U.S. has fresh indications bin Laden survived attacks

Information too vague to strike suspected hideouts, officials say

February 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - After weeks of uncertainty about the fate of Osama bin Laden, senior administration officials said last week that they had fresh indications he had survived the bombing assault on the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan and is probably still moving through the mountains that straddle the border between that nation and Pakistan.

The administration is not claiming to have bin Laden cornered. Some senior administration officials say the evidence suggests that the search has "bounded his whereabouts," as one put it. But capturing or killing bin Laden looks like "a long-term proposition," the official said, and defense officials noted that none of the information has been specific enough for the United States to attack suspected hideouts.

The administration officials said their assessment is based on information obtained within the past month, but they declined to elaborate. Some defense and intelligence officials said the information was far from definitive.

Nonetheless, the administration has claimed some success in weakening al-Qaida. Senior officials say a comprehensive review of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan has concluded, in the words of one of them, that in the pursuit of al-Qaida members, "we've probably gotten about a third of the core leadership," a group the White House defines as comprising 20 to 25 key terrorists. The administration released the names of six leaders it believes are dead, many of whom have previously been reported killed.

The search for bin Laden has been frustrated from the start by intelligence and tips that officials say are flawed, and in some cases, intentionally misleading, and they caution that the latest hints about bin Laden could also prove false. The senior administration official who described the evidence said it was "very fragile information" that could be jeopardized if further details were disclosed.

"We are quite certain he is alive, and we think he is somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan," the senior administration official said. "It may be that he moves back and forth between the two."

Other officials said the suspected area was in southeastern Afghanistan and adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan that are traditionally Islamic strongholds suspicious of outside interference.

If the intelligence is reliable, it suggests that bin Laden might still be in the same rugged and inaccessible mountains where U.S. troops have focused their search since late November. As recently as last month, officials said they had not had a fix on bin Laden's location since December, when intelligence agents believed they heard him directing troops over a shortwave radio in Tora Bora.

The administration's contention that it is making progress in searching for bin Laden and dismantling the al-Qaida hierarchy is politically important to President Bush and his military team.

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