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THE WORLD

Bin Laden Feared Alive and Plotting

Terrorism: Senators say latest report of the Al Qaeda leader confirms U.S. intelligence data.

June 24, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE and JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The senators who lead the Select Committee on Intelligence said Sunday that they believe Osama bin Laden is alive and his Al Qaeda organization is preparing new attacks against the United States.

Their comments came in reaction to the broadcast of an audio interview with a purported Bin Laden spokesman, who said that the terror network's leader is ''in good and prosperous health'' and that ''98% of the leadership'' had survived the American bombing in Afghanistan.

This report only confirms what American officials already believe, said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chairs the intelligence committee.

''Our best intelligence estimate is that he is alive and probably someplace in the tribal areas on the western side of Pakistan,'' Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." And far from being crushed, Al Qaeda is reforming and shows a ''renewed willingness and capability to conduct terrorist attacks.''

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee's top Republican, agreed that the threat of new attacks appears to be growing. ''They could hit us any day,'' he said on ABC's ''This Week.''

This latest report about Bin Laden--and the continuing threat alerts issued by the FBI--prompted one leading Democrat to question the success of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' that the Bush administration made an ''enormous mistake'' by not using U.S. troops to seal off the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Rather than being captured or killed, Bin Laden and most of the Al Qaeda leadership escaped, he said.

''The initial part of toppling the Taliban was a huge success and a great credit, due to the courage and capacity of those individual soldiers,'' said Kerry. ''Our troops were not allowed to do what they're capable of doing at Tora Bora.''

In December, about 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters had retreated to caves in the Tora Bora mountains, but U.S. commanders relied on the Afghans to mount an attack.

''I think that was an enormous mistake. I think the Tora Bora operation was a failed military operation,'' Kerry said on NBC's ''Meet the Press.'' ''We didn't shut off the back door.''

In March, the Pentagon sent American soldiers to the same area to lead another campaign, Operation Anaconda. But by then, Bin Laden and his operatives had apparently escaped.

''The fact is that the prime target, Al Qaeda, has dispersed and in many ways is more dangerous than it was when it was in the mountains of Tora Bora,'' Kerry said.

Afghanistan's president-elect, Hamid Karzai, said Sunday that he too believes Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban regime that sheltered Bin Laden, are alive, but he added that their days are numbered.

''They are a defeated force,'' Karzai said of the Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers. ''We are after them. We should not consider them a force that can pose a threat.''

Karzai, interviewed on CNN's ''Late Edition,'' said he had no idea where Bin Laden might be hiding.

Since the attacks on the Tora Bora caves, Bin Laden has been neither seen nor heard from. This has led to speculation that he was killed or was ill and near death.

In the 24-minute audio interview, which the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite network first broadcast late Saturday, a man identified as Sulaiman abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti-born spokesman for Bin Laden, said he wanted to knock down those rumors.

''I want to assure Muslims that Sheik Osama bin Laden ... is in good and prosperous health, and all that is being rumored about his illness and injury in Tora Bora has no truth,'' he said.

''Ninety-eight percent of the leadership of Al Qaeda are safe and running their affairs perfectly,'' he said, and that group is still capable of launching terrorist attacks. ''The few coming days and months will prove to the whole world, Allah willing, the truth of what we are saying.''

Al Jazeera editor Ibrahim Hilal told Associated Press on Sunday that the audiotape, which is in Arabic, was downloaded from an Internet site believed linked to Al Qaeda. Hilal said he believed that the voice was Abu Ghaith's based on comparisons with videotapes the network has of him.

On the tape, the spokesman said Al Qaeda was behind a deadly bombing in April at a synagogue in Tunisia. It was not clear when the recording was made, but it referred to warnings by U.S. officials about further attacks.

''I say yes to what the American officials are saying ... that we are going to carry out attacks on America,'' the spokesman said.

White House and Pentagon officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment Sunday.

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