- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

A senior U.S. official yesterday dismissed the latest Osama bin Laden videotape as "the same tired rhetoric" and said it is too dated to offer clues to his whereabouts today or whether he is still alive.
Government analysts were also struck by what they viewed as bin Laden's deteriorating physical appearance. The terror master has run from a relentless U.S. manhunt and bombing for more than two months now.
"What is striking was his pasty complexion," said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It looked like he hasn't gotten much sleep and he hasn't seen much daylight. He also had this shell-shocked look about him. He's been through a rough stretch."
Scott McClellan, a spokesman for President Bush, said the tape "is nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda we've heard before."
In the tape aired on Qatar's Al Jazeera television, bin Laden said he was speaking two months after the U.S. war campaign began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7. The man held responsible for the September 11 attacks also says he was speaking "several days" after a mosque was bombed in the town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. Central Command has said an errant bomb struck a mosque there Nov. 16.
Officials said this likely means the tape was made in early December before U.S. Central Command, which is running the war, began a concerted bombing campaign against cave hide-outs in the Tora Bora region of northeastern Afghanistan. The United States strongly suspected bin Laden was there at the time.
Because bin Laden also says there is no proof linking him to September 11, the U.S. official also said the tape "was almost certainly made" before Dec. 13. On that day, the Pentagon released an amateur videotape of bin Laden meeting a Saudi radical in a house near Kandahar. Bin Laden talked proudly about his role in planning the hijacked airliner attacks on New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
The bottom line is that the latest tape on the Arab-language news network sheds little light on the world's No. 1 question: Where is bin Laden?
"It certainly doesn't shed any light whatsoever on where he is or in fact whether he's even alive," the senior official said. "At this point, we don't know what to make of it."
Analysts were struck by another development. If Al Jazeera just received the tape, it means it took bin Laden's organization weeks to get it to the station.
"For anybody wanting to get a message out quickly, it's a tortoise pace," said an official. "It's not particularly an impressive time."
In the weeks since bin Laden made the tape, he could have been killed by a U.S. bomb, slipped out of Afghanistan into Pakistan or still be hiding in one of Tora Bora's hundreds of caves and tunnels.
The U.S. official said the government doubts bin Laden is dead because it has failed to detect any communication in which members of his al Qaeda terror organization say he was killed. In contrast, when a Navy bomb killed al Qaeda kingpin Mohammed Atef in a house south of Kabul, U.S. intelligence picked up reports from "multiple sources" saying he was dead.
After the battle for Tora Bora ended Dec. 17, the United States said it had no credible reports he had sneaked into nearby Pakistan.
Yesterday, however, the senior official said there are credible reports, although unproven, that he has been in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Credible meaning not stuff you can automatically dismiss," said the official. "It doesn't mean it's true." There are no credible reports he has left the region, the official added.
Of bin Laden's latest TV speech, the official said, "The initial impression is it is not particularly enlightening. The same tired anti-West rhetoric."
U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden remained in the Kandahar area of southern Afghanistan until shortly before it fell to anti-Taliban forces on Dec. 7. He and his security detail moved to areas around Khost, then shifted operations to Tora Bora. American officials believe they detected bin Laden's voice in that area on a short-range radio around Dec. 11, six days before the battle there ended.
Marine Corps Maj. Brad Lowell, a Central Command spokesman, said, "We have not seen the entire tape, and until we really take a look at the entire thing we really don't have a comment on it."
Meanwhile, pockets of al Qaeda fighters remain lodged in southern and eastern Afghanistan and it will take American special-operations troops on the ground to root them out, U.S. officials said yesterday.
While hundreds of bin Laden's Arab warriors fled to Pakistan and were detained, concentrations have remained in Afghanistan in their two main areas of operation: around Kandahar and south of Jalalabad in Tora Bora.
U.S. Central Command has teams of commandos operating in both areas. At night, relying on sophisticated night-vision and sensor equipment, they conduct reconnaissance missions hunting al Qaeda.
A senior intelligence official said in an interview that the Americans have killed in excess of 600 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in direct ground operations since the campaign began. The Pentagon has declined to give enemy casualty estimates and talks little in public about what its covert warriors are doing inside Afghanistan.
But they have engaged in firefights with the enemy. One official told of special-operations troops tracking and attacking a group of 22 al Qaeda fighters trying to reach the Pakistan border from Tora Bora. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that his commandos have been involved in "dust-ups" with the enemy. He did not elaborate.
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said yesterday, "In some of the southern parts of Afghanistan we believe there are still pockets of al Qaeda."
Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., said yesterday there are no immediate plans to dispatch Marines to the Tora Bora area to individually search al Qaeda cave hide-outs.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the campaign's top commander, has asked Mr. Rumsfeld for permission to deploy the troops. The general complained that anti-Taliban forces did not want to finish the job of inspecting caves for evidence of al Qaeda operations and to see if any top al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, were inside.
The search mission apparently will be left to special-operation troops and a small number of anti-Taliban Afghans.
The Afghan forces won the battle of Tora Bora two weeks ago. Most left the area, declaring the caves cleared of terrorists, with no sign of bin Laden.

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