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Search for bin Laden Continues 3 Years After US Attacks - 2004-09-07

The U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition is still hunting terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the September 11, 2001 deadly attacks on U.S. cities. The Saudi-born fugitive's exact whereabouts are not known, but U.S. intelligence believes he may be hiding in the rugged mountains lining the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials describe Osama bin Laden as probably the most hunted man on the planet. With a $25 million dollar bounty on his head, they say it is just a matter of time before he is caught.

"If he [Osama bin Laden] has a watch, he should be looking at it, because the clock is ticking. He will be caught," said U.S. State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, Joseph Cofer Black.

There has been no firm intelligence on his whereabouts since December 2001, when Osama bin Laden slipped away along with his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, during a U.S.-led assault on their mountain hideouts in Tora Bora, Afghanistan.

The 2001 U.S. military offensive on terrorist bases in Afghanistan also targeted the Islamic Taleban regime, which was sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network. The Taleban was ousted quickly, but leader Mullah Omar escaped and remains at large.

The military searches are concentrating mainly in areas of southern Afghanistan that used to be Taleban strongholds. No one has heard from Mullah Omar and he has not issued any statements ever since escaping the initial U.S. military strikes against his powerbase in Kandahar in late 2001.

The same cannot be said for Osama bin Laden, who has allegedly sent periodic taped messages aired on the Arab television network, Aljazeera.

U.S. intelligence believes that the al-Qaida chief might be hiding in Pakistan, probably in the northwest semi-autonomous region of Waziristan.

Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, has arrested nearly 70 local and foreign al-Qaida suspects since in a stepped up its military campaign against the group in July.

During a trip to Islamabad last week, Mr. Black of the U.S. State Department told a private Pakistani television network that the United States and its allies have moved closer to capturing Osama bin Laden in the last two months. "I would be surprised, but not necessarily shocked, if we wake up tomorrow and he has been caught along with all his lieutenants," added Mr. Black. "Something like that can happen because of the programs and infrastructure in place."

Mr. Black says that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, nearly 70 percent of al-Qaida's leadership has been killed or captured, forcing Osama bin Laden and his associates to spend a lot of time worrying about their security.

"If you have a reduced number of associates, you are not communicating with any regularity, you are basically hiding in a hole and my submission is in the end they will find him like hiding in a hole somewhere," he said.

The most important al-Qaida suspects detained in Pakistan in recent weeks are Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani computer specialist, who officials say has provided crucial information about al-Qaida operatives and the group's plans to launch attacks in Britain and the United States.

However, Pakistani government and intelligence officials say they still do not have substantial leads to capture Osama bin Laden.

Aftab Ahmed Sherpao is Pakistan's Interior Minister.

"A lot of al-Qaida suspects have been arrested and they are under interrogation, but one can't say that it has led us to the key players," said Mr. Sherpao.

Some analysts are uncertain whether Osama bin Laden survived the U.S.-led onslaught against one of his major hideouts on the Afghan side of the border in 2001. Pervez Iqbal Cheema, a former Pakistan military general, is the head of Islamabad's Policy Research Institute.

"Pakistan is trying to capture almost everybody," said Pervez Iqbal Cheema. "Now, since Pakistan had made successes, there is a speculation may be he [bin Laden] is also somewhere around. One really does not know where exactly he is or where is he hiding. Nobody knows that he is still in Afghanistan, nobody knows he is still alive or dead, nobody knows where has gone, he could be anywhere in the world."

With the exception of several audio taped messages that the American CIA is said to have authenticated as being Osama bin Laden's voice, there has been virtually no sign of him since shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States three years ago.