Convictions not seen as major blow to bin Laden
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration hasn’t given up on capturing Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi accused of masterminding terrorism, now isolated in Afghanistan with a $5 million bounty on his head.
While hailing the convictions of four followers of bin Laden in New York, U.S. officials and private analysts acknowledge that a long and difficult road lies ahead before victory can be proclaimed over bin Laden.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Wednesday the United States remains ”committed to seeing justice done.”
”Mr. bin Laden should be delivered to a country where he can be brought to justice,” Reeker said. He said strict U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Taliban regime, which controls Afghanistan and considers bin Laden a persecuted holy warrior, demonstrates the global opposition to sheltering him.
U.S. officials acknowledged that Pakistan, a Cold War ally and Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, has been an obstacle to fulfilling of U.S. policy goals. They said Pakistan continues to supply weapons to the Taliban in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism operations, called Tuesday’s convictions in a New York court a modest victory but said there are ”hundreds and hundreds more like them who will take their place.”
On Tuesday, a Manhattan federal court jury convicted the four allies of bin Laden for their roles in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 that killed 228 people.
As for bin Laden, Cannistraro said, ”We don’t have him on the run. He’s still able to do about one major operation a year.”
A U.S. official who follows terrorism said the convictions marked a breakthrough but added the threat has not abated.
Hours after the convictions were announced, the State Department urged overseas Americans to maintain high vigilance and to increase their security awareness.
The statement was a reaffirmation of a warning issued three weeks ago, after the trial began.
The CIA would not comment on the verdict but said testimony on bin Laden last February by CIA Director George Tenet remains valid.
At the time, Tenet said bin Laden had declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack and demonstrated a capability to plan ”multiple attacks with little or no warning.”
The Bush administration is reviewing the policy for dealing with bin Laden that it inherited from the Clinton administration. The State Department is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to bin Laden’s capture.
As evidence of international opposition to the Taliban, the U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions twice over the past two years.
Nevertheless, the Taliban vowed Wednesday never to hand over bin Laden.
”He is a great holy warrior of Islam and a great benefactor of the Afghan people,” said Abdul Anan Himat, a senior official at the Taliban information ministry.
The Afghan problem is one of the few issues on which the United States and Russia agree. Russia believes bin Laden is using Afghanistan as a base to foment Islamic fundamentalist uprisings in Chechnya as well as several of the former Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan.
U.S. and Russian officials have met several times on the issue, including last week at the State Department. The department said the two sides agreed ”to review specific steps to counter the threats from terrorism and narcotics production emanating from Afghan territory.”
Cannistraro said Russia, along with Iran and India, has been supporting an anti-Taliban resistance group in Northern Afghanistan, and he urged the Bush administration to adopt the same policy. It is not clear whether the administration is considering that option.
The most dramatic U.S. attempt to do away with bin Laden occurred in August 1998 when President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes against bin Laden’s suspected hide-out. The missiles landed wide of the mark.
Barnett Rubin, of New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, recommended that the United States offer a large package of reconstruction aid to the Taliban in return for a change in behavior.
He said he was not confident the proposal would be accepted by the Afghans, but the mere offer could encourage Taliban moderates to challenge the rule of the hard-line faction now in charge.
On the Net: Diplomatic Security Service’s ”Wanted” poster for bin Laden: http://www.dssrewards.net/english/Bin-Laden.htm
State Department’s South Asia desk: http://www.state.gov/p/sa/ci/
State Department’s Afghanistan page: http://www.state.gov/p/sa/ci/index.cfm?id3270
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