Why it's not easy to track down Osama

OLLY MOORE AND EDWARD CODY

ISLAMABAD: US military efforts to find Osama bin Laden have been stymied by poor intelligence, the prey's savvy evasive tactics and one of the most daunting geographic and cultural terrains in the world, according to intelligence and military officials across the region.

After nearly four weeks of intense aerial and electronic surveillance and scattered bombing, bin Laden has avoided becoming the highly visible trophy the Bush administration originally identified as the primary target --``dead or alive'' --of its attacks in Afghanistan.

US intelligence efforts directed against bin Laden have been hobbled by the lack of informed US operatives on the ground, and disarray and distrust within Pakistan's intelligence service, the agency with the potential to know the most about bin Laden's whereabouts, according to officials familiar with the operations.

Intelligence officers and analysts said it could take the US months to develop the intelligence on the ground needed to locate him. ``They need anti-Taliban Afghanis on the ground. For that, they have to help build the anti-Taliban movement in the south and it's going to take time and money and lots of effort. It's not something you can do with US commanders and US bombs,'' said Ahmed Rashid, an author who has written about the Taliban and traveled extensively through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in recent years.

Pakistani intelligence officials familiar with bin Laden's operations said he usually relies on word of mouth and hand-carried written messages to issue orders. Bin Laden also disguises his movements with decoy convoys, several intelligence officials said. His entourages, they added, often blend in with movements of Afghans, making it difficult for satellites or surveillance aircraft to identify his activities.

An Aghan who recently fled to Pakistan said bin Laden has a large facility deep under the hills near Kandahar. He said US aircraft have bombed the facility numerous times, adding that he did not think it was heavily damaged because of its depth under the hills. The veracity of such reports on bin Laden's hideouts is difficult to assess or to confirm by technical surveillance.

Pakistani intelligence officials said the US military was unlikely to collect much useful information about bin Laden or the Taliban through Special Forces raids on Taliban military sites, such as the one conducted at one of Omar's compounds near Kandahar two weeks ago.

US officials said one of the objectives of that raid was to collect intelligence from such sources as computer discs. But a Pakistani intelligence officer who has worked with Taliban commanders said the Afghan movement --much less the Al-Qaida network --keeps few organized files, documents or strategic maps, instead planning most operations verbally or through scribbled notes that are later destroyed.

Other officials noted that the Afghan terrain is so diverse -- with different tribes and languages in various regions -- that intelligence operatives require sources in specific locations to provide information on bin Laden's whereabouts and the details needed to launch any military assault against his location.

``You have to have people from inside,'' said one Pakistani intelligence official. ``You can't send someone to track Osama out of their own area. They would be like a fish out of water.''

But ISI, the intelligence agency with the greatest potential to offer assistance is immersed in internal turmoil. ``The events can force the government to change its Afghan policy overnight, but successful intelligence operations take years of secret groundwork,'' said one senior ISI official.

Pakistani intelligence officials complain that their best sources in Afghanistan now consider the ISI traitors and are refusing to provide information. Other Pakistani authorities note the ISI has never collected the kind of intelligence needed to rout out bin Laden because it was not part of the agency's mission.

According to Pakistani intelligence officials, bin Laden has stopped communicating by satellite telephones or two-way radios to prevent US eavesdropping equipment in satellites or planes from locating him. This has been particularly true since the Clinton administration launched cruise missile attacks on several of bin Laden's camps after the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

``Before the 1998 attacks, he communicated all over the world,'' said a former Pakistani intelligence official who has maintained numerous contacts inside Afghanistan. ``Since then, he doesn't even use a walkie-talkie.''

(LATWP Svc)
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