- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

With fresh evidence that Osama bin Laden is still alive and kicking and with his friends and protectors about to take over the provincial governments of two of Pakistan's four provinces, as well as a share in the new national coalition that will now run the country (under the watchful eye of President Pervez Musharraf), a key question for the U.S. intelligence community remains unanswered. Why has the CIA ignored for 11 consecutive months the only anti-al Qaeda Pakistani tribal leader who had tracked bin Laden's movements ever since his escape from Tora Bora last Dec. 9?

In their quest to find bin Laden dead or alive, CIA operatives doled out millions of dollars in cash to buy the loyalty of tribal chieftains whose tribes straddle the unmarked, mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border. There was one glaring omission: a tribal leader who commands the loyalty of 600,000 people who is also a respected, national figure. His adobe abode near Peshawar is Spartan. He is a former Marxist of Cold War vintage and is not interested in money. A good news source of this writer, his information was prescient and invariably accurate. At his request, we agreed not to reveal his name.

In late November 2001, this tribal chief contacted us via a mutual friend. He said his people knew where bin Laden was in the Tora Bora mountain range. He agreed to put some of his tribal scouts and horses at our disposal. And on Dec. 11, we set out on horseback for the Tirah Valley, on the south side of Tora Bora, where "Afghan Arab" survivors of U.S. bombing were expected to make their escape. Shortly after we began our journey, a messenger caught up with us and advised us to dismount, as "you will almost certainly be kidnapped for ransom."

Wearing national dress, our party, including a prominent Pakistani-American and two security guards, detoured around the valley to another pass on the border. Upon our return, we stopped off to see the tribal leader. Bin Laden, he informed us, had indeed come out through the Tirah Valley on horseback two days before we got there, on Dec. 9. He and a party of about 50 had turned their horses over to local tribesmen, and continued in 4x4s and SUVs into Peshawar, two hours away.

In this capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, bin Laden found himself surrounded by hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, including Islamist doctors who took care of his respiratory and kidney ailments. The Inter-Services Intelligence Agency knew he had arrived in Peshawar, but presumably this was not reported to Mr. Musharraf. In his interviews, the president invariably says he believes bin Laden died in Tora Bora. During the recent Pakistani election campaign, posters of bin Laden "The Liberator" and "U.S. Go Home" banners at Peshawar were brandished at rallies staged by politico-religious parties.

The reason this anti-American, pro-al Qaeda slum city of 3.5 million was not combed alley by alley, according to the tribal leader, was the fear of triggering a bloodbath. At the Musharraf level, he speculated the reluctance to go after bin Laden may have been the fear the U.S. would lose interest in Pakistan once bin Laden was captured dead or alive and would renege on its post-September 11 economic aid commitments. Much of the anti-Americanism in Pakistan today stems from U.S. diplomatic, economic and military sanctions imposed after the defeated Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

The U.S. intelligence community has been aware of the tribal leader's name and reputation, but did not contact him. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took his name down on Aug. 4 and said he would look into it. In July, bin laden, according to the chief, moved to Karachi, a sprawling seaport city of 13 million on the Arabian Sea. He lost track of him in Karachi in early November. Members of the chief's tribe who work in Karachi reported he might have left the country in one of the thousands of dhows that ply the waters between Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen.

Could it be that the intelligence community, already overburdened by the requirements of the coming war on Iraq and the war on terror, is not too interested in a "we've got Osama alive" melodrama that might detract from the current "get Saddam" priority objective? There is also the unspoken fear that a dead or captured bin Laden would trigger hundreds of smaller terrorist incidents worldwide.

For months, U.S. military and CIA agents have been operating with Pakistani troops in the mountains along Pakistan's Western border with Afghanistan, a region hostile to both Pakistani and U.S. forces, where they suspected bin Laden was hiding. Why they ignored a prominent Pakistani tribal leader, a man who has traveled to the U.S., Britain and many other countries in his career, remains a mystery. Members of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board who were asked by us to pose the question have simply been told, "We'll get back to you on that." They're still waiting.


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