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Tuesday, Mar. 04, 2003
Hot on Osama's Trail
With Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in custody, U.S. and Pakistani officials say that Osama might not be far behind. Intercepted hand-written letters from bin Laden hint at his whereabouts
By TIM MCGIRK AND RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI/PESHAWAR
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services are reasonably hopeful that the arrest last Saturday of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda's military planner, may flush terrorist chief Osama bin Laden out of hiding. For the first time since bin Laden eluded a U.S.-backed siege of his Afghan mountain stronghold of Tora Bora in December 2001, his hunters have been able to establish that he is still alive and probably hiding "somewhere in northern Pakistan"— a notion Islamabad has long been reluctant to admit. As one Pakistani intelligence official in Peshawar said, "We think that bin Laden will break cover after Mohammed's capture, and when he does, we stand a good chance of catching him."
The breakthrough in the hunt for bin Laden came with the arrest of al-Qaeda's military strategist Mohammed in the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. A Pakistani official said that Mohammed, the logistical mastermind of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US, was in recent contact with bin Laden. Once Pakistani intelligence officers had pin-pointed Mohammed's hideout, a two-story house in a quiet and well-guarded neighborhood inhabited by retired Pakistani army officers, they held off in arresting him for eight hours and tailed him through the bustling streets of Rawalpindi in hopes that he might be visiting bin Laden. However, Mohammed never made the contact with bin Laden, and rather than risk having Mohammed slip away, police and army commandos burst into his Rawalpindi safe house and captured him.
The certainty that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan grew after the Pakistani intelligence services recently intercepted several hand-written letters from the al-Qaeda chief. Pakistani intelligence sources say the contents of these letters have been shared with the CIA. These sources say that bin Laden might have disappeared into Pakistan's northern tribal territory, across the mountain border with Afghanistan, or he might be hiding in the capital Islamabad or 20 miles away in Rawalpindi -right under the nose of the Pakistani armed forces and the government.
A Pakistan intelligence source told TIME that bin Laden's four wives and over a dozen children were probably given shelter in Iran by the zealously anti-American Revolutionary Guards. This source also claimed that bin Laden's lieutenant and ideologue, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, had left the region on "an unknown mission" but had returned to Pakistan and was now believed to be hiding with his terrorist chief.
The trail leading to al-Qaeda's number three, Mohammed, began in the southern border town of Quetta. On Feb 13th, Pakistani intelligence services, backed up by the CIA, raided an apartment in a working class neighborhood where Mohammad had been hiding. Mohammed had left, but his comrade provided police with clues that led to Mohammed's new hideout in Rawalpindi. Trackers also located several internet clubs in Quetta where Mohammed sent coded messages to his terrorist cells in the US, Europe and Asia. This source said: "Now that we've captured Mohammed, we hope we can decipher the codes he used and break apart his global terrorist network."
Copyright © 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved.