- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization has access to scores of tramp freighters around the world, and the United States fears the terror mastermind could rendezvous with his "navy" on the Pakistani coast and sail to freedom.
U.S. officials said in interviews that front organizations for al Qaeda operate ships that at times are used by the 12-year-old terrorist network to move arms and foot soldiers from country to country.
The presence of this loosely knit fleet is one reason coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea are tracking, and in some cases, boarding ships to check for any al Qaeda leadership fleeing Afghanistan.
"The biggest fear in the administration right now is that bin Laden will suddenly show up on al Jazeera postwar dated," a senior intelligence official said.
The Arab TV news network is a favorite forum for bin Laden. A new tape that was verified as contemporaneous would be highly embarrassing to the Bush administration. It would represent proof that the millionaire Saudi-exile had evaded Washington's manhunt and might be able to start new terrorist attacks.
The intelligence official was critical of the administration's search for bin Laden to date. The source cited its failure to track a Pakistani journalist who traveled to Afghanistan to interview bin Laden in early November at the height of the 10-week air war.
Still, officials said they have seen no credible evidence that bin Laden has left Afghanistan. They strongly suspect he remains in the White Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, between Jalalabad and Pakistan. He either continues to evade U.S. technical sensors and special-operations troops, or he lies dead in one of the caves struck by Air Force and Navy bombs, one official said.
"There really are only about three possibilities," Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's overall commander, said in Kabul on Saturday. "He can be in Tora Bora or in that area dead, he can be somewhere else in Afghanistan and still be alive or perhaps he may have gotten over into Pakistan. Right now, we don't know which of those three categories he's in."
Officials say they have a general idea of bin Laden's movements during the war. When the bombing began Oct. 7, he moved among caves and secret compounds around Kandahar, birthplace of the radical Taliban militia. After his Taliban protectors lost the capital of Kabul, and made a last stand at Kandahar, he moved north.
U.S. intelligence officials believe he stayed briefly near the border city of Khowst, then shifted his security detail and close advisers to the Tora Bora region. He moved from cave to cave as his last contingent of about 1,000 al Qaeda fighters engaged in a fierce, two-week battle against the eastern alliance.
U.S. military officials are reasonably sure he was, and may still be, in Tora Bora. There were credible reports that members of his entourage moved in and out of the area during the air war's last days. Officials are also sure they heard his voice on a tactical radio five days before Tora Bora fell to Afghan fighters.
If bin Laden were to make it to the sea, officials believe Somalia's past willingness to harbor al Qaeda fighters would make the east African country his first choice.
One Bush administration official, however, said he saw an internal report that bin Laden might try the daring maneuver of returning to his native Saudi Arabia. There, he might live in tribal desert regions near Yemen that are generally ignored by the royal family's security forces.
Saudi Arabia exiled bin Laden in the 1980s. He set up operations in Sudan in 1991 before moving to Afghanistan in 1996.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says his forces have sealed routes leading from the White Mountains' Tora Bora region to Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan where bin Laden might find refuge.
"We are guarding each one of these passes," Gen. Musharraf said. "Maybe he is dead because all the operations that have been conducted, the bombardment of all the caves that have been conducted. There is a great possibility that he may have lost his life there. He is not in Pakistan."
The question of whether bin Laden's body lies in Tora Bora may be known soon. Gen. Franks is close to dispatching U.S. troopsto help special-operations soldiers and anti-Taliban forces search caves and tunnels used by al Qaeda planners.

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