It's back to the million-dollar conundrum: is Osama bin Laden dead or alive? Has he been buried secretly to perpetuate the myth around him, or is he hiding in an inaccessible cavern, smirking at the spy satellites and listening devices the United States has deployed to track him down? Last week's broadcast of an audio cassette of bin Laden, on the Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera, has negated the earlier presumption, in the absence of clinching evidence, that he is dead. It has also imparted credence to the claims of those who have been harping on the existence of inextricable links between Al Qaeda and Pakistan.
But first, a little on the authenticity of the Al-Jazeera cassette. For one, the voice on it is remarkable in its similarity to bin Laden's; ditto, tonal and linguistic resemblances. Unlike other such audiotapes released from the time the US bombed the Tora Bora caves, where bin Laden was reportedly hiding till last December, last week's Al-Jazeera cassette referred to some very recent events—the killing of US marines in Kuwait, the Bali bombing and the Moscow theatre siege. All this in bin Laden's voice is considered telling testimony that he is alive.
Experts in the US are analysing the audiotape to rule out the possibility of tampering. But the opinion of linguistic experts prompted President George Bush to say the world "has been put on notice". For, the cassette has the Al Qaeda leader warning, "You will be killed just as we are killed, bombed as we are bombed. Expect more suffering."
The emergence of bin Laden—though only as a voice—is bad news for Pakistan. Al-Jazeera's Pakistan-based correspondent Ahmed Muhaffaq Zaidan received the cassette from an anonymous person in Islamabad. Zaidan told a news agency about his scoop, "I received a call last night (Tuesday) from somebody who said he wanted to meet me and had got something for me." The correspondent reached the appointed place, apparently in a congested area. A partially-masked man then handed him the cassette and said, "This is from Osama." The emissary then disappeared. Zaidan returned to the car and played the cassette. He thought the voice was unmistakably bin Laden's. He should know, having interviewed Osama twice and having authored a book on him.
The Al-Jazeera telecast prompted Pakistan-based fbi sleuths to launch a massive Osama hunt in Peshawar and its vicinity. Pakistani intelligence sources say the ongoing search is based on reports from local tribal sources who say the Saudi fugitive is living comfortably in Peshawar. This is a city he knows well, and where Al Qaeda cells are reportedly thriving courtesy Saudi donors and committed operatives belonging to the ISI. Intelligence sources say the FBI has unravelled the name under which Al Qaeda now functions—Fath-e-Islam (Victory of Islam). But they also insist that though bin Laden is alive, he is most probably hiding in Kunar province.
In fact, Ummat, the leading Urdu-language daily of Karachi, recently published a front-page story filed from Asadabad, capital of Kunar, under the headline: "Osama spotted in Pakistani area Dir" (80 km from the Pak-Afghan border in the NWFP). Quoting Afghan ministry defence sources (read those close to defence minister Mohammad Fahim), the story said that Fath-e-Islam has established two training centres in Pakistan; that it could launch a series of attacks on the Afghan government; that the Americans suspect China of assisting these two training camps. "One of them is identified as being 140 km north of Gilgit—the capital of the Pakistani northern areas—in an area called Markash, close to the Chinese border," the newspaper said.
Pakistani and international media ignored Ummat's story. But the newspaper did get some facts right. Intelligence sources endorse Ummat's claim that Al Qaeda has been assured cooperation from the Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is bitterly opposed to the Karzai government.It is also true, sources say, that Al Qaeda has extended its intelligence network in Asadabad on the tide of popular resentment against the US presence in the Pashtun tribal belt. There is every chance of Osama and the Fath-e-Islam leadership hiding in Kunar. "The Americans know it, of course. But they simply can't get into Kunar. It is mountainous and the area's 100 per cent pro-Taliban," says a senior Pakistani intelligence official. For now, the tape has changed the presumption of Osama conundrum: he is alive, in the absence of proof of his death.
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