- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Osama bin Laden remains on the run along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, with the U.S. manhunt hindered by restrictions on the movements of covert warriors.

Defense sources say bin Laden plays less of a hands-on role in running al Qaeda than at the time he managed the September 11 plot. A new crop of terror leaders now is planning attacks at the local levels in extremist spinoff groups linked to bin Laden.

“He is much less in day-to-day control because he is on the run so much,” a defense source said yesterday. “To the extent that he runs operations, he uses cutouts, human messengers, because he doesn’t use cell phones.”

U.S. government promises to capture the terror mastermind have ceased in recent months. As bin Laden stays under the radar, an ally, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq, has dominated headlines as one of the world’s most gruesome terrorists.

Zarqawi is believed to be responsible for the beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg. He has organized a series of suicide car bombings that killed scores of Iraqis and Americans.

Meanwhile, bin Laden moves through the rugged mountains by any means available — foot, donkey or vehicle — and attracts a loyal following willing to provide cover, defense officials say.

For years, he has traveled with his top deputy, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, a surgeon whom one U.S. official described as particularly vicious.

Washington believes bin Laden is still alive. He has not been heard from since April and no longer appears in videotapes. An April audiotape of bin Laden turned up at Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news channel that the Pentagon says is sympathetic to Islamist terrorists.

In that tape, bin Laden offered a “truce” to any European country that pulled its troops out of Iraq. In a January audiotape, he called on all Muslims to conduct a holy war in the Middle East against Americans.

In an infamous 1998 fatwa, or religious decree, he declared war on the United States, urging Muslims to kill Americans anywhere, anytime.

Before a spring offensive code-named Mountain Storm, U.S. military officers in Afghanistan made bold predictions that bin Laden would be captured by the year’s end. That rosy scenario has given way to more sober comments.

Asked at a June 17 press conference how the hunt for bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was progressing, Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top commander in Afghanistan, made no predictions.

“That hunt continues,” he said. “We have a focused effort here that’s dedicated on a daily basis to looking for those leaders that are at the tops of these organizations, but it’s important to get at the organization, the network, and to take down those terrorist networks as attacking the leadership. We’ll continue to focus on finding the key leaders in these organizations and bringing them to justice.”

A second Pentagon source said the measured statements reflect the reality of trying to catch elusive terrorists in vast, rugged areas, some of which are off-limits to uniformed personnel.

Despite a new offensive by Pakistani troops, there remain areas in the tribal regions of eastern Pakistan where government troops will not go. Although the CIA operates in Pakistan, the country is off-limits to American infantrymen who could hunt for bin Laden in the same way they hunted down Saddam Hussein and his two sons in Iraq.

“They remain optimistic, but the amount and ability of Pakistan to cooperate ebbs and flows,” the official said. “There are certain places Pakistani forces can go and certain places where they cannot.”

This is because President Pervez Musharraf needs the allegiance of tribal leaders as he tries to shift the country away from radical Islam and embrace the United States as an ally in the war on terrorism. Militants have made two attempts on his life, using bombs that nearly struck his armored limousine.

Officials say he must be judicious in how many missions he launches into the ungoverned areas so as not to trigger a rebellion.

Last winter, the Pentagon shifted elements of the secretive Task Force 121 from Iraq to Afghanistan to aid the search for bin Laden.

The task force is a mobile mix of intelligence collectors, aviators and warriors. It includes CIA officers; a military intelligence unit that has been known as Grey Fox; Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force soldiers attached to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC); and the 160th Special Operations Regiment.

A senior defense source said JSOC and U.S. Special Operations Command have planned scores of missions for Task Force 121, but the team has not located bin Laden or al-Zawahri.

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