Where the bin Laden trail goes cold
Reports put him in the Dir Valley of Pakistan, but a visit there shows only the difficulties of finding him.
KUMRAT, PAKISTAN — Hajji Samander Khan and his friends seem befuddled, even bored, by the notion that Osama bin Laden might be hiding in this beautiful valley of apple orchards and walnut trees. Mere propaganda, they declare as they sip Pepsi, swat flies, and harangue on the immodest apparel of foreign aid workers.
The elderly gentlemen seem to welcome only one sign of change in this conservative valley: the arrival of tourists, the backpacking kind, not those with a $25 million reward on their head.
"Osama bin Laden was brought from Afghanistan by the Americans," Mr. Khan says amid chuckles. "They should know where he is."
In late May, ABC news cited unnamed Pakistani government sources as saying that bin Laden and his entourage had moved down from the mountains of Afghanistan to Kumrat, just 40 miles from the Afghan border.
But the area, although insular and strictly religious, seems an unlikely place for the world's most wanted terrorist, locals and analysts say. Harboring him would only undercut the main impulse of the region: protecting its religious mores, pristine beauty, and tourism from the encroachment of the Pakistani government and its American allies.
A recent visit to the far-flung area bolstered this view, underscoring the difficulties of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which remains largely a series of unfruitful extrapolations from uncertain leads.
"It's all guesswork. If people knew exactly where he was, then it would be no problem catching him," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood (ret.), a defense analyst in Islamabad.
Past and present circumstances might suggest Dir Valley as a viable refuge for bin Laden.
The rugged and forested area was once considered the stronghold of the banned extremist outfit, Tehrik-e-Nifaz Shariah Muhammadi, which sent thousands of volunteers to assist the Taliban after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Local officials insist the power of the group has been all but shattered, but recent violence in and around Dir indicates that extremism remains.
In late June an organization calling itself Amr Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anil Munkar bombed an Internet cafe and a music store in Dir city, and it threatened to target other establishments spreading "obscenity" in the area.
Then in early July, six paramilitary personnel were killed by a remote-controlled bomb in lower Dir valley. A high-ranking police official in Dir city, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, described the attack as the possible beginning of a longer campaign against the military.
"You can call the incident the start of a process of backlash on the military as a result of the operations being carried out in [Waziristan] and Balochistan," he says.
Despite such circumstances, however, a recent visit to the region found residents and officials dismissive of the claim that bin Laden was hiding in Kumrat and far more concerned with promoting the area's natural beauty for tourists.
"I don't think people would put themselves at risk for the sake of Osama bin Laden. I haven't heard anything to date about Osama bin Laden – neither from intelligence agencies or the people," says Mohammed Nisar Wardag, the mayor of Dir.
Entering the main village of Kumrat, which is split by a simple dirt road, has the air of puncturing a bubble: a quiet, self-contained world busy at bettering itself.
Men saw great slabs of wood for construction, and women work the lush fields, their bodies and faces completely covered in billowing shrouds, which locals say they wear even indoors.
Troops of young girls, meanwhile, wash their faces in the river on the way back from the madrassah, evidently the only school in town. Because all this takes place just beside the road, outsiders are noticed immediately, and greeted with respect but an air of suspicion.
Abdul Rasheed, a local resident, says the bin Laden rumors are just propaganda. "We know these mountains, these people. No outsider can hide here. We welcome tourists, but not Osama."
Many others share the opinion that Kumrat would never welcome the outside attention that bin Laden would bring, even though it is a pocket of strict religiosity.
The region has a reputation for its hearty dislike of the outside world – aside from tourists. Locals detest the presence of the government, complaining that it extracts the area's forest wealth without compensation.
They are also against international nongovernmental organizations because they are believed to be non-Muslim and their representatives are prone to dressing immodestly. Residents would therefore not risk sheltering bin Laden, observers add, since it would invite further government interference, or, at worst, direct intervention by the US military.
The police official even advised that Americans not enter the area, since opposition to the war in Afghanistan runs high. The official said that, while there were no legal injunctions against visiting, he would stop Americans who attempted to do so, as he had done in the recent past.
Such measures were for their own safety, the official insisted, and not because the presence of bin Laden was a reality.
"This is just a rumor," he said, referring to bin Laden. "[People in Kumrat] are such rigid people. If [bin Laden] was there he would be cut to pieces. Because of the temperament of the people there, they cannot keep something like that secret."