Monday, December 13, 2004

Foiling the Quest for bin Laden

Foiling the Quest for bin Laden
“More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and New York transformed Osama bin Laden into the most wanted man in the world, the search for him remains stalled, frustrated by the remote topography of his likely Pakistani sanctuary, stymied by a Qaeda network that remains well financed and disciplined, sidetracked by the distractions of the Iraq war, and, perhaps most significantly, limited by deep suspicion of the United States among Pakistanis.…”

The war in Afghanistan inflicted severe damage on Al Qaeda, forcing it to adapt to survive, intelligence specialists agree. Today, they say it functions largely as a loose network of local franchises linked by a militant Islamist ideology. But Mr. bin Laden remains much more than just an iconic figurehead of Islamic militancy, most American intelligence officials now say. From a presumed hiding place on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, he controls an elite terrorist cell devoted to attacking in the United States, the officials say they suspect. They contend that he personally oversees the group of Qaeda operatives, which he hopes to use for another "spectacular" event, like the Sept. 11 hijacking plot.

American counterterrorism analysts say this special Qaeda unit is probably dispersed, though they do not know where. This "external planning group" can communicate with regional affiliates around the world to work with them when needed, one senior intelligence official said. "There is a strong desire by bin Laden to attack the continental United States, and he wants to use the external planning node to do it," the official said.

But the United States has failed to penetrate the group and has no idea when or where it will try to strike, the officials acknowledged. Intelligence officials would not provide any details of how they reached their conclusions about Mr. bin Laden's current role, which have not previously been reported.…

Many analysts are convinced that he is being protected by a well-financed network of Pakistani tribesmen and foreign militants who operate in the impoverished border region, and that they have helped him communicate with major figures in his network. "Bin Laden is getting his logistical support from the tribes," said one intelligence official. "He still has operational communications with the outside."

The place suspected of being Mr. bin Laden's hide-out, in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is in one of the most isolated and backward corners of the world. Pakistan's frontier is a barren terrain of mountains and mud. The fiercely independent ethnic Pashtun who inhabit the region are farmers and smugglers, most of them poor and illiterate. Local mullahs preach a radical Islamic ideology that portrays the United States as bent on enslaving Muslims and destroying their culture.

Sympathetic to the Taliban, many of whom attended madrasas, or religious schools, in the region, militant young tribesmen perceive American soldiers as dangerous aggressors who have occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and they view Mr. bin Laden as an avenging hero. Pakistan prohibits Western reporters from entering the area without a military escort.

The seven semiautonomous tribal areas in the region have been a virtual no man's land for American forces since the Sept. 11 attacks, making them a natural haven for Qaeda figures who fled Afghanistan after the battle of Tora Bora in 2001.

Pakistan does not permit American military and intelligence forces in Afghanistan to cross the border to go after militants. This prohibition on cross-border "hot pursuit" makes it relatively easy for Taliban and Qaeda fighters to initiate attacks on American bases in Afghanistan, and then quickly escape to the safety of Pakistan. American soldiers have complained about being fired on from inside Pakistan by foreign militants while Pakistani border guards sat and watched.

As a result of the restrictions, American military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan are no longer really hunting for Mr. bin Laden, an intelligence official said. They are trying to provide stability for Afghanistan's new government while battling a local Taliban insurgency and a scattering of Qaeda fighters. On Saturday, the United States military began an offensive in Afghanistan to pursue those militants.

While the United States conducts some air operations over Pakistan, they are tightly controlled. Unmanned Predator drones are authorized to fly over Pakistani airspace, but only with approval from the Pakistani military chain of command, frequently leading to costly delays, C.I.A. officials say.

Electronic surveillance of the border region by the National Security Agency has proved frustrating as well, American intelligence officials say. Mr. bin Laden is believed to avoid using any electronic devices that could be monitored, and probably communicates only through trusted couriers, American intelligence officials say. Without cellphone towers along the frontier, satellite phones and push-to-talk radios are widely used often by drug smugglers, making it difficult to zero in on Qaeda operatives using the same kind of equipment.

Hoping to collect more intelligence, the C.I.A. opened secret bases with small numbers of operatives in Pakistan in late 2003, but it has been unable to use them for aggressive counterterrorism operations, intelligence officials say. The operatives, many of whom are C.I.A. paramilitary officers, depended on Pakistani Army commanders, whose views on cooperation with the C.I.A. vary widely, American officials say.

"There are real limits on our movement" inside Pakistan, said one American official, and it has deeply frustrated intelligence officers. A C.I.A. spokesman declined to discuss any aspect of the clandestine bases.

Pakistani officials said that the Americans were instantly identifiable and unlikely to succeed working alone. They say the Americans are escorted to prevent them from being kidnapped or killed, or their presence exposed, which would be damaging to the Pakistani government.

The decision to allow the bases is one of President Pervez Musharraf's most significant steps to help the United States, intelligence officials say. He is trying to balance his alliance with the United States with his need to avoid setting off a broader insurgency in the border region, where the central government is resented for its long neglect.…

Many American analysts have concluded that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who is Mr. bin Laden's chief deputy, is also along Pakistan's border - in the tribal lands or an adjacent region - but is no longer with Mr. bin Laden. American officials contend that the two men separated for security reasons, but remain in close communication. That may explain why over the last year or more they have each issued audio and videotapes broadcast over Arab television, but have not been seen or heard together.

Days before the American presidential election this fall, Mr. bin Laden released a videotape warning the United States to change course to prevent future attacks. In contrast to his haggard appearance in his videotaped message televised in September 2003, Mr. bin Laden appeared vigorous. C.I.A. officials say they are not certain of the state of his health, but have long been dismissive of reports that he suffered from kidney disease or some other serious ailment.…
con·cept: Foiling the Quest for bin Laden