”
IntelligenceofficialssaidbinLaden andal-Zawahriarehidinginseparate locationssomewhereintheextremely rugged and mountainous border region separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. Scores to several hundred regular and special-operations troops and CIA officers are working inseveraltaskforcestolocatebothbin Laden and his deputy, al-Zawahri, along the 1,200-mile border.
The State Department, for its part, is supporting programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop the ungoverned border regionaspartofa“drain-the-swamp” anti-terrorism campaign.
John Gastright, deputy assistant secretaryofstateforSouthAsia,said theUnitedStatesissupportingaPakistaniplantospend$750millionover fiveyearstodeveloptheborderregion so it won’t support terrorists.
Several billion dollars in U.S. and international funds also were spent in Afghanistan as well, including the border region. “The reality is that over time [al Qaeda] won’t find a home there” once the area is developed, he said.
DennisPluchinsky,aformerState Department counterterrorism analyst, said bin Laden’s low profile is likely the result of poor health or because he is hiding in an ultra-secret location that is too risky to conduct videotaping.
“Thelastpossibilityleadstotheintriguingquestionofwhetheritismore securetomakemanymovements,or to stay in one place for a lengthy period of time,” he said. “The more you move, the more opportunities for someonetoseeyoumove.Thelonger you stay in one place, the greater the possibility that the enemy may find you, especially in sector searches.”
Gen. Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee in congressional testimony on Nov. 15 that killingorcapturingbinLadenandalZawahri will not end the al Qaeda threat, but “probably would contributetotheunravelingofthecentral al Qaeda organization.”
Al Qaeda’s “physical safe haven in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area,”Gen.Haydensaid,givestheterrorists “the physical — and psychological—spaceneededtomeet,train, expanditsnetworksandpreparenew attacks.”