Senior U.S. intelligence officials yesterday defended unsuccessful efforts to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who they say has eluded a global manhunt for years by hiding in tribal areas of Pakistan under the protection of local leaders.
“We share your frustration,” Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence, told Congress yesterday. “Being No. 3 in al Qaeda is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person.”
But capturing or killing bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has been difficult because their security practices are “very good” and they are hiding in an area “that is more hostile to us than it is to al Qaeda,” Mr. Fingar told the House Armed Services Committee.
During yesterday’s hearing on global security threats, three U.S. intelligence analysts told the committee that al Qaeda terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons remain the most serious menaces to American security.
Mr. Fingar said U.S. intelligence is becoming worried about al Qaeda finding “safe haven” in Europe because it increases the danger of terrorists getting into the United States.
On Iraq, Mr. Fingar stood by the conclusions of a January U.S. intelligence assessment that said an 18-month withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country “almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance of the Iraqi government and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.”
Mr. Fingar said al Qaeda leaders know that turning on cell phones, even in mountain redoubts of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has led to the death or capture of other terrorists.
He noted that the appeal of al Qaeda’s Islamist extremist ideology is strong and has protected bin Laden and al-Zawahri from U.S. offers of reward money or other incentives aimed at locating the men.
CIA Director for Intelligence John Kringen said his agency thinks bin Laden is alive and “probably in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
“In terms of your frustration … the challenge we face is those are ungoverned spaces in which the Pakistani government doesn’t control much of that — very tribally based,” Mr. Kringen said, adding that bin Laden does not communicate or interact directly with anyone for long periods of time.
The officials were questioned by Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat, about why bin Laden has not been caught in the more than 2,000 days since the September 11 attacks killed 3,000 Americans.
“Now, I don’t equate capturing or killing Osama bin Laden with victory in the war against al Qaeda by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Andrews said. “But I also understand that the psychological value to the American people and around the world and the strategic blow that it would strike to al Qaeda around the world is obviously of great significance.”
Mr. Kringen said that in some cases, Pakistani tribal leaders “are the very people who are protecting him.”
“We’ve had rewards out for bin Laden for a long period of time, and economic motivation is not a principal driver of how they behave,” he said.
The CIA analyst said it is very difficult to “turn” people in the region into agents willing to work for the U.S. government in locating the al Qaeda leaders.