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Bin Laden Trail Still Cold, Pakistan Says

Joint sweep with the U.S. has caught more than a dozen other Al Qaeda suspects, official notes.

August 16, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Despite a surge in arrests of Al Qaeda suspects, a senior Pakistani anti-terrorism official said investigators still had not found the trail of their main target, Osama bin Laden.

"You can only be sure you're closing in on someone when you at least have a hint of his whereabouts," Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema said in an interview last week. "With regard to Osama bin Laden himself, I would say that we are not getting any substantial leads as yet."

Cheema, head of the National Crisis Management Cell at the Interior Ministry, said Pakistan was "working hand in glove with the U.S. government" in a sweep that had netted more than a dozen suspects in the last two weeks. Among those detained was Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who had been indicted in the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa.

Pakistani intelligence sources say FBI agents are playing a crucial role in tracking suspects by intercepting cellphone calls and other actions.

One source familiar with the investigation said Washington had stepped up pressure on Pakistani authorities to turn their latest leads into the capture of more high-level targets before the U.S. presidential election in November.

Bush administration officials have warned that intelligence indicates Al Qaeda may be planning an attack before the election.

"The next month and a half is absolutely crucial," said the Pakistani source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified because his superiors had not approved the interview. "The way the Americans are pressuring Pakistan, they want Osama bin Laden."

Bush administration officials have denied U.S. media reports that the United States was pressuring Pakistan to capture or kill Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda fugitives before the election. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told the New Republic, which published one such account, that U.S. policy on pursuing those fugitives was unchanged by the election schedule.

Last month's capture of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old Pakistani computer specialist suspected of operating an information hub for Al Qaeda, set off the latest wave of arrests, including 13 in Britain. U.S. investigators are pursuing leads based on his computer files.

A Western diplomat confirmed reports that laptop computers and dozens of computer disks contained surveillance reports and apparent plans for attacks in the United States.

Cheema confirmed news reports that after his arrest, Khan worked undercover with Pakistani authorities, sending e-mail messages to Al Qaeda members in several countries. But Khan's cover apparently was blown when his name was leaked to the U.S. media.

Pakistani officials have made conflicting statements about the importance of Khan's arrest in the broader war against the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Some raised expectations of a breakthrough in the nearly three-year hunt for Bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri. Others have been more cautious.

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat told Arab satellite television that investigators had "penetrated deep inside this network." He also seemed to suggest that recent arrests had brought Bin Laden and Zawahiri closer to capture.

"Undoubtedly, we have received some information, and all the arrests at the Al Qaeda leadership level bring us closer toward reaching the desired objective," Hayat said.

Cheema, who is one of Hayat's top aides, said the interior minister had been quoted out of context. Although Khan's arrest was "a significant success," it had not generated new momentum in the search for Bin Laden and his deputy, Cheema said.

"We should not be very optimistic," he said. "Yes, we got 13 to 14 [Al Qaeda] people in the last two weeks' time, but there is no reason for euphoria."

Arrests of mid- and low-ranking Al Qaeda members such as Khan usually lead to more arrests over a period of 10 to 15 days, Cheema said. Then the surge slows, and investigators have to force new breaks in Al Qaeda's defenses. The network's cell structure isolates units from one another, limiting the damage when one is broken up.

Bin Laden was last heard in public on an audiotape broadcast in April. His last videotape was broadcast in September 2003, on the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The satellite television station Al Jazeera, which aired the video, said it was produced in late April or early May 2003.

The Al Qaeda leader appeared gaunt and tired in the videotape. Cheema would not say whether there was any recent information on Bin Laden's health, but said investigators were working on the assumption that he was alive.

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