Bin Laden's hideout in wilds of Pakistan
Authorities have pinpointed a 20-square-mile zone, but many obstacles to bringing in Al Qaeda chief remain.
FEDERALLY ADMINISTERED TRIBAL AREAS, PAKISTAN
The dirt road that connects Pakistan's remote town of Wana with Afghanistan is lined with walled compounds. They form the outermost ramparts for Osama bin Laden's hideaway of forests, mountains, and ravines, local residents and officials say.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The compounds are believed to be part of the concentric circles of defense that insulate senior Al Qaeda leaders, giving them plenty of early warning in the event of a ground assault here.
Although US officials say they have set their sights on a 20-square-mile section within this northwestern region of South Waziristan, they face a number of obstacles to going after America's Enemy No. 1.
The terrain here is as treacherous politically as geographically. Government control is tenuous in this fiercely conservative district of Pakistan's tribal belt, where tribesmen share the Taliban's Pashtun ethnicity.
Local residents and officials recently gave a reporter a tour of the zone near Wana, the district capital, which they described as "infested" with Al Qaeda members.
Authorities in Wana say eight people have been gunned down in the tiny hamlet of Angoor-ada on suspicion of being US informants, leaving local residents terrified to cooperate. They believe the heavily armed tribesmen hosting the Al Qaeda leadership are too loyal, too well-paid, or too terrified to give information on the Saudi fugitive they are believed to be hiding.
A video of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, aired by the Arab TV network Al Jazeera on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary unfolded in a mountainous landscape. It showed the two men picking their way down a rocky slope, past thick pine and cedar trees, dressed in the style of Pashtun tribesmen. It was not clear, however, when the video was filmed, though an audio track released with the silent video refers to recent terror attacks in Iraq.
US officials say they have narrowed the zone of interest to an area slightly larger than the field of battle on the nearby Tora Bora mountain range, where US and Afghan forces launched an attempt to capture bin Laden in December 2001.
This time around, officials acknowledge that a complex set of sensitivities - and the simple fact that America's military has been busy in Iraq - have stymied hopes of an aggressive campaign in the area.
Particularly sensitive is the issue of US forces operating missions inside Pakistan, a country where antiAmerican sentiment runs high and where many take a dim view of the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. US officials say they fear a joint military operation in the semi-autonomous tribal belt could result in grave consequences for President Pervez Musharraf, who has survived at least three assassination attempts since he threw his support behind the US-led war on terror in September 2001. A coalition of conservative Islamic political parties is already pushing for Musharraf's ouster, and would probably win wider public support if US troops entered Pakistan, analysts say. "If we lose Musharraf, all bets are off for Pakistan," says a senior American official who has worked extensively on the region.
US Special Forces do patrol just over the Afghan border from South Waziristan out of a base in Shkin in Paktika Province. But some US officials in the region complain that many units, especially those with Arab-language skills, were shifted to Iraq.Though US soldiers are officially banned from crossing the border, some recent engagements have dipped into Pakistan, including one that left two Pakistani soldiers dead - an event that strained an already delicate situation.