- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan British special forces are searching for Osama bin Laden in Yemen after intelligence surfaced revealing that the al Qaeda leader fled Afghanistan last year and is being protected by tribesmen in his ancestral homeland.
The focus of the world's biggest manhunt has dramatically shifted during the past few weeks from Afghanistan and Pakistan's border areas to the lawless tribal region of Hadhra Maug in southeast Yemen, where bin Laden's father was born.
The developments come after a taped message of Osama bin Laden broadcast on Qatar-based Al Jazeera television last week and authenticated by language experts, showing that he is still alive, though probably in ill-health.
Evidence that he had not died during the sustained U.S. bombings of the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan in December came as little surprise to intelligence officials involved in the search, who believe he may never have been at Tora Bora.
Instead, it is thought that he fled Afghanistan last November, traveling along opium traffickers' routes through eastern Iran then down through the desert of Baluchistan in Pakistan to the port of Gwador, an area mostly off-limits to foreigners. He is then thought to have traveled by traditional large-sailed dhow across the Arabian Sea to Oman, and on to Yemen and the protection of the tribesmen of the Hadhra Maug, who are fiercely loyal to his family and have long waged war with the government in San'a, the Yemeni capital.
"We left too many windows. We could not seal the border with Pakistan, and we failed to monitor shipping, particularly in those early days," a U.S. official conceded in an interview.
The evidence came to light among thousands of documents captured by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, during raids on buildings used by Hamas, the Islamic militant group, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, on the West Bank, in late March.
U.S. officials said Friday that they had captured a high-ranking al Qaeda official in the region whom they would not name but described as among the top two dozen leaders, suggesting that the noose might be tightening around the al Qaeda leader. Six other al Qaeda members were killed in a rocket attack by an unmanned Predator drone in Yemen two weeks ago.
Yesterday the British Foreign Office recommended that all British nationals leave Yemen for fear of reprisal attacks and warned against travel there. They also warned that intelligence services were picking up increased "chatter" from the region similar to that heard just before the September 11 attacks.
Yemen was already one of the countries where al Qaeda was thought to be regrouping most actively. Just as Afghanistan was when bin Laden made it his base, Yemen is a largely lawless country where the government exerts little control, making it perfect territory for bin Laden's men.
The tribesmen of the Hadhra Maug are said to be fiercely loyal to the bin Laden clan and extremely hostile to Westerners. Some members were involved in the bombing of the U.S. warship the USS Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000 in which 17 American sailors died. To deepen the ties, al Qaeda members have been marrying daughters of Yemeni tribesmen just as they did in Afghanistan.


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