- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Osama bin Laden was wounded by coalition air strikes on one of his terrorist training bases in Afghanistan in December, says an Arab journalist with ties to al Qaeda.

Abdel-Bari Atwan, the journalist, told Britain's Sky News that bin Laden underwent surgery and is now likely living in the tribals areas of western Pakistan. Mr. Atwan quoted his al Qaeda contacts as saying bin Laden was planning a new attack on the United States, and afterwards would make his first public statement since December.

President Bush and Bush administration officials have said recently they do not know if bin Laden is dead or alive. They said yesterday they could not verify Mr. Atwan's account.

The Washington Times reported in January that several government intelligence analysts believe bin Laden was wounded in late November during the bombing of al Qaeda camps north of Kandahar. One source said that some sites struck around Thanksgiving weekend may have harbored the terror master.

"We think we got a lot closer than we thought we had," a senior U.S. official said at the time. In March, another official told The Times, "He may have been wounded more than once." The official said an assessment that bin Laden was wounded had become a "firm belief" by some military analysts.

The analysts' assessment was based, in part, on bin Laden's shaky appearance in his most recent video, released in December. He appeared thin, pale and emotionally stressed.

Bin Laden's voice was overheard on short-range radio in Toro Bora in December, shortly before U.S. and Afghan troops overran what was then the last al Qaeda stronghold in Afghanistan. U.S. analysts believe bin Laden escaped the rugged mountainous region and is aided by friendly tribal chiefs.

Bin Laden's voice has not been heard since December by U.S. intelligence assets. There have been no confirmed intelligence reports that he is either alive or dead, U.S. officials say.

"They said they would attack and take advantage of the political climate in the Arab world at a time when there is a lot of hatred against the United States," Mr. Atwan said in London, according to a Reuters dispatch. "There is a lot of anger in the Arab world, and they want to time an attack to capitalize on this."

Backed by bin Laden's own incriminating statements, the Bush administration says the Saudi exile directed the September 11 attacks on America that killed nearly 3,000 persons, mostly civilians.

When the war in Afghanistan began Oct. 7, bin Laden was believed to be in camps and caves north of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they believe he moved north during the war and ended up in Tora Bora as the Taliban government fell. He is also believed to have crossed the border into Pakistan, and he may re-enter eastern Afghanistan occasionally, analysts say.

"His people said he was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel. He is in good health now," said Mr. Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996 and stays in contact with al Qaeda members.

Some U.S. analysts believe bin Laden may be dead. They say he has not been heard from in over seven months. What's more, they say, supporters have released old video footage of bin Laden and have tried to sell it to the news media as proof the terrorist leader is alive. If bin Laden were alive, they say, why not put out an up-to-date tape?

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the ousted Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally, is believed to be in southeastern Afghanistan. He is the subject of an intensive manhunt by elite American special operations troops, including Army Delta Force and Navy SEALS.

At the Pentagon, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she had no new information on bin Laden.

"I'm aware of the report out of London, and it seems like almost a weekly occurrence a different country has the latest rumor," she said. "But, we continue to get reports he's alive, reports he's dead, and we just don't have the information."

While the hunt continues in the region for bin Laden and Mullah Omar, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in Kabul yesterday meeting with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Wolfowitz told reporters there were "bad guys" in the area where an AC-130 directed fire on July 1, accidentally killing Afghan civilians.

"We are always concerned when we believe we may have killed innocent people, and we think that happened and we regret that," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "We have no regrets about going in after bad guys, and there were some there."

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