The hunt for bin Laden widens
US teams began removing evidence from Tora Bora caves yesterday, and the hunt for terrorists moved to other areas.
TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN — The Al Qaeda paper trail has never been so thick. American Special Forces, dressed in plain clothes, were spotted yesterday behind a mud brick wall carrying large boxes of documents seized from inside the complex of caves and tunnels known as Tora Bora. Weeks earlier, the nearby city of Jalalabad - flush with terror bases and Al Qaeda headquarters of its own - proved another information treasure trove.
But where will the paper trail lead? And what next for the sophisticated US military machine that has been ordered to hunt down Osama bin Laden - especially after he apparently slipped the noose at Tora Bora and now could be just about anywhere?
British and American defense analysts agree that the hardest part of the manhunt lies ahead. The same net that Mr. bin Laden slipped out of in the rugged mountain area here will now have to be broadened to encompass all of Afghanistan, most of Pakistan (see story, page 6), and the world at large.
American special forces are now combing the Tora Bora region for additional clues that could help them in their fresh hunt. Since the discovery this weekend that the Al Qaeda chief managed to escape the Tora Bora terror base, US Special Forces have also been busy interrogating Al Qaeda prisoners.
"From what I could see through the crack in the door, the Special Forces were asking hard questions in Arabic, but not mistreating the prisoners in any way," says an American video cameraman with MSNBC, who was locked in the same complex where the US interrogations were taking place for four hours.
Law-enforcement organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan are expected to help the US interrogations move forward by offering everything from shortened prison sentences, new identities, and amnesty to actual rewards for solid information about bin Laden's whereabouts.
Yesterday, two pickup trucks with Arab prisoners, wrapped in blood-stained blankets, rumbled up the road from Tora Bora toward the main Jalalabad hospital, about 30 miles to the north. The prisoners were a few Al Qaeda stragglers who had been too injured by the US bombing to move out of the area with hundreds of their colleagues.
An hour later, Fehmi, a 20-something Yemeni fighter, spoke briefly, as he lay recovering on a hospital bed. "Osama was with us in Tora Bora, but he stayed high in the mountains and rarely made contact," he said. "I think he is still up there somewhere or maybe he has escaped."
Such vague information from low-level Al Qaeda fighters is unlikely to help US and British forces track down bin Laden. There are, fortunately, other, more sophisticated, options.
"We'll be looking with a variety of means - human and electronic - to detect indicators of his personal presence," says retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who, himself, has had past experience with heading up still ongoing manhunts in Bosnia and Serbia for suspected war criminals former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic. Even with several thousand NATO troops on the ground in Bosnia and a series of sweeps, Alliance forces have not yet managed to nab either man.
Human rights groups have repeatedly charged that NATO lacks the "political will" to seize Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic, both of whom are accused of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.
Political will, however, appears the least of the antiterror coalition's worries.
General Clark believes that the Saudi national could well become the victim of his own delusions by overestimating his ability to give the slip to Western intelligence agencies.
Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies, warns, though, that British and American intelligence services should not underestimate bin Laden's guile. He believes the Saudi national has probably already skipped out of Afghanistan.
"He will not head to places that the Americans expect him to go," he says in a phone interview from London. "That means you can likely rule out Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines.
"Part of the hard part of the upcoming manhunt is that you are going to have to comb over most of Afghanistan, anyway, just to prove he isn't there, Mr. Heyman adds.
Oddly enough, the defense editor predicts that the Al Qaeda chief might choose a vast Western-leaning Islamic city like Cairo, whose 26 million people, he argues, might make it easy for bin Laden to get lost.
Heyman also credits the alleged terror mastermind with fixating the world's attention on Tora Bora and allowing Al Qaeda members to slip over the borders of Afghanistan in both the east and the west of the country.
"While the military action against Tora Bora was going on in one small area, hundreds and thousands of square miles were not being covered at all," he says.
The Jane's analyst sees more trouble ahead if the West relies too heavily on a third party, like Afghans themselves, to conduct its manhunt.
"The trouble with using a third party is that they are generally doing what they do because they are getting paid for it," he says. "They will often just tell you anything that they think you want to hear, like that Osama bin Laden hasn't left Afghanistan, but he's probably just deeper into the White Mountains."
Alexandra Ashborne, a British defense analyst with Ashborne-Beaver Associates, contends, however, that the US needs to do a far better job convincing citizens of the world, particularly Afghans, that the current $25 million price on the head of bin Laden is for real.
"It is difficult to get this across to Afghans, who live in a country that has been plagued by war and whose people are inherently distrustful of foreigners," Ms. Ashborne says.
Both British and American defense analysts agree that the actual search for bin Laden will have to be done by coalition - likely Western - forces alone.
For most of the past month, dozens of American and British forces were on the ground. Some were "painting targets" with laser beams to improve aerial targeting, others hunting from cave to cave for trapped Al Qaeda members. Most defense analysts agree that the sheer numbers were not adequate to block all the escape routes leading out of the region.
Bin Laden's own associates told the Monitor last week that he had slipped into Pakistan almost two weeks ago. Ashborne, the British defense analyst, says it is unlikely he'll stay there long.
"The hunt has so far been centered around Tora Bora," she says. "Now, we'll have to cast the net much farther."
"This is, however, when the going gets tough. It has not been a very bloody operation so far, and I think many people were expecting it to be much worse."
Defense analysts and politicians are still divided as to whether the massive manhunt for the Saudi Al Qaeda chief will, in the end, succeed.
"At some stage, almost certainly Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden will be caught or eliminated," says Heyman. "In the mean time, [bin Laden] will be protected and be running hard since he is so important to the anti-American movement. The US has built him up into an immense figurehead already in the Arab world. In truth, bin Laden is no more important to Al Qaeda than George Bush is the US."