- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

A prominent Pakistani tribal leader who has 600,000 pairs of eyes and ears at his beck and call is "absolutely certain" that Osama bin Laden is well and has been living in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, since last December.
Dressed in a one-piece dishdashi garment, this tall, Spartan chief of a Pathan tribe receives his visitors in a small dusty room under a flickering, low-voltage naked light bulb. He does not wish to be quoted by name, but the CIA knows who he is and where he lives. He is an old and trusted contact of this writer and this is the third time that we have mentioned in The Washington Times his claim to know the details of bin Laden's escape from the Tora Bora mountain range into Pakistan.
He is the antithesis of flamboyant, not given to hyperbole and not interested in financial reward. After dusk he sits in his small courtyard near Peshawar, sipping tea and chatting late into the night with tribal elders, messengers with news from parts of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan) and out-of-town visitors, both politicians and journalists. But neither the CIA nor the FBI has contacted him to get the OBL story firsthand.
There are, admittedly, lots of rumors about OBL sightings. But this man is also a national political figure who has visited the U.S. and Europe and speaks English. He is well read and a moderate in his political views, but he maintains cordial relations with Pakistan's politico-religious fundamentalists.
Soft-spoken, he is adamantine, firmly immovable in purpose, and sticking to his guns about OBL. His story is that the Saudi terrorist leader made it out of Tora Bora last Dec. 9 on horseback with about 50 men through the Tirah Valley. They dismounted near the main road through the tribal areas that connects Parachinar with Peshawar and finished the journey in SUVs.
Pentagon officials assume that if the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency knew that OBL was in Peshawar, they would go over the sprawling slum city of 3.5 million "with a fine-tooth comb." This would be a faulty assumption.
OBL has many friends and admirers in ISI. A majority of the population, both in Peshawar and smaller towns in the tribal areas, are pro-OBL and anti-American. A walk through the labyrinthine city would convince any observer there are thousands of places to hide, above and below ground; that every conceivable weapon (including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles) is for sale; that OBL, if indeed he is in the city, is well protected by thousands of sympathizers; that President Pervez Musharraf is seen as the villain who sold out to the Americans; and that a hovel-by-hovel search would result in large casualties.
The tall, gaunt tribal leader speculates that bin Laden is a snare for both President Bush and President Musharraf. A U.S. trial for bin Laden could be a long, drawn-out spectacle a la Slobodan Milosevich, with embarrassing disclosures. A Pakistani trial could prove equally embarrassing for Mr. Musharraf, e.g., his longstanding relationship with ISI.
For five years prior to September 11, Pakistan was a state that openly supported Taliban and surreptitiously provided aid and comfort to bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization.
An ISI officer was assigned to bin Laden. In addition to a score of now destroyed terrorist training facilities in Afghanistan, al Qaeda enjoyed privileged sanctuaries and safe houses throughout Pakistan. These were managed by Pakistan's many extremist organizations. Most foreign recruits for al Qaeda used Pakistan's madrassas (religious schools) as way stations as they made their way to Afghanistan.
London's Sunday Times recently published an exclusive based on documents captured in Afghanistan: Some 3,000 men holding British passports have passed through al Qaeda's Afghan camps in recent years.
This network is yet to be dismantled. Mr. Musharraf's much-publicized crackdown against Islamist extremists simply resulted in name and address changes. In fact, Mr. Musharraf sought to dispel rumors he was seeking to transform Pakistan into a secular country following national elections scheduled Oct. 10. Faced with a delegation from the "alliance of mainstream religious parties" led by two leading firebrands Fazalur Rehman and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the president assured them "Pakistan was born as an Islamic state and nobody has the authority to change its Islamic character."
Benazir Bhutto, one of the country's two best-known secular political leaders, let it be known she plans to return from government-imposed exile at the end of August to get ready for the October elections. Mr. Musharraf has said publicly she will be arrested the minute she sets foot back on Pakistani soil.
Fired as prime minister and then sentenced on charges of corruption, Mrs. Bhutto (whose father was executed by the previous military dictator) opted to live close by in Dubai. Her husband is in prison in Pakistan on similar charges. Between Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (also exiled by Mr. Musharraf) on the one hand, and the extreme religious parties on the other, Mr. Musharraf's road back to democracy is strewn with axle-deep potholes.

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