- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

U.S. intelligence has noticed a lack of communication in recent weeks by those close to Osama bin Laden, causing some analysts to believe he may be executing a ruse to convince Washington he is dead, officials say.
"We don't see any of his Indians doing anything on his behalf," a senior U.S. official said.
After the al Qaeda haven of Tora Bora fell to anti-Taliban forces Dec. 17, the United States concluded that bin Laden was still alive based, in part, on tracking individuals known to help the master terrorist.
But intelligence officials said in interviews that those activities had recently stopped.
Officials said a small minority of intelligence analysts believe the dry spell could indicate that bin Laden is dead. He appeared tired and stressed in his last known video diatribe taped in early December, during which his normally active left arm remained motionless throughout.
There is a faint hope among some Bush administration officials that bin Laden was killed during the heavy bombing of his prime terror camp near the eastern city of Khost. But no evidence has surfaced to support that theory, officials said.
The senior officials said the mainstream intelligence assessment is that bin Laden has gone deep under the extensive U.S. intelligence gathering net in hopes Washington will conclude that he died.
"I believe it's a ruse," the senior official said. "I don't believe he's dead. We'll believe he's dead when we have the DNA."
This official said there has been a noticeable drop in communication by senior al Qaeda members who could be conduits between bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is also on the run.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week indicated senior al Qaeda leaders may have changed the way they communicate to evade U.S. detection.
"To the extent they develop knowledge about how we try to find them, they develop alternative methods they can use to communicate with each other or to connect with people they need to connect with, and they use deception and denial techniques," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "These are not stupid people. These are not people who are unaware of high-technology activities. Therefore, they get more sophisticated and more sophisticated, and it makes it that much more difficult."
Besides high-technology spy assets, the Pentagon is relying on old-fashioned gumshoe detective work on the ground.
Mr. Rumsfeld said, "We've got people all across the country, local Afghan people working where we have embedded in them our people, our Special Forces working with them, and we're actively out trying to find rumors and tips and leads and suggestions as to where these folks are."
The United States believes bin Laden was holed up in Tora Bora shortly before his al Qaeda army evacuated the area. Amid speculation that intense U.S. bombing buried bin Laden in a cave hide-out, officials said he survived the attacks and was likely moving among friendly tribes in eastern Afghanistan or just across the border in Pakistan.
Renewed speculation that bin Laden may have died surfaced again last week when Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, told CNN that bin Laden likely died of kidney failure.
"I give the highest priority now, to be frank, that he is dead for the reason that he is a patient, he is a kidney patient," he said.
But a U.S. official said yesterday there is no proof bin Laden has kidney disease.
He may have suffered through a kidney stone several years ago, the official said. "As far as kidney failure requiring dialysis, there is no evidence or proof," he said.
The official added, "There is no evidence he is not alive. If he were dead, we think we would hear about it from a lot of his supporters."
The Pakistani government in recent years provided al Qaeda with three kidney dialysis machines, according to the senior official. The Pakistani intelligence service helped put the Taliban in power in 1996.
It continued to support the regime, and al Qaeda, after the September 11 attack on America, prompting Gen. Musharraf to fire the agency's top people.
U.S. officials speculate that the machines were for a senior al Qaeda leader.
Mr. Rumsfeld is fond of quoting an intelligence world truism when it comes to finding bin Laden. "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he says.

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