Osama bin Laden, an expert at hiding, has stayed in Afghanistan but may be planning to run
WASHINGTON (AP) – Osama bin Laden uses misdirection, look-alike decoys and fake caravans to foil pursuit. He is thought to have moved around Afghanistan hidden in an ambulance.
U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden has remained in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan since Sept. 11, the day jetliner hijackers allegedly sent by bin Laden attacked the United States.
The officials are worried now, however, that bin Laden may be planning to leave for Chechnya, Somalia or Sudan – all war-torn, relatively lawless areas like Afghanistan where he can again hide.
His mobility is both a defense and a vulnerability, said Sen. Richard Shelby, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“If he’s moving from post to post, place to place, cave to cave, town to town, sooner or later, we’re going to find him,” said Shelby, R-Ala.
Sen. Bob Graham, the committee’s chairman, said this week that he has information that makes him confident bin Laden will be found and captured or killed before mid-November. Like Shelby, the Florida Democrat receives classified briefings from U.S. intelligence agencies.
“I am confident we will able to locate and take – as a prisoner or through death – bin Laden,” Graham said.
In general, bin Laden is believed to move frequently among his al-Qaida terrorist camps and deep caves honeycombing the mountain ranges that crisscross Afghanistan. He’s usually with one or more of his wives, sometimes with some senior lieutenants, always with a security force. He normally stays out of cities and away from the Taliban’s front lines with the rebels of the northern alliance.
If he has held to those routines, bin Laden probably is in southern or eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s hold is strongest. Most of his camps – many the targets of U.S. airstrikes – are in that region, although they have largely emptied since the terror attacks in New York and Washington.
Bin Laden could try to sneak across a border, although the possibility exists he could try to fly out, despite danger from airstrikes.
As the hunt for the No. 1 terror suspects continues, U.S. officials won’t say for the record whether they believe bin Laden is moving or has hunkered down in one location for the past five weeks.
A Pakistani intelligence official said bin Laden moved within hours of the Oct. 7 onset of attacks, but President Pervez Musharraf said this week his country does not know precisely where bin Laden is.
A British newspaper quoted bin Laden’s 18-year-old son as saying his father took 300 fighters and satellite communications equipment into the mountains, where he would hide in a cave and direct fighting against both Western commandos and Afghanistan’s northern alliance.
U.S. intelligence agencies have had a bead on bin Laden at least twice in recent years. After two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa, the Clinton administration retaliated with a missile attack in August 1998, sending Tomahawk cruise missiles into his eastern Afghanistan training camps.
The U.S. attacks killed about 20 followers but reportedly missed bin Laden by a few hours.
During President Clinton’s final days in office, senior officials again weighed a military strike after receiving intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. The plan was rejected over fears the information was stale and could result in a miss or civilian casualties.
Information from human sources _ Afghan refugees or agents within the Taliban _ will be key to finding bin Laden, said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists. The exiled Saudi knows that his satellite phones are tapped and is believed to have turned to couriers, preventing U.S. intelligence from listening in on his communications.
The northern alliance is looking for bin Laden, too, said Haron Amin, the group’s envoy to the United States. Bin Laden is believed to have organized the assassination of the alliance’s military leader in the days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“He is not going to be able to cross our front lines,” Amin said. But he could run toward his supporters in Pakistan, sneaking across the border, he said.
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