- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan British special forces are searching for Osama bin Laden in Yemen in light of new intelligence indicating 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 over 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.
American officials said on Friday they had captured a high-ranking al Qaeda official in the region whom they would not name but described as "among the top dozen," suggesting that the noose might be tightening around the al Qaeda leader. Six other al Qaeda members in Yemen were killed in a rocket attack by an unmanned Predator drone two weeks ago.
The strongest evidence yet that bin Laden is still alive emerged last week with the broadcast on Al Jazeera of a taped message that language experts said was probably authentic. That came as little surprise to intelligence agents involved in the search, who now believe that he may not even have been at Tora Bora during the sustained U.S. bombings of the cave complex there last December.
Instead it is thought that he may have fled Afghanistan in November following opium traffickers' routes through eastern Iran and then down through the desert of Baluchistan in western Pakistan to the port of Gwador, an area mostly off-limits to foreigners.
He would then have traveled by a 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 capital.
"We left too many windows," said an American official in an interview. "We could not seal the border with Pakistan and we failed to monitor shipping, particularly in those early days."
The new evidence of bin Laden's presence in Yemen came to light among thousands of documents captured by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, during raids on buildings used by Hamas, the Islamic militants, and Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, on the West Bank, in late March.
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, and thus it is perfect territory for bin Laden's men.
The attack on the French oil tanker Limberg off the Yemen coast in October was confirmed as an al Qaeda attack.
The tribesmen of the Hadhra Maug are also said to be extremely hostile to Westerners.
Some members were involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed. To deepen the ties, al Qaeda members have been marrying daughters of Yemeni tribesmen, just as they did in Afghanistan.
An American military official said that British special forces were taking a lead role in the search because of their expertise in the region.
They carried out a series of operations between 1964 and 1967, when Aden was still a British protectorate.
They were disguised as tribesmen and called "Keeni Meeni" units after the Swahili expression for snakes that move silently through the grass.


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