Border tribes, terrain hinder hunt for bin Laden

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a lawless frontier

October 05, 2003|By Liam Pleven | Liam Pleven,NEWSDAY

KANIGURRAM, Pakistan - The two freshly dug graves along a dusty road outside this village in the middle of a virtual no man's land are said to hold the bodies of suspected informers.

But if the killings were meant as a warning to people from the craggy peaks and plunging valleys of Pakistan's remote tribal areas - widely believed to be the hideout of Osama bin Laden - not everyone needed it.

Even if he knew where bin Laden was, Farman Ali said, he would not turn in the world's most-wanted man for a $25 million reward. And the fear of retribution has nothing to do with his reasoning. "Whatever his faults," Ali said of the al-Qaida leader, "he's still our brother."

No more accommodating to the hunt for bin Laden is the forbidding terrain of the tribal areas, which stretch hundreds of miles along the border with Afghanistan. Trucks and cars must ford streams and climb crumbling cliffside switchback roads to reach remote villages. The sound of gunfire ricocheting off rocky hillsides serves as a reminder that men carry Kalashnikovs as routinely as college students shoulder backpacks.

Nearly two years since the United States last had a real clue about the whereabouts of the man President Bush once said he wanted "dead or alive," that phrase now carries a hint of mockery. Despite a manhunt, U.S. intelligence services and their Pakistani allies have failed to find bin Laden.

The hunt for bin Laden is being conducted by the CIA, U.S. Special Operations forces and the FBI, whose director, Robert S. Mueller III, visited with Pakistani officials in June to discuss continuing collaboration on counterterrorism efforts.

Neither the U.S. military's most advanced technology nor the temptation of a $25 million bounty has been able to pierce the innermost shell of protection that surrounds the fugitive terror mastermind. Hundreds of his foot soldiers and several top deputies have been captured since the Sept. 11 attacks. But, like the Bush administration's other prime targets, Saddam Hussein and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, bin Laden remains at large.

The Pakistani government, which is allied with the United States in the manhunt, is trying to assert control over hundreds of miles of this all-but-lawless frontier with Afghanistan, a place that is home to the same Pashtun tribes that spawned the Taliban next door. Pakistan was once a main sponsor of the Taliban regime, which welcomed al-Qaida.

The Pakistani government's authority over the tribal frontier remains limited. People are fiercely independent, and tribal society is governed largely by a code of Pashtunwali, which regards extending hospitality and protection to guests as vital.

Locals speak about bin Laden in generalities, even as Ali and others insist that he is not hiding out among them.

"I have a firm belief he's not here, but in Afghanistan," said Kurshid Ahmed, 33, as he perched on a broad porch above a steep hillside. "But there are some people who say he may have crossed the border."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in an interview last month with ABC News, acknowledged that the tribal areas do hold some bin Laden sympathizers. "Yes, there are supporters of these elements, al-Qaida and Taliban elements, within the frontier of the tribal area," he said. But "the reality is this is an inhospitable terrain."

Despite snagging some of bin Laden's top deputies over the past two years, investigators have rarely gotten close to finding bin Laden.

Asked whether authorities have come close to catching bin Laden in the past couple of years, a senior administration official familiar with the CIA's search said: : "There are several times we've gone to places where people thought he might be. Lots of times. But he's never there." Most of those places, the official said, were in the general area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

That border is not where the highest-ranking al-Qaida leaders captured in Pakistan have generally been found. Yet so much about the border region makes it seem like an ideal destination for somebody trying to hide from the world. Cleaved from one another by a colonial boundary, the Pashtuns on either side of the border share a language, history and culture.

On the Pakistani side, a coalition of religious parties swept to victory in parliamentary elections last year in a frontier province, posing a challenge to Musharraf's secular government. And the tribal areas are characterized by what Najam Sethi, a Pakistani newspaper editor, called "rabid anti-Americanism."

Newsday, in New York, is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Newsday staff writer Knut Royce contributed to this article.

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