Spies pass on rumours that bin Laden has fled to Pakistan

War on terrorism: Intelligence

By Kim Sengupta

15 November 2001

In his latest highly publicised interview, Osama bin Laden declared that he was ready to die. America and Britain would, of course, like to help out, but finding him is the biggest problem they face.

Western intelligence agencies have received reports that Mr bin Laden and his chief lieutenants in al-Qa'ida may have fled over the border into Pakistan to be sheltered by Pashtun supporters and protected by sympathisers in the country's secret service, InterServicesIntelligence. The reports, which are unconfirmed, open a can of worms.

On one hand Pakistan is supposedly a firm ally in the so-called global war against terrorism, and thus Mr bin Laden should now be in the grasp of America. But in reality the remit of General Pervez Musharraf's regime does not run deep in the tribal frontier areas, and finding and capturing him will not be easy.

A Western operation against him is also high risk given the volatile political situation in Pakistan. Nor are the Americans and British likely to get much intelligence help. The perception among senior military officials in Washington and London is that not only has the ISI, which helped to create the Taliban, been unhelpful, but it has actually passed information to the enemy.

Yesterday, the Northern Alliance claimed Pakistani planes had flown Pakistani and Arab al-Qa'ida fighters from the northern city of Kunduz, the scene of heavy fighting.

If Mr bin Laden and his followers are still in Afghanistan then the challenge becomes a lot easier. With the sudden and spectacular collapse of the Taliban, the Allies can concentrate a large part of their resources in hunting them down.

American and British special forces are actively engaged in pursuing leads on al-Qa'ida in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar as well as hills north-east of Kabul.

One of the more intense searches has taken place in the Paktia province and the border at Jalalabad. According to senior military sources Mr bin Laden and his coterie have been reported to be constantly on the move. "We have been receiving information, but this has not come to us on time to do anything," said an official.

Taliban forces that have switched sides are being questioned over the whereabouts of al-Qa'ida leaders, as are those taken prisoner. Any location of the organisation's leadership will enable the Allies to launch air strikes and raids by special forces.

Military commanders believe some al-Qa'ida leaders had been killed in US air strikes using J-Dam bunker bursting bombs on caves and underground complexes in the south and the central highlands.

Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, said yesterday: "The first priority remains the tracking down of the leadership of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. The second priority is destroying the Taliban and al-Qa'ida military capability, which is what is propping up that leadership."