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Bin Laden hunt finds Al Qaeda influx in Pakistan

The CIA's top target remains elusive, but the search uncovers a terrorist group flush with cash from Iraq.

May 20, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A major CIA effort launched last year to hunt down Osama bin Laden has produced no significant leads on his whereabouts, but has helped track an alarming increase in the movement of Al Qaeda operatives and money into Pakistan's tribal territories, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the operation.

In one of the most troubling trends, U.S. officials said that Al Qaeda's command base in Pakistan is increasingly being funded by cash coming out of Iraq, where the terrorist network's operatives are raising substantial sums from donations to the anti-American insurgency as well as kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity.

The influx of money has bolstered Al Qaeda's leadership ranks at a time when the core command is regrouping and reasserting influence over its far-flung network. The trend also signals a reversal in the traditional flow of Al Qaeda funds, with the network's leadership surviving to a large extent on money coming in from its most profitable franchise, rather than distributing funds from headquarters to distant cells.

Al Qaeda's efforts were aided, intelligence officials said, by Pakistan's withdrawal in September of tens of thousands of troops from the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border where Bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding.

Little more than a year ago, Al Qaeda's core command was thought to be in a financial crunch. But U.S. officials said cash shipped from Iraq has eased those troubles.

"Iraq is a big moneymaker for them," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.

The evolving picture of Al Qaeda's finances is based in part on intelligence from an aggressive effort launched last year to intensify the pressure on Bin Laden and his senior deputies.

As part of a so-called surge in personnel, the CIA deployed as many as 50 clandestine operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- a dramatic increase over the number of CIA case officers permanently stationed in those countries. All of the new arrivals were given the primary objective of finding what counter-terrorism officials call "HVT1" and "HVT2." Those "high value target" designations refer to Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

The surge was part of a broader shake-up at the CIA designed to refocus on the hunt for Bin Laden, officials said. One former high-ranking agency official said the CIA had formed a task force that involved officials from all four directorates at the agency, including analysts, scientists and technical experts, as well as covert operators.

The officials were charged with reinvigorating a search that had atrophied when some U.S. intelligence assets and special forces teams were pulled out of Afghanistan in 2002 to prepare for the war with Iraq.

Arduous search

Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence and military officials said, the surge has yet to produce a single lead on Bin Laden's or Zawahiri's location that could be substantiated.

"We're not any closer," said a senior U.S. military official who monitors the intelligence on the hunt for Bin Laden.

The lack of progress underscores the difficulty of the search more than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite a $25-million U.S. reward, current and former intelligence officials said, the United States has not had a lead on Bin Laden since he fled American and Afghan forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in early 2002.

"We've had no significant report of him being anywhere," said a former senior CIA official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing U.S. intelligence operations. U.S. spy agencies have not even had information that "you could validate historically," the official said, meaning a tip on a previous Bin Laden location that could subsequently be verified.

President Bush is given detailed presentations on the hunt's progress every two to four months, in addition to routine counter-terrorism briefings, intelligence officials said.

The presentations include "complex schematics, search patterns, what we're doing, where the Predator flies," said one participant, referring to flights by unmanned airplanes used in the search. The CIA has even used sand models to illustrate the topography of the mountainous terrain where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Still, officials said, they have been unable to answer the basic question of whether they are getting closer to their target.

"Any prediction on when we're going to get him is just ridiculous," said the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official. "It could be a year from now or the Pakistanis could be in the process of getting him right now."

In a written response to questions from The Times, the CIA said it "does not as a rule discuss publicly the details of clandestine operations," but acknowledged it had stepped up operations against Bin Laden and defended their effectiveness.

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