They seek him here, they seek him there

Despite the US's huge intelligence-gathering network and diplomatic clout - and even a $25m reward on his head - there's not been a single sighting of Osama bin Laden since 2001. Justin Huggler reports from Peshawar on the search for the world's most wanted man

The Independent

04 August 2004

Somewhere, a man huddles in the shadows, speaking into a tape recorder, bringing his latest message to the outside world. His face is instantly recognisable. There is a $25m price tag on his head, and just a snippet of information on his whereabouts could make a man rich for life. He is the most wanted man in the world, but for more than three years, nobody has been able to find a trace of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

With Washington and New York this week on orange alert, and the US releasing what it claims is the most detailed evidence yet of an al-Qa'ida plot to strike inside its borders, the focus is suddenly back on the hunt for Bin Laden. Al-Qa'ida allies are being blamed for the loathsome beheadings of foreigners that have become almost a grisly routine in Iraq. And with a US national election looming and President George Bush doing badly in the polls, the White House is said to be desperate to capture their man in time for November.

But the trail appears to be remarkably cold. Unless something is being hidden from the public - and it would have to be remarkably well hidden - there has not been a single confirmed sighting of Bin Laden since he fled the US bombing of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001. Nor, according to Pakistani sources, has there been any intercepts of satellite phones call by him, or any e-mails. Drones fly constantly over the Afghan-Pakistan border monitoring all movements. They have failed to detect detected anything. He has disappeared from the US's electronic surveillance network, the most sophisticated the world has even known. The last heard of him was a tape recording in April in which he offered Europe a ceasefire if it stopped co-operating with the US.

The central al-Qa'ida organisation has been decimated since 2001. Estimates vary, but as many as 3,400 out of 4,000 members are said to have been captured or killed, according to experts. Some put the number still at large as low as 200; the continued bombings and other attacks are believed to be the work of related groups, many of whose militants were trained by Bin Laden's organisation in Afghanistan, but not of the central al-Qa'ida itself.

But if the organisation has been hit badly, its most senior commanders - Osama and his mentor Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri - remain elusive. Bin Laden, it appears, has pulled off one of the most remarkable disappearing acts in history.

Or has he? Rumours abound that he has already been captured by the US, or maybe Pakistan, and that his captors are waiting for the perfect moment to announce his capture: just in time for President Bush's re-election bid, for example, or in order for Pakistan's President Musharraf to wring the most glittering rewards from the US. The internet is bursting with innuendo and speculation on the possibility, but respected sources insist they are not to be taken seriously.

If Bin Laden has been captured, then his captors have pulled off a disappearing act as extraordinary as Osama's. Not one official has given the slightest hint. Not one sardonic smile. More than that, there has been no noise from Bin Laden's supporters to suggest he has been hunted down and captured or killed.

The official version is still that he is in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan; which side he is actually on depends on which side you ask the question. Ask the Americans or President Hamid Karzai's interim government in Afghanistan, and they'll tell you Osama is in Pakistan. Ask in Pakistan, and the authorities will tell you he's in Afghanistan. Everyone is passing the buck across the border.

The area is certainly a prime hiding place. The border is some 1,520 miles long and runs through some of the wildest and most inaccessible terrain on earth. "Even if Pakistan and Afghanistan were to put their complete armies there, they couldn't seal the border," says Dr Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside al-Qa'ida. Much of the land on either side of the border is populated by Pashtun tribesmen whose loyalties to Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida date back to the mujahadeen war against the Soviets and who have little sympathy for the US, the new Afghan government or the Pakistani authorities.

The Americans claim they have combed the Afghan side of the border exhaustively. But the Afghan government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of not doing enough. On a trip to Islamabad last month, the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah of Northern Alliance fame, made some pretty vicious swipes in the direction of the Pakistani authorities at a press conference.

In fact, almost all the major successes in the hunt for al-Qa'ida have been made in Pakistan. The country has seen the most high-profile targets arrested to date: Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged planner of September 11; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, believed to be the 20th hijacker who couldn't make it because he couldn't get a visa; and only last week, Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian who is one of the prime suspects in 1998's US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. And, as many as 470 al-Qa'ida members have been captured in Pakistan, according to Dr Gunaratna.

In recent months there has been more action on the Pakistani side of the border than ever before in its history. In March, the army sent 70,000 soldiers into the South Waziristan, a tribal area where the army had never gone before under a long-standing arrangement with the tribes that dated back to British colonial times. A welter of excitement followed when President Musharraf said a high-value target had been pinned down. The speculation, fuelled by official sources, was that it was Dr Zawahiri, Bin Laden's mentor and al-Qa'ida comrade- in-arms; but Dr Zawahiri never showed up.

The Pakistani authorities have blocked access to South Waziristan for all journalists, foreign and local, for months now. Even the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations have been refused access. But a phone call across the police cordons to Wana is all you need to get the details of what is happening. The local Pashtun journalists do not take kindly to be told to stay away from the action, and tapped phones do not trouble them.

It appears the Pakistani soldiers moved in and surrounded a position held by some foreign militants. But they in turn were surrounded by a huge force of local tribesmen sympathetic to the militants, and there was a battle. According to the locals, more than 100 Pakistani soldiers were killed, and as many as 200 of the foreign militants and the local tribesmen combined. The Pakistani army claims considerably lower figures for its own troops, but has still conceded that it took heavy casualties. There were foreign militants in the area, but only 600, fewer than the Pakistani authorities claimed. Most were Uzbeks, but there were also Afghans, Chechens, Uighurs from China and a small number of Arabs. Many may be fighters from al-Qa'ida and its allies who fled the bombing of Tora Bora in 2001.

Well-connected Pakistani journalists say the offensive was based on real information that Dr Zawahiri had been in the area - though not Bin Laden. But local sources insist the only "high-value target" in the area was Tahir Yildashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an ally of al-Qa'ida, who escaped alive when his jeep burst through the Pakistani army cordon at high speed. He has not been heard of since.

The Waziristan briefly made a hero out of Nek Mohammed, a local tribesman who led the resistance to the army and was later killed after he threatened to take the fight into Pakistan's cities. The tribesman appears to have been killed by the Americans - he was hit in a missile strike shortly after making a satellite phone call, and the Pakistani military does not have the technology to track satellite phone calls.

American special forces advisors and intelligence appear to have been heavily involved in the South Waziristan operation, despite Pakistan's repeated insistence that US troops are not operating on its soil. The word in Islamabad is that the FBI has an office in the city, from which it is directing the hunt for Bin Laden and other senior al-Qa'ida figures. But, like so much in this subject, the claim is impossible to confirm.

Such a major operation suggests there may have been a high-value target in the area, but, dramatic though it was, the Waziristan operation failed to net any - and Bin Laden's name appears never even to have cropped up in it. Its most significant achievement appears to have been that the Pakistani army has now set up posts on the Afghan border inside the tribal agency, "in places you could never imagine before", according to one local source.

But the operation has also been heavily criticised because the Pakistani authorities announced it in advance and because there have been no concurrent operations in neighbouring areas, allowing militants to flee south to Baluchistan, or north to North Waziristan agency.

But there are many in Pakistan who question whether Bin Laden is in the border region at all. "It's an assumption," says the Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yusufzai. "Most of the arrests in Pakistan have been in urban areas. What does this tell you? That these guys were all hiding in big cities." Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, just a stone's throw from the army headquarters, according to the Pakistani authorities, although reports have emerged he was actually caught three months earlier in Karachi. Ramzi bin al-Shiibh was caught in Karachi. And Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, last week's big catch, was in the town of Gujrat in Punjab.

There are many who say the world is focussing on the wrong place, that instead of looking among the mountain valleys of the border it needs to look in the vast, undocumented suburbs of Pakistan's cities. It is as easy to disappear in a crowd as in a remote, empty place. After all, the Pakistani police were unable to find the US journalist Daniel Pearl, who was held in a house in Karachi, before he was killed.

Against this theory, officials argue that Bin Laden is too distinctive to be able to hide in a city. With so much money on his head, some one would spot him.

Then there are those who argue that Bin Laden may be being protected by rogue elements within Pakistan's own security forces. Recent press reports in Pakistan pointed out the disturbingly high number of militant attacks in which members of the security forces have been involved. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment worked for years alongside Bin Laden's organisation in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and if the current leadership is thought to be sincere in the hunt for Bin Laden, some of the lower ranking are believed to remain highly sympathetic to his cause.

Bin Laden is still a popular figure in Pakistan. T-shirts bearing his picture are still on sale. Karachi's second-highest-selling Urdu language newspaper, the Daily Ummat, prints his picture on its masthead every day, together with an extract from one of his speeches. "If Bin Laden is caught or killed in Pakistan, he will be taken to Afghanistan and they will say it was done by the American forces," says Yusufzai, adding that President Musharraf could face serious unrest if Bin Laden were known to have been caught in Pakistan.

But there are those in Pakistan who suggest it is not even in Musharraf's interest to capture Bin Laden, if he is in the country. "There is a view among some that they don't really want to pick OBL up, because if they do, then Musharraf would lose his utility to the US," says Sherry Rehman, an opposition member of parliament.

American funds are flowing to Pakistan. The country has even been named as a major non-Nato ally. Find Bin Laden, the argument goes, and all that could dry up. But Pakistan is facing problems. The pressure from the US is increasing. Pakistan got some 200 mentions in the September 11 commission's report - more than Iran and Iraq combined. Congress is putting Pakistan's efforts in the "war on terror" under scrutiny.

And now it seems that al-Qa'ida is declaring war on Pakistan, with last week's attempted assassination of the prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, in a suicide bombing that a group claiming to be affiliated to al-Qa'ida said it carried out. Are the hunted becoming the hunter? Shortly before his death, Nek Mohammed threatened attacks inside Pakistani cities. President Musharraf has accused al-Qa'ida of being behind two of the recent assassination attempts against him, and Dr Zawahiri called for his killing in his own recent tape recording.

And all the while the world's most wanted man remains silent, hidden. The only thing for sure is that if he has been killed or captured, we'll hear of it well in time for November's elections. But don't bet on it yet.

With additional reporting by Nick Meo in Kabul