Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 4 News List

No real progress in hunt for bin Laden

WELL HIDDEN The leadership of al-Qaeda remains free despite more than 100,000 troops being posted at the Afghan-Pakistan frontier where they are believed to be

AP , AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BORDER

Soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force stand guard near the site of an explosion in Kandahar on Tuesday. A series of bomb blasts allegedly linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda killed two civilians and two policemen in southern Afghanistan. Two of the blasts were targeted at foreign troops helping to round up militants in the unruly south of the country.

PHOTO: AFP

The al-Qaeda terror camps are gone from Afghanistan, but the enigma of Osama bin Laden still hangs over these lawless borderlands where tens of thousands of US and Pakistani troops have spent nearly five years searching for him.

Villagers say the CIA missed by only a few kilometers when it targeted bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, with a missile strike in January. Then in May, US Special Forces arrested one of al-Zawahri's closest aides, suggesting the trail has not gone entirely cold.

As for bin Laden himself? He may be nearby. Yet hopes of cornering the Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader seem distant as ever. The last time authorities said they were close to getting him was in 2004, and in hindsight those statements seem more hope than fact.

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the most publicized manhunt in history has drawn a blank. The CIA has reorganized agents searching for the al-Qaeda leaders in the face of the evolving nature of the terrorist threat. And the US military's once-singular focus is diffused by the need for reconstruction and a growing fight against the Taliban, the resurgent Afghan Islamic movement that once hosted bin Laden.

US soldiers climbing through the forested mountains of Afghanistan's Kunar province -- where in the 1980s bin Laden fought in the US-backed jihad against the Soviets -- still hope to catch or kill him. But they say bolstering the Afghan government is their primary mission now, amid the worst upsurge in Taliban attacks in five years.

"It is like chasing ghosts up there," said Sargent George Williams, 37, of Watertown, New York, part of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division pushing into untamed territory along the border with Pakistan. "Osama bin Laden is always going to be a target of ours as long as he is out there, but there are other missions: to rebuild Afghanistan and attack the militants still here."

The top leaders of al-Qaeda remain free despite more than 100,000 US, Afghan and Pakistani forces at the frontier. High-tech listening posts, satellite imagery, unmanned spy planes -- not to mention a US$25 million bounty on each man from the US government -- all aid the hunt.

Yet both bin Laden and al-Zawahri are communicating to the outside world, posting messages on Islamic Web sites to inspire further attacks on the West. Although the al-Qaeda leaders are too isolated to run directly a terrorist operation like Sept. 11, Pakistan says the latest alleged plot, to bomb US-bound jetliners from Britain, may have been blessed by al-Zawahri.

The frustrating campaign has frayed critical cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, neighbors separated by an ill-defined frontier and a history of mutual suspicion.

Pakistan has captured most of bin Laden's lieutenants, including Sept. 11 attacks "coordinator" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and claims to have reduced the remaining al-Qaeda command to mere figureheads. Pakistan has lost 350 troops fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants.

Yet Afghan officials allege that Pakistan is sanctuary for Taliban rebel leaders and lets them recruit from radical Islamic schools. They even suggest that Pakistan is hiding bin Laden, perhaps to ensure Pakistan remains of strategic importance to Washington.

"We believe he is being kept as a prize, as an ultimate bargaining chip," said a senior Afghan government official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of his comments.

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