- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

With his latest video sally, Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, has repositioned himself as the only leader willing to confront the world’s sole superpower. Bin Laden has hiding in Pakistan for almost three years, evidently with high-ranking protection.

Standing at a desk in a white turban and gold-colored ceremonial cloak, his message was clear: Not on the run but sharing the limelight with President Bush and his challenger John Kerry and hard at work as leader of disenfranchised Arabs and other Muslims seeking Palestine’s liberation and the downfall of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and absolute monarchies and emirates of the Gulf.

Yasser Arafat’s passing from the world stage also leaves a revolutionary vacancy. Thus, bin Laden’s latest peroration is designed to outflank Muslim moderates who failed to obtain a change in Washington’s pro-Israeli, benign neglect of the Palestinian crisis for the duration of the Iraqi crisis.

Bin Laden now knows certain countless millions of Muslims, surveyed by the Pew Foundation two years in a row, trust him more than George W. Bush. In Muslim countries with a combined population of 450 million, bin Laden was a clear winner as a “freedom fighter” over the U.S. president. In Morocco and Jordan, two traditionally pro-Western countries, at least at the regime-to-regime level, Mr. Bush was trusted by fewer than 10 percent in either country.

Bin Laden also scored majorities among the 6 million, mostly poverty-stricken North Africans living in slums on the outskirts of France’s major cities. Similar paeans echoed among 1 million South Asians in the greater London region.

Pakistani denials notwithstanding, Osama bin Laden has been in Pakistan since Dec. 9, 2001, when he escaped from the Tora Bora mountain range. Countrywide, bin Laden feels secure with 66 percent of Pakistanis, which moves up to plus 80 percent in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, the two provinces bordering Afghanistan and governed by bin Laden admirers who consider Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar a personal friend.

This reporter and a multilingual UPI team, tipped by a major tribal leader about bin Laden’s progress as he exited the Tora Bora mountain range through the Tirah Valley, arrived at the location Dec. 11, 2001. Local villagers confirmed bin Laden, on horseback, accompanied by some 50 fighters, had come out of the Tirah Valley two days before. They were close to a main road that led from Pakistan’s FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). Bin Laden left in the direction of Peshawar in a SUV with darkened windows.

On either side of the road from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, to the Afghan border, there are large adobe-walled compounds of landowners and important tribal leaders. Osama bin Laden would be safe in any one of scores of such compounds.

Taliban’s top leaders own similar estates where they live with impunity. Chaman, the Pakistani border town, is also home to a new crop of Taliban leaders. Some Pakistani journalists have the satellite phone numbers of Taliban’s intelligence chief and other officials who feed them exaggerated or imagined tidbits about exploits against U.S. forces on the other side of the mountains.

Bin Laden could be sheltered in any of Pakistan’s major cities. The sprawling port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea, surrounded by miles of slums, has some 15 million people. In Peshawar, a city of 3.5 million, many Pathans, like bin Laden, are over six feet tall. In FATA, rickety local buses, display posters of bin Laden captioned “Freedom Fighter.” Bin Laden also enjoys the protection of renegade members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

Before Operation Enduring Freedom crushed the Taliban regime in November 2001, some 1,500 ISI operatives ensured the security of Mullah Omar’s rule. They maintained permanent liaison with bin Laden and his top lieutenants as he moved around a score of terrorist training camps and safe houses in Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Conventional wisdom among the al Qaeda-watchers in Pakistan says President Pervez Musharraf’s regime is reluctant to launch a countrywide crackdown to find bin Laden. If bin Laden were captured, dead or alive, Mr. Musharraf would feel obligated to turn him over to the United States. And Pakistan might then face a disinterested U.S. administration and lose billions in aid.

Mr. Musharraf has said at different times he knew bin Laden was dead, then that he was alive but ill. Today, he concedes bin Laden may be in a mountain hideout where fiercely loyal local tribesmen would not betray him for the $25 million offered by the U.S.

Three months before the release of the September 11 Commission report, commission chief of staff Phil Zelikow asked a prominent Pakistani if he could “fill in the gaps about what was happening behind the scenes in Pakistan in the period immediately preceding the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.” He traveled the length and breadth of Pakistan working his sources, which included many former ranking government officials, retired senior officers and former ISI personnel.

The requested report arrived in Washington too late to be included in the commission’s 567-page report, which mentioned Pakistan 311 times. Even if it had arrived in time, it probably would have been left out. The material turned over to Mr. Zelikow, a former member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001-2003), could prove even more embarrassing to Mr. Musharraf than the information supplied by U.S. intelligence about the international nuclear black market arms bazaar that was run for the benefit of America’s enemies (North Korea, Iran and Libya).

The godfather of Operation Proliferation was Dr. A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and a charter member of the country’s pantheon of national heroes.

The unpublished addendum to the September 11 report said:

(1) Former senior ISI officers knew about the September 11 plot before the attacks occurred.

(2) Osama bin Laden has not left Pakistan since he escaped from Tora Bora.

(3) Bin Laden was treated for renal problems at a military hospital near Peshawar.

Mr. Musharraf will of course, deny all this. Though he was army chief before his military coup in October 1999 gave him absolute power, Mr. Musharraf told the United States he knew nothing about A.Q. Khan’s activities. This stretched credulity to the breaking point. He pardoned Mr. Khan and allowed him to keep his ill-gotten nuclear fortune. Future denials about bin Laden will ring as hollow.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for United Press International and for The Washington Times.

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