Signs indicate bin Laden dead, senior officials say

Hard evidence lacking, according to sources high in FBI and CIA

July 27, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday that there are growing signs that suggest Osama bin Laden is dead.

The two officials - one from the FBI, the other from the CIA, both speaking on the condition of anonymity - stressed that neither knew of any concrete evidence. But they said several indications, some of which they would not discuss, seem to point to the likelihood of bin Laden's death.

The officials disclosed for the first time, for example, that U.S. forces captured members of bin Laden's personal security force. Those members are among the prisoners being held as "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and have been interrogated.

"Some of the people we know were involved in that security force we know have been captured," the FBI official said. "One could - as one example - conclude that if his security was captured, there is a possibility that he has been killed."

Agents have gleaned some information from the members of the security detail, the FBI official said, even though those members, along with most of the prisoners in Cuba, seem to be skilled in counter-interrogation techniques.

None of the security force members is an Afghan.

"Bin Laden didn't really trust the Afghanis," the FBI official said. "When it came to his personal security force, they were all Arabs."

The CIA official said it seems telling that there have been no recent religious decrees known as fatwas or appearances by bin Laden.

"There is no reason why he couldn't do a videotape by now," the official said.

"It's curious. You would think he would want to demonstrate to us and all the world that he was still in charge, still alive, but he has not, despite the fact that his spokesman said he would make an appearance soon.

"We were all waiting," the official said.

The officials' comments follow recent remarks by the FBI's top-ranking counter-terrorism official, Dale Watson, that his personal opinion, based on his intuition, is that bin Laden is dead.

The FBI official who spoke yesterday said, though, that he was not willing "to cross that threshold" just yet.

Both officials said it is still at least remotely possible that bin Laden is trying to cultivate a "mystic" image and possibly appear in a sort of "second coming" after some new attack.

They also said U.S. officials are concerned about intelligence reports that al-Qaida is seeking for the first time to establish ties with radical Muslim terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah.

"We're concerned that they might be trying to focus on a [wider support group]," the FBI official said.

U.S. officials are also mindful that midlevel al-Qaida members who have been involved in previous attacks might be plotting further acts on their own.

The FBI official said the war on terrorism has largely crippled al-Qaida's communication network and dismantled the top levels of its structure. But, he said, U.S. efforts have not been as successful in capturing midlevel members who might still have the resources or know-how to plan attacks. But the officials said they do not think any such members are in the United States.

"We believe there is a functional arm out there that we are still extremely concerned about, that we are aggressively going after," the FBI official said. "There are some we know were planners in the East Africa bombing and planners in [the bombing of the USS Cole] and planners of 9/11 that are still out there. We are trying to capture them as quickly as possible."

U.S. officials have been developing profiles of terrorists to help pinpoint any of them should they enter the United States or plan an attack from abroad. Much of the profiling is taking place in Cuba, where agents have also been using the interrogations to chart psychological patterns of prisoners' behavior.

Though many of the prisoners, especially those who attended bin Laden's training camps, have resisted questioning, interrogators have had some success, officials say.

"A lot of times, they tell you stuff they believe you already know," the FBI official said. "But sometimes they're wrong, and they are telling us stuff we didn't know. But they're telling us because they think we know it, not because they are turning the corner and want to expose an operation."

The CIA official said: "They're trained to delay. They try to stall until you have enough specifics to go at them."

They try to deceive interrogators, the official said, but usually avoid lying outright, "because they know they can be prosecuted for lying and we use that."

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