New York Times
December 13, 2004
By James Risen and David Rohde
Hunting for Osama bin Laden, the C.I.A. established a series of small, covert bases in the rugged mountain frontier of northwest Pakistan in late 2003. Mr. bin Laden, the terrorist leader, was being sheltered there by local tribesmen and foreign militants, the agency had concluded, and controlled a group of handpicked operatives dedicated to attacking the United States.
But since the bases opened, the C.I.A. officers stationed there have been strictly supervised by Pakistani officials, who have limited their ability to operate and have escorted them wherever they travel in the Pakistani border region. As a result, it has been virtually impossible for the Americans to gather intelligence effectively, say several officials familiar with the operation who would only speak anonymously.
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.
Prodded by the United States, Pakistan began an offensive along its northwest border this spring to flush out forces of Al Qaeda that had escaped from Afghanistan and to help find Mr. bin Laden. But after suffering heavy casualties and causing civilian deaths that stirred opposition, the Pakistani Army declared victory two weeks ago and announced that Mr. Bin Laden was not in Pakistan. Many American intelligence officials are confident that he is, however - and that he is as dangerous as ever.
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.
Has hot pursuit cooled?
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. Government officials said that some militants from other parts of Pakistan have gone to the tribal areas to join the fight.
Though the Americans had pressed the Pakistanis to search for Qaeda forces since late 2001, the military campaign was begun only after two assassination attempts against General Musharraf in December 2003 were traced back to the tribal areas. Before that, Pakistani officials had stated that there were no foreign militants in the region.
The army eventually deployed 25,000 troops in South Waziristan, one of the tribal areas, and found several terrorist training camps. In October, Pakistani commanders said they had killed 246 militants and captured 579. The raids and sweeps had a heavy cost. About 200 Pakistani soldiers were killed, and tribal members said hundreds of civilians had died.
On Sept. 9, for example, an air raid near the village of Dela in South Waziristan killed as many as 80 civilians. Young men from the Mehsud tribe, many of whose members died in the incident, began flocking to the militants. "That was a turning point," said Rahimullan Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist. "Their friends, their relatives and people they knew were killed."
No precise numbers exist, but Pakistani officials estimated that 500 to 1,000 of the tribesmen were fighting beside 150 to 300 foreign militants, most of them Uzbeks. Pakistani analysts say the area's tribal structure is fraying. Drawn by the wealth, sense of belonging and promise of paradise that the militants offer, unemployed young tribesmen are openly defying edicts from tribal leaders and taking up arms, Mr. Yusufzai said. "These young men refuse to listen to their elders, to their families," he added.
Local residents have said that they were caught between the army and the militants. Nisar Wazir, 56, a teacher in Wana, a town in South Waziristan, said in a telephone interview that the American and Pakistan governments had neglected the tribal areas after supporting militants there in the 1980's anti-Soviet jihad. Asked if Mr. bin Laden was hiding in the tribal areas, Mr. Wazir responded angrily. "America brought Osama bin Laden to this region," he said. "They know his whereabouts better than me."
Despite the Pakistani government's efforts to win over residents by building schools, wells and roads there, cooperating with Pakistani and American investigators continues to be considered "napak kam," or dirty work, among many tribesmen, Pakistani officials say.
Aside from tribal members, the militants may be getting help from some officers in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the country's powerful intelligence agency. The agency was the hidden power behind the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan and was close to Al Qaeda. Pakistani civilian security and police officials complained in the past that intelligence agency personnel have sometimes interfered with their efforts to arrest Qaeda members.
Pakistani officials warn that suspicion of the United States prevents a significant American presence. Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many Pakistanis fear that the United States will bomb Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, and that Pakistan will be next.
One Pakistani security official said opposition to American forces in the country would be widespread. "The day the American troops cross into Pakistan territory, that will be the day when the Pakistani government will be hard put to stop the people who say, 'Why don't you reverse your position on helping America?' " said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They already say, 'You have done too much to help America.' "
Some American intelligence officials say that the war in Iraq provided a powerful new recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. The conflict has diverted resources - C.I.A. paramilitary personnel and pilotless Predator surveillance aircraft - from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002, several current and former intelligence and administration officials said. They contend the war in Iraq weakened the focus of the United States, giving Al Qaeda time to regroup. Pakistan has been a sanctuary for some Qaeda figures since soon after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. When the Taliban government fell in the winter of 2001, some Qaeda leaders went west to Iran, but a large group of Qaeda members, including many of Mr. bin Laden's lieutenants, went south to Pakistan, intelligence officials say.
By spring 2002, South Waziristan had become "the hub of Al Qaeda operations in the whole world," one senior Pakistani official said. Local religious leaders offered the militants houses, while poor tribesmen collected handsome rents on their homes.
They soon established a highly effective security system. A network of tribesmen augmented by radios and satellite phones acted as lookouts and notified them whenever more than one vehicle left a new Pakistani army base in Wana. "They could get warnings," said a senior Pakistani official.
The foreign militants are flush with cash, use a highly sophisticated code when communicating, travel in small groups at night, are disciplined and have access to laptop computers, Pakistani military officials say. The network has even sent e-mail messages, letters and DVD's to Pakistani soldiers fighting in the tribal areas urging them not to kill their fellow Muslims on behalf of America, according to Western diplomats.
A pre-election warning
The C.I.A. has intermittently received information about Mr. bin Laden's movements along the Pakistani frontier, but it has always come too late to act against him, officials said. "There is no credible information that he has ever left the border region" since Tora Bora, one American analyst said.
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.
Despite the shortcomings of the Pakistani border campaign, the Bush administration contends that General Musharraf has taken great personal and political risks to side with the United States against Al Qaeda, and is unwilling to push him too hard or too publicly. Out of deference to President Musharraf, the official United States position on Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts is that he is on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a description that avoids pointing fingers at Islamabad.
American counterterrorism officials cite the vital role Pakistani security services have played in catching Qaeda operatives, including several important figures, in Pakistan cities. In urban areas, security officials can argue that they are doing police work, and can arrest Qaeda operatives one by one without much political unrest. "The key high value targets that have been picked up in Pakistan have been picked up in the cities," one American intelligence official said. "We haven't gotten any out of the border." A benefit of the recent campaign is that it has forced foreign Islamic fighters from lowlands of South Waziristan into mountains and forests, other tribal areas or Pakistani cities, American and Pakistani intelligence officials say. "It caused movement, and hopefully that will expose them and we can target them," an American said.
A 'success' meets skepticism
At the end of November, the Pakistani government called the South Waziristan operation a success, saying that Mr. bin Laden was not there. Meeting with President Bush in Washington recently, General Musharraf declared that Pakistani forces had "broken the back" of the Qaeda network in his country and destroyed its training bases.
Many American intelligence officials have been skeptical of the effort, though, noting that the Pakistanis often alerted tribal leaders to raids beforehand and mostly only snared foot soldiers. To rout Al Qaeda and find Mr. bin Laden is going to require a much more sustained campaign by the United States and Pakistan, intelligence officials from those countries say. The United States is spending $4.5 million to help build roads, wells and schools in the tribal areas, an amount dwarfed by the $18 billion the United States is spending on the reconstruction of Iraq. Pakistani officials and others say economic development, locally elected government and full integration of the tribal areas into Pakistan are the only way to eradicate militancy from the isolated area.
"To really neutralize and eliminate them, it will have to be a lot more effort," said Talat Masood, an Islamabad political analyst and former general. "They are still a very potent force."
James Risen reported from Washington for this article, and David Rohde from Peshawar, Pakistan. Mohammed Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company