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Laden living ‘comfortably’ in Pakistan: NATO official

KABUL: Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is living comfortably in a house in northwest Pakistan close to his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri, CNN yesterday quoted a NATO official as saying. The Saudi-born militant wanted for the Sept 11 attacks on the United States nine years ago is being protected by local people and “some members of the Pakistani intelligence services”, the television network said. It also said that the Al-Qaeda number two, the Egyptian-born Zawahiri, was living close to him. “Nobody in Al-Qaeda i
s living in a cave,” the unnamed senior NATO official is quoted as saying in a report datelined Kabul.

Bin Laden is likely to have moved around an area ranging from the mountains of Chitral near the Chinese border to the Kurram valley near Afghanistan’s Tora Bora in recent years, CNN reported the official as saying. Pakistan’s tribal belt of Kurram and six other districts spanning 27,220 sq km lies outside government control, and has long been suspected by Western intelligence to be bin Laden’s hiding place. “The official also confirmed the US assessment that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taleban, has move
d between the cities of Quetta and Karachi in Pakistan over the last several months,” said the report on CNN’s website.

Pakistani authorities deny they are providing protection for the terror mastermind bin Laden, who has a $25-million US bounty on his head. “I categorically deny the report about the presence of Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al-Zawahiri or even Mullah Omar in Pakistan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters yesterday. “Bin Laden… and all other terrorists are anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan and hired assassins. If we have any information we will take action against them,” he said. A foreign ministry offici
al speaking to AFP rejected the CNN report as “baseless” and “put out to malign Pakistan”. A NATO spokesman in Kabul said the alliance had no immediate comment.

Bin Laden is believed to have escaped to Pakistan from Tora Bora, which was a Taleban stronghold during the US-led invasion of late 2001 that unseated the Islamist regime, which had provided him with a safe haven. The invasion was launched to punish the Taleban for allowing Al-Qaeda to train and plot the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, which killed around 3,000 people. The militants soon regrouped to launch an insurgency that is being fought by more than 150,000 US and NATO troops.

The United States considers Pakistan’s tribal belt the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda and a covert campaign of drone missile attacks targeting Taleban and Al-Qaeda operatives in the region expanded significantly last month. Relations between Pakistan and the US-led NATO alliance in Afghanistan deteriorated following the Sept 30 killing of two Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border NATO helicopter raid in Kurram. Pakistan subsequently closed the main road border crossing into Afghanistan used by NATO supply
convoys for 11 days.

Pakistani officials have also been angered by reports of mounting US pressure on the military to launch an offensive against Taleban and Al-Qaeda in North Waziristan, considered the tribal belt’s premier militant fortress. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted this month that bin Laden and Zawahiri – who also has a $25-million price on his head – would eventually be hunted down.

In August, the commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus, said bin Laden was “far buried” in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan and that capturing him remained a key task. Bin Laden was last heard of in two purported audiotapes issued in early October in which he called for aid for flood victims in Pakistan and for action against global climate change. Zawahiri, believed to be the main strategist and key ideologue in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, has appeared more frequent
ly in video and audiotapes, most recently in a recording issued four days after this year’s anniversary of 9/11.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has combined the global reach of both the English language and the Internet as cyber-terrorism tools to win over non-Arab sympathisers. Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing released the first edition of an online English-language magazine, Inspire, four months ago that included an article on how to build a bomb. A second, 74-page edition made it to the World Wide Web last week instructing Muslims in Western countries on how to weld deadly steel blades onto SUV vehicles and then plough into civil
ian crowds.

With Inspire, edited by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group hopes to recruit young Westerners to the jihadi cause and to apparently encourage random attacks. “This is by no doubt a new experiment” as it “is the first time Al-Qaeda issues an English-language publication,” a Paris-based expert on Middle East Islamist groups, Dominique Thomas, told AFP. “These messages target Muslim communities living” outside the Arab world, Thomas said. Philip Seib, a professor at the University of Southern
California and co-author of “Global Terrorism and New Media,” believes the terror network has itself become a media organisation. “It might be time to stop thinking of Al-Qaeda as the terrorist organisation that does media and more as the media organisation that does terror,” Seib said.

Since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, video, audio and written Al-Qaeda statements have mushroomed on the Internet. Now, the network has a complete web-magazine in English. “This is a shift” in Al-Qaeda’s strategies, said Mustafa Alani, security expert at the Dubai-based think-tank, the Gulf Research Centre. “Previously, they never cared about non-Arabic readers. This is another dimension of a global war aiming at global recruitment,” he added. Al-Qaeda “exported” militants, now it “imports
them, it used the Internet to “inform” people, now it’s using it to “recruit” them, Alani said.

Prime contenders for the authors of the new strategy are two Al-Qaeda-linked US citizens, Anwar Al-Awlaqi and Samir Khan, both of whom are believed to be in Yemen. Awlaqi, a 39-year-old American cleric of Yemeni origin, has been linked to US army Major Nidal Hasan who shot dead 13 people in Texas and to a Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up a US airliner on Dec 25. Fluent in English, Awlaqi is bent on radicalising fellow US and Western citizens and publicly urged American Muslims to follow the ex
ample of Hasan in a video message last May. US President Barack Obama’s administration has authorised his targeted killing, in a rare move against an American citizen.

The other American believed to be behind the strategy is Samir Khan, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, suspected by US intelligence to be an Internet militant who once operated out of his parents’ basement in New York. “I’m proud to be a traitor to America,” Khan writes in Inspire’s second edition. “I’m proud to be a traitor in America’s eyes just as much as I’m proud to be a Muslim.

In a global campaign, Al-Qaeda has opted for a borderless means of communication to spread its message and encourage militants to join the “jihad” (holy war) from any part of the world. Inspire lists a number of Al-Qaeda emails, including a Hotmail address. But the group advises would-be recruits to download encryption software before sending messages in order to “avoid detection from the intelligence services”. European governments regularly arrest Islamist forum members. “Anyone, living in any part of th
e world can direct a jihadi forum from his home,” said Thomas. Last year, France and Belgium launched a wave of arrests against “webmasters and members of three major forums which diffused jihadist information on the Internet,” said the Paris-based expert. The forums have since been closed.

They want to increase their visibility and the logical way to do that is in English. I think it’s successful, as they’re getting attention at very little cost to them … They’re expanding their audience base,” Seib said. To curb the network’s growing threat, “governments need to make an effort to use the new media in as effective a way as the terrorist organisations have been,” he said. “You just have to fight their information with your own.” – AFP