Monday, December 14, 2009

Syed Saleem Shahzad on the unsettled life of Al Qaeda leaders

Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online has the fullest treatment of the location of major leaders of AlQaeda that I have seen in a long time. RLC

Osama can run, how long can he hide?
Asia Times By Syed Saleem Shahzad 12/11/2009

"I believe that al-Qaeda can be defeated overall but I believe it is an ideology and he [Osama bin Laden] is an iconic leader, so I think to complete the destruction of that organization, it does mean that he needs to be either captured or killed, or brought to justice."- General Stanley McChrystal, United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Afghanistan

"We don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is, if we did, we'd go get him." Robert Gates, a former US Central Intelligence Agency director and the current defense secretary.

ISLAMABAD - General Stanley McChrystal, as in the testimony quoted above to United States congressional committees this week, is unequivocal on the need to first roll back Taliban gains in Afghanistan as a prerequisite for the capture or elimination of Osama bin Laden and then the "ultimate defeat of al-Qaeda".

Apart from the difficulty of rolling back the Taliban, despite an additional 30,000 US troops surging into the country, US intelligence, as per admissions this month, are further away from catching bin Laden than they were eight years ago, when US forces notoriously let him slip through their grasp in the Tora Bora mountains.

There is little dispute that bin Laden and his close associates, including his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, move around in the vast and inhospitable mountainous territory that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; the porous border exists only as a line on a map.

"Intelligence reports suggest that the al-Qaeda chief is somewhere inside North Waziristan, sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border," US National Security Adviser James Jones said this week. The US has a US$50 million bounty for the "capture, killing or information leading to the capture or killing" of bin Laden. This had been doubled from $25 million in 2007. He remains on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted list.

Apart from one legal border crossing, 15 mountain passes are frequently used to travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by militants, traders, smugglers and innocent travelers. These paths originate in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and feed into the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan, Khost, Pakita and Paktika.

It is this area that will become the stage for the next chapter in the hunt for bin Laden, with US forces on the Afghan side and Pakistan troops on the other. The theory is that al-Qaeda and its allies will be caught in the middle.

Interaction with generally well-connected militant sources leads Asia Times Online to believe that bin Laden, 52, is alive and healthy, despite a history of kidney trouble. Since the construction of a US base in 2007 at the intersection of the Afghan province of Kunar and Bajaur Agency in Pakistan, bin Laden is confirmed to have flitted from place to place on either side of the border.

He is definitely known to have spent time in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, but all sources say that nowadays he is more often than not in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden has numerous safe houses and is protected by a strong network of diehards in the Pakistani tribal areas, in addition to an intelligence network on both sides of the border that has to date managed to stay a step ahead of both Western and Pakistani intelligence.

Top Taliban and other commanders adopt a similar pattern in avoiding the attention of unwelcome visitors. Even though a former Afghan premier, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is known to move around Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan, he remains at large. Hekmatyar also makes brief trips into the adjacent Pakistani regions of Chitral and Dir.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of legendary Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, runs the largest and most effective Taliban network in Afghanistan. He moves in the provinces of Khost and Paktia, and also in North Waziristan, always one step ahead of his pursuers - including drones.

Similarly, Ilyas Kashmiri, now one of al-Qaeda's most wanted men as he is intimately involved in defining and directing al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's struggle, moves between bases of operation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, never staying in one place for more than a night or two.

Not so fortunate was Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader killed in a drone attack earlier this year. He stayed only in the districts of Ladha and Makeen in South Waziristan and did not have other sanctuaries, making it easier to track him down.

The difficulty in trying to trace bin Laden is that he moves across such a broad area, and that, unlike even the Taliban, there is no defined target. Coalition forces have a broad idea of where the Taliban's command centers are and in which areas to expect resistance.

By comparison, bin Laden and his few dozen al-Qaeda deputies are shadows shifting across an endless landscape on which Taliban fighters, Pakistani tribal people and jihadi youths are more visible.

There is no recent credible first-hand information on when bin Laden was last seen. A few Taliban fighters who were arrested a few weeks ago could only share with their American interrogators what they had heard from their contacts - that bin Laden had moved between North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

It is safe to assume that he has not been in South Waziristan since the Pakistani military began major operations there about two months ago to take on the Pakistani Taliban. His most likely immediate destination would have been Khost, directly across the border.

Such speculation, though, has been around for years and bin Laden is nowhere nearer to being caught, let alone his chasers seeing his dust trail. Indeed, from the Pakistani perspective, their last verifiable sighting was in September 2003 near Bush Mountain in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan. By the time the army arrived, he had long gone; all that was left were first-hand accounts of his having resided in the area.

All the same, the net might be getting tighter. Late on Thursday night, CBS News reported that a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone had killed a top al-Qaeda official in the Pakistani border area. Unnamed officials said the person killed was not bin Laden or Zawahiri, but that he was "one of the top five terrorists on the US wanted list", according to the report.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.

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