Security entourage holds clues in hunt for bin Laden

In an interview, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, a top Pakistani commander, talks of the hunt on Pakistan's northwestern border.

After three years of poking around caves, raiding compounds, and getting the slip from motorbike mullahs, the intelligence communities chasing Osama bin Laden finally seem to know what they're on the lookout for.

To find the world's most wanted man, Pakistani forces are trying to spot signs of his elaborate security entourage. Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, Pakistan's top commander in the tribal region near the Afghan border, says Mr. bin Laden is guarded by some 50 men, divided into concentric circles of security.

Despite President Pervez Musharraf's recent statement that bin Laden's trail had gone cold, the hunt goes on.

"I am desperately looking for the signature of his security; because it is then I can declare victory.... Finding the signature means either I will get hold of him or I will kill him," General Hussain told the Monitor in an interview at his headquarters in Peshawar.

Last month, the US launched advertisements on Pakistani TV and radio highlighting rewards for information leading to the arrest of any of 14 suspects, starting with Bin Laden. If top Al Qaeda leaders are along the Pakistani-Afghan border, they are believed to be at a place where they can go to tribal areas in both countries.

Captured militants and intelligence gathered through members of breakaway factions indicate that several layers of security surround bin Laden at all times.

"There is a ring of very close guards, there is an outer guard, and then there is an inner guard, and also various circles. Everybody has a code to enter from the outer circle to the inner circle, then another to move from the inner circle to meeting him," says Hussain.

At night, the rings of security are indicated by flashlight signals.

When bin Laden's group moves, says Hussain, they go in caravans and dress in women's clothing to avoid detection by satellite.

"Now I have also given orders that when every vehicle is checked, the women are asked to say something so that you can make out whether it is a male voice or a female voice," he says.

Last year, thousands of military and paramilitary troops battled Al Qaeda militants and tribal supporters in south Waziristan. The 48 military operations resulted in more than 500 deaths, including 304 foreign and local militants and around 200 troops.

Pakistani forces captured 620 militants as well. The number of foreign militants - mostly Uzbek, Chechen, and Tajiks - in Waziristan is now estimated at between 80 and 100, a steep decline from the 600- to 700-person estimate of last year.

"In these 48 operations which were in the length and breadth of the whole South Waziristan agency, the possibility of this fellow [bin Laden] being in one of the target areas cannot be ruled out," says Hussain. "But I have nothing of this indication [of his security entourage] in my area."

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