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Bin Laden: An Elusive Target - 2001-10-04

For several years U.S. officials have been trying to locate and capture Osama bin Laden, who is wanted in the United States for his alleged role in the September 11 terror attacks and several other deadly terrorist incidents. Experts in the region say even a large military force will have difficulty when it comes to capturing or killing Mr. bin Laden and his key lieutenants.

In 1996 the U.S. Central Intelligence agency reportedly established a special office dedicated exclusively to tracking down Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida organization. Two years later, following the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. Navy warships launched Tomahawk missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. The strikes were launched in a bid to eliminate the threat posed by the bin Laden organization. In 1999, according to a report in The Washington Post, the CIA recruited and trained a special unit of commandos in Pakistan whose task was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The State Department has also offered a multi-million dollar reward for his capture.

All of those efforts to end the threat posed by Mr. bin Laden's alleged terrorist network appear to have failed. Now, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. military is finalizing preparations for what could be another strike on Mr. bin Laden and his Taleban allies in Afghanistan.

Hamid Mir, is the editor of the Daily Ausuf, an Urdu-language newspaper in Islamabad. Mr. Mir is one of the few journalists to interview Osama bin Laden. He says he believes the Saudi fugitive is ready for any attack. "He is not afraid to die," he said. "If he was afraid he would not adopt this kind of life. He would love to be killed while fighting against the United States of America that is his dream."

Taleban officials say the Saudi Fugitive is under their control and is being hidden for his own protection inside Afghanistan, actions that have brought the threat of U.S. military attack.

Hamid Mir says Osama bin Laden and some of his Taleban hosts have long believed they would some day be attacked by the United States. That belief, he says, helps to explain the Taleban's refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden. "I think they have been preparing for this for the last three years," he said. "For the last three years Osama bin Laden established a lot of hideouts. He was planning where he should go if there is an attack in the north what would he do or what he would do if the attack came from the south. And they were also aware there may be revolts against the Taleban in different parts of Afghanistan and there were some revolts in different parts of the country, which were I think controlled successfully by the Taleban. So they were preparing for a war before the 11th of September. That is why you can see there is no elasticity in their attitude."

Talat Masood is a retired Pakistani General who now writes a newspaper column on security issues. He says a military strike aimed at Mr. bin Laden's al-Qaida organization will be difficult, and will require some sort of infrastructure inside Afghanistan. "Well it will be very difficult because they will go into hiding, and to pinpoint exactly where they are hiding will be difficult," said Mr. Masood. "But at the same time when the pressure will be applied they will be on the run. If the coalition forces go in an establish certain land bases at vantage points like Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, and then stay there for a certain duration of time, while at the same time the northern alliance is also along with other forces who oppose the Taleban, then it is possible they may be located. So they may give a fight or be killed."

There are conflicting reports as to how many fighters belong to al-Qaida with estimates running from more than 10,000 to less than 1,000. Hamid Mir, says al-Qaida has suffered huge losses in recent years fighting for the Taleban. "Most of his fighters were killed in the last three years while fighting against the northern alliance. I do not think he has more than 2,000 to 3,000 fighters.

But Hamid Mir says the fighters that remain loyal to Osama bin Laden are experienced. Many, he says command Taleban troops, and many, he says fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan's mountains 20 years ago. He says they will be a formidable adversary for any force trying to catch the man that has become the focus of world attention.