On the Hunt

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The search for Osama bin Laden is gathering momentum…well, at least in the press anyway. Its not certain how the search is really going. It will certainly be a giant boost for Bush’s public opinion if and when Osama is found, which is why cynics suggest, hey, maybe the Bush administration does already have bin Laden and are just waiting for a more opportune time (oh, say, right before the November presidential election) to reveal the notorious terrorist. But considering a report by CIA director George Tenet, which says that al-Qaeda may no longer be the biggest terrorist threat, would Osama’s capture really make us safer?

What is known is that the Pentagon is moving the same unit that captured Saddam, Task Force 121, into Afghanistan. The Washington Times reports that A Defense Department official said there are two reasons for repositioning parts of Task Force 121: First, most high-value human targets in Iraq, including Saddam Hussein, have been caught or killed. Second, intelligence reports are increasing, pointing to the fact that his movement are moe numerous and that he hides in the mountainous terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Part of the rising tension in finding bin Laden comes from a statement last month by Army Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who predicted that Osama would be found by the end of the year:

“We have a variety of intelligence, and we’re sure we’re going to catch Osama bin Laden and [Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammed] Omar this year. We’ve learned lessons from Iraq, and we’re getting improved intelligence from the Afghan people.”

Of course, an Osama find is widely believed to be a good thing for the administration and Bush’s reelection hopes. The Daily Mail in London editorializes on this:

“Think of what the capture of Bin Laden would do for the standing of Tony Blair and President George W. Bush. Both could proclaim their war on terrorism a success and say there will be justice at last for those who grieve for loved ones lost on 9/11.Given their present doghouse status, Bin Laden is needed by both, but Mr Bush’s need is greater. Bin Laden’s capture – or proven death – by November 2 (the date of the U.S. election) could guarantee his second presidential term.Ideally the Al Qaeda leader should be paraded publicly just before Mr Bush’s ‘coronation’ as Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency at the party’s New York convention on August 30. ( Parading him on a fire engine through Manhattan might prove a little risky).Capturing him would certainly improve Mr Bush’s standing in the opinion polls. The latest say Democrat Senator John Kerry (who has yet to be chosen as his party’s candidate) would defeat him by 55 per cent to 43 per cent. But the capture of Osama bin Laden would be a great, short-term boost.”

In terms of public opinion, catching Osama will surely be a coup. But will his capture really make us any safer? Probably not, according to a statement on Monday by CIA Director George Tenet. He said that al-Qaida is seriously damaged, and the anti-American agenda is now spread throughout other Islamic extremist groups:

“The steady growth of Osama bin Laden’s anti-U.S. sentiment through the wider Sunni (Islamic) extremist movement, and the broad dissemination of al Qaida’s destructive expertise, ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future — with or without al Qaida in the picture.”

Ironically, the day after Tenet announced this, a top al Qaeda leader warned Bush in an audio tape broadcast to prepare for more attacks on the U.S.

In the tape aired by Al Jazeera television on Tuesday, Ayman al-Zawahri said: “Bush, strengthen your defences and your security measures for the Muslim nation which sent you the legion of New York and Washington has determined to send you legion after legion seeking death and paradise.”

But if al Qaida is no longer the biggest threat (and assuming that videos like al-Zawahri’s are just fronts for a flailing operation), then who is? And does the U.S. intelligence community have a good grip on them? Some recent signs point to trouble in the CIA. The L.A. Times reports that the CIA has closed a number of satellite bases in Afghanistan over concerns about the country’s deteriorating security situation. Current and former CIA officers tell the Times that a series of stumbles and operational constraints have limited the agency’s ability to penetrate the insurgency in Iraq, find Osama bin Laden and, in general, get a handle against terrorism in the Middle East.

One former senior CIA official said the Afghanistan bases were closed because of security concerns, but also because of concerns over efficiency:

“It’s not just because it’s a dangerous place — it’s been dangerous all along,” the official said. “The bases that have been closed have been closed for reasons of efficiency, because the job can be done better somewhere else.”

Still, catching Osama is a priority for the U.S., and based on the latest hype about it, widely expected to occur sometime soon. So it was no surprise when The Sunday Express (a newspaper that the Telegraph describes as “known for its sometimes colourful scoops” which you have to assume is a euphimism for “about as reliable as supermarket tabloids”) claimed that Osama bin Laden has been found and is surrounded by U.S. special forces on the border of northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan. The claim is attributed to “a well-placed intelligence source” in Washington, who is quoted as saying: “He (bin Laden) is boxed in.”

Officials in both Pakistan and the Pentagon denied the rumors spread by the Sunday Express.
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan says the newspaper article is anillogical suggestion :

“As far as the reports of Osama bin Laden’s location, I don’t take much credence in them because if we knew where he was, we would go get him.”

Right. Why wouldn’t they go get him if they knew where he was? Hmmm.


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