- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Osama bin Laden will be much harder to find than Saddam Hussein, says a leading terrorism scholar, who believes the man who planned the September 11 attacks is well hidden in rugged mountains, surrounded by Islamic extremists who would die before betraying him.

But Saddam’s capture Saturday in a hole near Tikrit, Iraq, has turned the spotlight on bin Laden, the world’s other most-wanted man, and on U.S. forces hunting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Saudi billionaire who has eluded arrest for more than two years.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said yesterday that Saddam’s arrest by members of the 4th Infantry Division would help in the search for bin Laden, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai predicted that both bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Omar would be found in the wake of Saddam’s capture.

“They will be found and terrorism stopped,” Mr. Karzai told reporters yesterday.

The challenge of locating and arresting bin Laden is a formidable one, but not impossible, said Peter Brown, a free-lance specialist on terrorism who has been a consultant for several U.S. government agencies.

“Osama bin Laden is running with a band of Islamic extremists who provide an insular wall behind which he can move quite freely,” Mr. Brown said. “And he has confined himself to an area of the world that has seen ongoing resistance to outsiders over a period of four decades.

“With that said, there is no reason to believe bin Laden’s luck is not going to run out. Changes in the way we hunt this man in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture could force him into one final mistake,” said Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown said that unlike in Iraq, U.S. military forces in Afghanistan have been unable to “saturate” several areas of the countryside with troops, which would allow rapid action forces to target specific sites with little resistance.

He said U.S. troops have been hampered by Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and its harsh winters, which make some areas of the country inaccessible by mid-November.

“But the cold weather can also work against bin Laden, since the colder it gets the more difficult it will be for him to conceal himself as he moves about the countryside,” he said. “Hiding under a blanket will not protect him from the infrared equipment now being used to find him.”

Mr. Brown also noted that bin Laden is not a head of state like Saddam and, as such, has not been forced to rely on a small network of ethnic, family or political connections to resist capture. He described bin Laden as a “stateless person in a stateless part of the world.”

“He’s a foreigner in a foreign land and has, through the mechanics of history, been propelled into this place at this time where all the elements are seemingly working for him. The bond by those who follow him is much stronger than Saddam’s support base,” Mr. Brown said. “While Saddam was holding $750,000, bin Laden could fare well with $7.50 in his pocket.”

The hunt for bin Laden has targeted many areas of Afghanistan, the isolated mountains of western Pakistan, and the rugged northern region near Peshawar along the Afghan border.

U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement authorities have reported numerous sightings of suspected al Qaeda terrorists in the Peshawar area, hiding among a patchwork of bin Laden sympathizers.

Peshawar is the capital and largest city of Pakistan’s North West Frontier province.

According to U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement sources, bin Laden fled into the Peshawar area in December 2001 after surviving a massive U.S. military assault at his Tora Bora base in Afghanistan.

He reportedly left to meet with Mullah Omar near Kandahar, Afghanistan, and later was believed to have moved into the Baluchistan province of southwestern Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran.

Bin Laden is a hero to many of the autonomous tribes that live along the Pakistan-Afghan border and who support the hard-line vision of Islam promoted by the al Qaeda founder, U.S. intelligence officials say. By contrast, they say, Saddam Hussein was a dictator whom many Iraqis were willing to turn in.

A search of the area followed the March 1 arrest of al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, near Islamabad, who reportedly told members of Pakistan’s secretive Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), as well as the CIA and FBI, conflicting stories as to whether bin Laden was alive, and as to whether he had met him after the September 11 attacks.

Pakistani intelligence officials, in an unusual briefing for foreign journalists at the time, said Shaikh Mohammed acknowledged during three days of interrogation at a “safe house” after his arrest that he met with bin Laden in December 2002, though he did not say where.

U.S. and Pakistani officials retrieved numerous secret al Qaeda documents and other information during Shaikh Mohammed’s arrest. Included was a laptop computer used by Shaikh Mohammed that contained the names of at least a dozen safe houses located along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border used by bin Laden and his supporters, authorities said.

Shaikh Mohammed, 37, described as al Qaeda’s third-ranking member, was captured in a house owned by Ahmed Abdul Qadoos, a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious party that holds the third-largest voting bloc in Pakistan’s parliament. Rawalpindi is home to Pakistan’s military headquarters, and many residents are former military officers.

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