- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

The Bush administration believes Osama bin Laden is still alive, based on the activities of "close associates" tracked by U.S. intelligence assets, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.
The official also said there is a growing belief within the administration that bin Laden was injured in late November, possibly by U.S. air strikes against al Qaeda compounds.
"We think we got a lot closer than we thought we had," the source said. The official added, however, that there is no conclusive proof that the world's most wanted man was wounded.
Bin Laden appeared on Arab television last month in a homemade videotape in which his left arm remained still during his 33-minute diatribe against America and the West. The motionless arm has led some government analysts to conclude that he either injured the limb in a fall or in a bombing raid. The tape most likely was made in early December.
Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said Sunday that intelligence reports indicate bin Laden is still alive. There has been speculation that bin Laden, who has bragged on tape about the September 11 attacks on America, was killed in the intensive mid-December U.S. bombing of a known bin Laden base the Tora Bora mountain area in eastern Afghanistan.
"The latest intelligence we've had indicates that the high probabilities are that bin Laden is still alive," the senator said. Mr. Graham did not say why the United States draws that conclusion, and the CIA declined to discuss intelligence reports.
But the U.S. official told The Washington Times yesterday the key piece of evidence is the "activities of his close associates." The source declined to elaborate.
After a U.S. air strike in November killed Mohammed Atef, a top bin Laden lieutenant, the United States learned of the death days later from intelligence sources. No such sources have materialized to indicate bin that Laden has been killed, officials say.
The U.S. official said analysts believe bin Laden remains in eastern Afghanistan, or just over the border in a "no man's land" region of Pakistan, south of Tora Bora. The source said bin Laden was in Tora Bora with hundreds of al Qaeda fighters until shortly before anti-Taliban forces conquered the area Dec. 16.
Some administration officials said they may have killed top al Qaeda leaders in a strike yesterday on a terrorist compound near Khowst in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
U.S. intelligence reports indicated that members of bin Laden's "security entourage" were at the compound, leading some officials to hope that bin Laden was there also.
The site, a training facility and leadership compound, was attacked by Air Force B-1B bombers, AC-130 gunships and Navy F-18 fighters.
"It has been a place where the al Qaeda goes to regroup," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, in confirming the strikes yesterday. He said the compound had become active with enemy troops.
The site is one of the more famous targets in Afghanistan. In 1998, after al Qaeda set off bombs at two U.S. embassies in Africa, President Clinton authorized the firing of about 60 Tomahawk missiles into the site. Intelligence sources said bin Laden would be there, but he left the camp hours before the cruise missiles arrived.
The compound also had been bombed earlier in the ongoing campaign.
At the Pentagon yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said catching or killing bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remains a top war aim. With the Taliban toppled from power, the U.S. campaign has centered on attacking lingering pockets of enemy troops, collecting intelligence and hunting for bin Laden and other terror leaders.
"Obviously our goal is to find them, and we intend to keep pursuing that," he told reporters. "But our real goal is to see that people are not committing terrorist acts to the extent we can stop the recruiting, we can dry up their funds, we can arrest enough people and gather enough intelligence."
The defense secretary said the Bush administration, which declared war against al Qaeda and other terror groups shortly after the September 11 attacks, has made progress. The administration has not only attacked al Qaeda with munitions, but it also has gone after cells in 68 countries by tying up their finances and encouraging the arrests of members.
"Their ability to move freely around the world was much easier three months ago than it is today," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "We've disrupted a number, any number of training camps, and it does take training to become a polished, successful murderer, mass murderer. You don't walk out of grade school with that kind of knowledge. You need to practice and be taught by experts."
He said there are al Qaeda camps outside Afghanistan and specifically mentioned Somalia as a host.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the Pentagon has stepped up aerial surveillance of the East African country in preparation for possible strikes against al Qaeda compounds.
"We know there have been training camps there and that they have been active over the years and that they go inactive when people get attentive to them," he said.
President Bush has not decided whether to authorize military strikes against al Qaeda targets outside Afghanistan, officials say. Somalia is a possibility because the country has vast areas of lawlessness where al Qaeda can operate with impunity. The U.S. Navy is searching ships in the Arabian Sea between Pakistan and Somalia but to date has not found terrorists trying to escape to Africa.
Of the war against al Qaeda in the new year, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "The network is well organized. It's global. We continue to get additional intelligence information which reinforces our conviction as to the breadth and depth of that terrorist network."


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