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The Bin Laden Guessing Game

Terrorism: An FBI official says he thinks the Al Qaeda leader is gone. But evidence is scarce.

July 18, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The FBI's top counter-terrorism official spoke out Wednesday about the fate of Osama bin Laden, saying he believes the nation's most-wanted terrorist is dead.

The remarks by Executive Assistant FBI Director Dale Watson fueled the growing debate over the threat posed by Bin Laden, after weeks of contradictory speculation here and abroad by authorities involved in the hunt for the elusive leader of the Al Qaeda network.

''Is [Bin Laden] alive or is he dead? I am not really sure of the answer.... I personally think he is probably not with us anymore, but I have no evidence to support that,'' Watson told federal law enforcement officials at a conference sponsored by the Justice Department.

Watson's comments, which came in response to a question, are believed to be the first public remarks on the Al Qaeda leader's status by a senior U.S. law enforcement official. Watson heads all counter-terrorism and counterintelligence operations for the FBI. His remarks strongly suggest that the U.S. government's global counter-terrorism dragnet has uncovered no information--through intelligence intercepts and debriefings of captured Al Qaeda operatives--that Bin Laden survived the massive bombing attacks on Afghanistan.

One U.S. intelligence official confirmed that there have been no intercepts or other information indicating that Bin Laden is alive.

But that official and other U.S. counter-terrorism authorities said they have interpreted the lack of information about Bin Laden's fate in exactly the opposite manner as Watson.

What is potentially far more telling, the intelligence official said, is that nothing has been picked up in the international ''chatter'' to indicate that Bin Laden is dead, either.

''Is it possible that Bin Laden is dead? Yes, it's possible,'' said the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''But is there evidence pointing in that direction? No. He could certainly be alive.''

''The bottom line,'' the official added, ''is that we simply don't know.''

Watson did not explain why he believed Bin Laden is dead. However, even before Bin Laden came under attack by coalition forces, he had suffered for years from kidney disease, which authorities believe worsened as the terrorist leader was forced to flee his Afghanistan stronghold.

U.S. officials on Wednesday also cited the last video footage of him, released in November. They now believe the footage shows that Bin Laden, who appeared extremely gaunt, had lost the use of his left shoulder, perhaps from an airstrike-related injury that went untreated.

Senior Justice Department officials said Watson's remarks caught them by surprise, and that the department and the FBI officially remain neutral about whether Bin Laden is alive.

Several U.S. officials acknowledged that the ''is he dead or isn't he'' speculation of the past few weeks is about as conclusive as reading the electronic equivalent of tea leaves.

But those officials also said Wednesday that if Bin Laden had indeed been killed in battle or died of some other causes, Al Qaeda cell phones would be ringing off the hook, and e-mail messages and other electronic communiques would be pinging from one end of the globe to the other. And they said that Bin Laden's modus operandi over the past many years has been to remain in contact with his followers, publicly or through communiques, even when he goes underground. Such communications would have been tracked, they say, by the vast electronic eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency.

''Some things that one would expect to see if he were dead haven't happened,'' said the intelligence official, declining to elaborate.

Other officials, however, have sided with Watson. They say that if Bin Laden were alive, there would be no way the National Security Agency's electronic ears and other intelligence-gathering methods would not have picked up some tidbit of corroborative evidence.

Moreover, some of Bin Laden's close associates have been sighted recently in other far-flung locations, the officials said. And because these men were tremendously loyal to Bin Laden, the theory is that they would not have left their leader's side except in the event of his death.

In recent days, a London-based Arabic newspaper quoted a senior Arab journalist close to Bin Laden as saying the fugitive Saudi millionaire underwent surgery last year to remove shrapnel that lodged in his shoulder during a U.S. bombing raid.

And although that report said Bin Laden had recovered, one U.S. congressional official who tracks Bin Laden said such an admission of an injury is often the first step in formally conceding that a powerful Islamic figure has been killed.

''We could be seeing a slow evolution toward acknowledging that he's not alive,'' said the congressional official.

Watson's comments came after weeks of mounting--and conflicting--speculation about Bin Laden.

Several Bin Laden associates have publicly claimed he is alive, well and planning new attacks. Leaders of foreign intelligence services, such as August Hanning of Germany, claim to have information indicating that Bin Laden is alive.

''We are convinced that Bin Laden is still alive and is planning new attacks,'' Hanning, president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, said earlier this week. ''He is still the figurehead of Al Qaeda, but doesn't appear to move around very much.''

Others, such as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, have said in recent weeks that Bin Laden is dead.

The White House has avoided saying whether the government believes Bin Laden is dead or alive. President Bush said last week that the Al Qaeda leader ''may be alive.''

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