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Bin Laden May Use Stone Age Tactics to Elude High-Tech Hunt

September 07, 1998|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In its accelerated pursuit of suspected super-terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the United States is prepared to use its full panoply of high-tech tools: Spy satellites. Communication intercepts. Long-range weaponry. Perhaps even "cyber-war" attacks on his financial infrastructure.

Already, the United States has fired cruise missiles at sites linked to Bin Laden in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Intelligence officials have used advanced surveillance techniques to monitor his conversations and track the movements of his followers. Even before the Aug. 7 embassy bombings, they reportedly drew up plans to send U.S. forces to Afghanistan to extricate Bin Laden, but the proposal eventually was rejected.

Yet Bin Laden, the Islamic extremist accused of masterminding not only the embassy attacks but other acts of terrorism from a command post in the Afghan mountains, appears to have a potent defense against the world's most fully equipped modern power, U.S. officials acknowledge.

He can simply retreat into the Stone Age.

U.S. officials fear Bin Laden has the ability to neutralize much of his pursuers' advantage by burrowing deeper into the jagged Afghan landscape, limiting his use of vulnerable communication links and demobilizing an already loose-jointed 5,000-member organization to minimize the damage that might be done to it by informants or military assault.

Such maneuvers would sharply hinder the efficiency of Bin Laden's organization. Yet they would have only a modest effect on its ability to carry out what U.S. officials characterize as a very low-tech, albeit lethal, mission--to bomb and harass Americans and other foes.

U.S. authorities have claimed early success in their pursuit of Bin Laden, with the apprehension of several key suspects in the embassy bombings. But Bin Laden's apparent ability to adopt a primitive survival strategy raises questions about whether the United States--in this anti-terror campaign and those that are likely to follow--truly has the punitive power it claimed last month when it let fly the 79 cruise missiles of "Operation Infinite Reach."

"If they fight us in this century, it's no contest," one defense official said. "But if they turn back the time machine, they can make the odds a lot different."

Satellite Photos of 'Terrorist University'

In the run-up to last month's attack on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, U.S. officials used Bin Laden's sporadic public appearances, and his reliance on high-tech tools, to their advantage.

The United States had accumulated valuable intelligence on Bin Laden using spy satellite photos of his "terrorist university," which the officials showed off when they briefed the public after the attack.

They used their communications intercept capacity to pick up calls placed by Bin Laden on his Inmarsat satellite phone, despite his apparent use of electronic "scramblers." Bin Laden's voiceprint, which can be used to identify his phone calls, is widely available because of interviews he has given on television.

The Saudi-born financier has appeared to relish visibility, as underscored by past interviews and a public statement he issued after the U.S. attack. Such appearances clearly have a purpose: They keep his far-flung operatives and potential volunteers aware of his presence and keep them focused on the cause of anti-Western fundamentalism.

But now, Bin Laden can quickly scale back reliance on satellite phones and the laptop computer he is believed to use. He can rely more heavily on emissaries to convey personal messages and turn to lesser-known aides to issue public pronouncements.

In bombing an alleged training camp in Afghanistan, Clinton administration officials said they wanted to disrupt a facility that was instructing as many as 600 fighters at a time in the use of firearms and explosives, as well as serve notice on Bin Laden that the West is watching him.

Reports from the region suggest that Bin Laden wants to simply rebuild the camps, with stepped-up security. But officials acknowledge that if he decided the risks have become too great, he could quickly move out and relocate some of the most important camp functions to caves or underground bunkers. And he also could break up his organization into smaller groups and disperse them in the mountains.

Reported Training Called 'Low-Tech'

In the network of camps, Bin Laden is not protected by the kind of multistory reinforced underground bunkers that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has built to protect his staff and command and control communications, one U.S. official noted.

But "he doesn't need it like you do in downtown Baghdad. . . . The Russians tried to blast [Afghan fighters] out of those hills for years, and they couldn't do it," the official said.

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