The Taliban have been ousted, Tora Bora has fallen, the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan is in complete disarray. But the $25 million question remains: Just where is Osama bin Laden? Leads have turned cold, clues are indistinguishable from rumours, and there's always the possibility of Al-Qaeda planting red herrings to throw pursuers astray. A typical instance of the prevailing confusion: Pakistani Urdu daily Al Akhbar quoted fleeing Afghan families' claim that bin Laden and Mullah Omar ordered their own killing the day Kandahar fell.
This is among the many sensational newsreports that periodically keep surfacing in Pakistan. Nobody takes them seriously; nobody can until the US declares bin Laden is dead. The proposition could be put the other way round too—the fugitive Arab will be presumed to be alive till the US has incontrovertible proof of his death. One of bin Laden's wives was recently quoted thus: "He seems ready to die, in the firm belief that after him will come other Osamas to continue the struggle." Precisely the stuff that goes into the making of a folk hero.
For the moment though, US intelligence agencies through their interrogation of Al-Qaeda fighters who surrendered in Tora Bora feel bin Laden has crossed into Pakistan's tribal belt, which stretches a length of 2,400 km from Wakhan corridor in the north of Pakistan to the coastal area of Baluchistan. Consisting of seven tribal agencies, or autonomous tribal zones, intelligence agencies have zoomed in attention on Kurram Agency, which provides access to Spinghar, or White Mountains, where Tora Bora caves are located.
Ever since the fall of Tora Bora, Al-Qaeda fighters have been crossing over from Afghanistan into Kurram Agency. Last week, the law-enforcing agencies arrested 156 Al-Qaeda fighters in the Ziaran area of Kurram Agency. On December 19 though, some of them managed to escape and fought a bloody battle with the Pakistanis; eight prisoners are still at large.
The arrest of Al-Qaeda fighters has sparked off speculation that bin Laden could be here. But others feel this is a remote possibility because Kurram Agency has a sizeable population of Shias, steadfastly opposed to the Sunni politics of the Taliban and their Arab allies. It's the Shia factor again that makes Pakistani officials rule out Orakzai Agency as bin Laden's hideout.
This leaves out five other agencies in the narrow tribal belt. Could bin Laden take shelter here? Indeed, hundreds of people continue to cross back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The security forces are only at checkpoints, and much of the 2,400 km border remains highly porous. Bin Laden could easily cross into Pakistan.
Others, however, say he wouldn't exercise the option. For one, post-9/11, bin Laden has been extremely critical of Islamabad's U-turn on Afghanistan, accusing it of "siding with the US instead of God". Bin Laden knows the military regime wouldn't show him any mercy on its soil. Second, the Pakistan government has in the past always handed over those whom the US wanted to try for crimes committed there. For instance, Nawaz Sharif flouted his country's legal procedure to extradite Aimal Kasi, who was accused of killing CIA officials in Langley, Virginia; ditto Ramzi Yusuf, accused of bombing the WTC in New York in 1993. Bin Laden knows the Pakistan government won't make an exception in his case.
It is true bin Laden has a huge following among those religious parties and leaders who were supporters of the Taliban; he is also considered a hero in the Sunni-dominated tribal agencies.Even the lower ranks of the Pakistan army have immense sympathy for Al-Qaeda and its leader. There are some who feel this could embolden bin Laden to take shelter under their protection.
No, say the detractors; the religious parties and leaders have been subordinated and marginalised post-Taliban and can't defy the might of the Pakistani state to give bin Laden protection. In the tribal agencies, he would need the patronage of tribal chiefs. Most, however, owe allegiance to the government and receive lavish sums of money in return for their loyalty and services to the state. Second, there are limits to the kind of help lower ranks of the army could offer bin Laden, though it is true some of them won't hesitate to provide him and his comrades safe passage. But then, Laden doesn't need safe passage; he requires a hideout.
Other options for bin Laden could include the central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrghyztan and Tajikistan. An Agence France Presse report speculates that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)—believed to be operating secret routes from Afghanistan to the Ferghana valley—could be sheltering bin Laden. But critics point out that these secret routes criss-cross northern and western Afghanistan which are now under the control of the Northern Alliance. An attempt to escape into Central Asian countries is consequently quite risky, unless bin Laden had left Afghanistan much before the alliance swept through the country.
The US, on its part, isn't ruling anything out. It's forming an unusual joint intelligence team comprising professionals from Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and the US intelligence agencies to trace bin Laden. The first three countries are expected to provide operatives whom the US is expected to guide.
The western media has recently started to speculate that bin Laden could have travelled through Iran to escape to Yemen or Somalia. But then Iran has been opposed to the Taliban's anti-Shia policies; why would it support Al-Qaeda now? The western media, however, argues that Iran's enmity with the US is greater than its dislike for the Saudi fugitive; that Teheran would want to deny the US its ultimate victory of nabbing bin Laden. Critics rubbish this (they point to the thaw between the US and Iran to bolster their argument), claiming this is nothing but an excuse to further widen the theatre of war against terror.
Those who have met bin Laden feel he is still in Afghanistan. Their logic is simple: Afghanistan was attacked because of him; its people suffered because of him. If saving his own life had been bin Laden's intention, wouldn't he have fled Afghanistan before the US attacked the country? The counter-argument is that perhaps he underestimated the US, that he never thought it could run through the country so easily. No, counter others, arguing you can't credit him for organising attacks on the US and still believe he could have got his calculations about the US so wrong.
Those who feel bin Laden is still in Afghanistan argue that he still has support among the Afghans, never mind what the Americans might say about the cooperation they are receiving in their Osama hunt. There are many Afghans, including his cook, Tooti, who would be willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect the Saudi fugitive. Having publicly expressed his wish to die as martyr fighting the Americans, bin Laden won't run away from Afghanistan and abandon his loyal band of followers.
Rahimullah Yusufzai in Peshawar and Amir Mir in Lahore With Behroz Khan in Peshawar
- Login | Register
- Current Issue
- Most Read
- Previous Issues