Chasing bin Laden with TV ads in Pakistan offering cash
This week, for the first time, Pakistan is allowing ads to air that offer rewards for helping find Al Qaeda leaders.
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Osama bin Laden may find out just how trustworthy his friends are. The US government has launched a series of advertisements - broadcast for the first time on Pakistani state television and radio stations - promising multimillion dollar awards for information leading to Mr. bin Laden's capture. US officials say the ad campaign could serve two purposes: to break the confidence of the Al Qaeda leader, and to bring in crucial human intelligence from local people who might want a little cash.
"This kind of thing has worked before, both here in Pakistan, and in Colombia as well," says a senior US official in Islamabad, speaking on condition of anonymity. He adds that $57 million has been given out so far under this program worldwide and some of the people here have been captured as the result of tip-offs. [Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the extent of compensation handed out by the US for human intelligence.]
Gen. Talat Masood, a retired Army general and defense analyst based in Islamabad, agrees that "It will put psychological pressure on these men. If they are alive they would try to re-constitute the organization and this tactic is aimed to counter Al Qaeda's future strategy to regain strength."
Bin Laden's security has long included a mixture of God and greed. The Al Qaeda leader draws much of his support from his reputation as an Islamic hero, and as a wealthy man able to pay his supporters. The $25 million US reward is not new. But US legislation passed in December finances the advertising campaign and gives the US the option of doubling the reward.
US officials say thebroadcast ad campaign has already yielded some "useful information."
The ads - broadcast in the Pakistani languages of Urdu, Sindhi, Baloch, and Pashto - appeal to many Pakistanis' aversion to the extremist methods of Al Qaeda. In television ads, which have begun appearing this week, images of bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, and the one-eyed reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, include a voice over that asks: "Who can stop the terrorists? Only you." The rewards range from $5 million to $25 million for information leading to the capture of bin Laden and his lieutenants.
The US government has publicized its rewards here on posters, matchbox covers, newspaper ads, and the Internet. But this is the first time they've been given access to the Pakistani airwaves. A contact phone number and e-mail address (www.rewardsforjustice.net) is provided, and promises resettlement for informants and their families.
That ad campaign follows a sustained military campaign by Pakistani forces in the tribal district of South Waziristan. This effort - in which more than 200 Pakistani paramilitary troops and 300 tribal and foreign militants were killed - resulted in the agreement by former militant tribal leaders to switch allegiances from Al Qaeda to the Pakistani government. A senior Pakistani official disclosed two weeks ago that this deal included Pakistan's agreement to pay off tribal leaders' debts to Al Qaeda leaders. .
US and Pakistani officials have long suspected that the most likely hiding place for bin Laden is somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Top Pakistan intelligence sources say the Al Qaeda leaders seem to avoid using modern communications equipment, relying instead on hand-carried messages. In addition,recent Al Qaeda videotape messages - broadcast by Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel - appear to have been taped indoors. Earlier videos were shot outdoors which gave hints to bin Laden's or Zawahiri's geographical location. In the video of Zawahiri shown Sunday on Al Jazeera, for example, he appeared before a plain brown backdrop.
Since 1998, when the US launched cruise missile attacks against his terrorist training camps in southeastern Afghanistan, bin Laden has surrounded himself only with a hard-core group of Arab bodyguards. Those who have met bin Laden - including Pakistani journalists and extremists - say that this group of bodyguards would probably fight to the death rather than allow their leader to be captured.
US officials admit they have no hard evidence of bin Laden's whereabouts. In the absence of facts, speculation and conspiracy theories have filled the vacuum, placing the Al Qaeda leader in places as far apart as Kazakhstan and Iran.
Pakistani sources say that American and Pakistani intelligence services have increasingly coordinated their efforts in the ongoing war.
"There are various cells working to capture Osama, Zawahiri, and leading Al Qaeda leaders. The Pakistani and American intelligence and communication experts work separately and jointly as well in gathering information about them," says a senior official source.
"They collect and share information which could lead to the capture of these people.... The intelligence experts also look for leads about the most wanted men from the arrest of militants across the country," says the Pakistan source.
General Masood sees the revival of the ad campaign, reminding people of the available rewards, as a positive step that has worked before. "It has helped them in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in locating Saddam and his sons," he says.
Security analysts here say that Osama and company could not stay in hiding without some support from local Islamists who see him as a symbol of defiance to America.
But in addition to that, there is fear. Several Pakistanis in the past 18 months reportedly have been killed in the tribal areas on suspicion of being spies for America. This ad campaign is aimed at providing enough financial incentive for people to take the risks of cooperation. "In the hunt of Osama, Zawahiri and other prominent Al Qaeda terrorists, human intelligence remains an important factor," says a security official.
The whereabouts of bin Laden and Zawahiri have been shrouded in mystery. The last time US forces were able to confirm their whereabouts was during the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. US official say they may capture bin Laden today, tomorrow, or 10 years from now. But as in the capture of Saddam Hussein and much of his cabinet and family, the key to bin Laden's capture may depend on a tip from a trusted friend.