- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 7 (UPI) — U.S. officials said Friday that they were continuing their hunt for Osama bin Laden, amid media reports that the noose was tightening around the accused terrorist mastermind.

"It's only a matter of time," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the capture of bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders. "There's no cave deep enough to hide them."

The Washington Post reported Friday that U.S. and Pakistani forces were focusing their search for bin Laden in northwest Pakistan after getting new leads on his whereabouts from the captured No. 3 man in the al Qaida network.

The re-energized search for the accused terrorist mastermind began after last weekend's capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be al Qaida's operational chief, in Islamabad.

The Post said the search has revived discussions within the Bush administration on whether bin Laden should be killed or captured if he is found.

Special operations forces were sent Wednesday to Pakistan's northwest portion, near its porous border with Afghanistan, the Post said, quoting U.S. officials. The newspaper was told the move came after information gleaned during and after Mohammed's arrest.

Bin Laden's whereabouts have been unknown since he is said to have escaped the U.S. bombing campaign of the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan in late 2001. There is no firm evidence to suggest he is alive, though U.S. officials attributed two recent audiotapes to him.

The Post quoted the head of an allied intelligence agency as saying that bin Laden and his al Qaida co-founder, Ayman al Zawahiri, "have a lot of money still, and they are spending money" in Pakistan's border areas.

"We have tracked this sometimes," the official said. "Sometimes bin Laden and Zawahiri are together, sometimes not."

The Post said it is not believed that either man can be taken alive because of their security entourage.

An authoritative source told the Post the operations orders for a bin Laden takedown call for going in "guns blazing, no restraint — you're going to blow the security away and blow the protection away."

Both Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet are against attempts to capture bin Laden alive, the Post quoted participants in meetings with the men as saying. Both men believe a bin Laden trial or execution could lead to unrest in the Arab world.

But others say the al Qaida leader would be more useful alive.

"Catching him doesn't end the war on terrorism," an official told the Post.

The newspaper quoted a top-ranking adviser as saying President George W. Bush's overriding goal is to "cut the head off the snake." The president asks for updates on "high-value targets," including bin Laden.

Mohammed, the alleged planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is in U.S. custody in the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, according to a senior Pakistani official. He reportedly warned his captors at the time of his arrest Saturday of several terror attacks against U.S. interests, the Post cited Pakistani intelligence officials as saying. He was described as unrepentant and almost cocky during his initial interrogation Saturday.

The Pakistani official told the Post that Mohammed said several times his arrest would not limit al Qaida's ability to strike U.S. interests.

"Let the Iraq war begin — the U.S. forces will be targeted inside their bases in the gulf," the official quoted Mohammed as saying. "I don't have any specific information, but my sixth sense is telling me that you will get the news from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait."

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