Tuesday, September 07, 2004

As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, bin Laden remains at large

As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, bin Laden remains at large
By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
September 07, 2004

- The last time Osama bin Laden's visage surfaced publicly was almost exactly a year ago. Looking gaunt and tired, he fulminated against America on a videotape aired on the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks he orchestrated.

Since then, U.S. and Pakistani forces have zeroed in on the wild region where Afghanistan and Pakistan intersect, conducting raids, lobbing bombs in the belief the terror chief may well be holed up there.

But, with Saturday marking the third anniversary of the suicide-airliner attacks, bin Laden's whereabouts remain as much a mystery as they were that fateful day.

"We don't have any information about bin Laden," Pakistan Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters this week.

If so, it's not for lack of trying. Beginning last spring, an offensive by U.S. Marines and Afghan fighters squeezed remote mountain areas where intelligence reports pointed to conclaves of enemy fighters.

Simultaneously, top State Department officials - including Secretary of State Colin Powell and his No. 2, Richard Armitage - have personally visited the most senior Pakistani leaders, escalating the pressure on those officials who U.S. leaders believe can do much more to find America's most-wanted man. Last week, it was State's chief counterterror official, Cofer Black, who traveled to Islamabad with that urgent message.

With 70,000 soldiers deployed to the tribal border areas, Pakistan has managed in recent months to snag bin Laden's former bodyguard, as well as his ex-cook. Its biggest success was the arrest last month, in cities far from that region, of several mid-level al Qaeda operatives and the seizure of computers that significantly expanded knowledge of the inner workings of the amorphous terrorist network.

But so far, bin Laden remains elusive, and the $25 million U.S. bounty on his head is collecting nothing but interest.

Meanwhile, as they have since 9/11, rumors about bin Laden - that he is dead, about to be captured, already in custody, about to trigger a new attack - are swirling in the information void.

One of the most pervasive is the Internet-fueled speculation that the White House has bin Laden stashed away in custody somewhere, waiting to produce him at the time most advantageous for President Bush's re-election campaign.

Another is that bin Laden will resurface for Saturday's Sept. 11 anniversary, this time signaling via video- or audiotape to fellow conspirators that the time has come to launch new attacks to disrupt or influence America's presidential election in November.

On the campaign trail, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have tried to inoculate themselves against criticism that bin Laden remains on the lam.

Brushing off Democratic attacks that the administration should have concentrated on bin Laden instead of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Bush and Cheney contend that bin Laden and his network have been substantially disrupted by U.S. and allied arrests. While bin Laden remains a symbolic figurehead, his capture would have little effect on the day-to-day war on terror, which will not end if he is apprehended or killed, they say.

On the latter point, terrorism experts generally agree. Steven Simon, co-author of a new book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," and an analyst at the Rand Corp., says bin Laden has successfully launched a global insurgency with franchises that operate autonomously.

"The cancer has metastasized and it's doing fine on its own," Simon said. "Osama bin Laden's done his job well."

But Simon and other analysts, such as Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, also believe that America needs to nab bin Laden or kill him for an important psychological reason.

"We want to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks," Flournoy said. "It matters a great deal to the American people."