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    Journalists wager on exact day of bin Laden capture

    Toronto Star | October 25 2004

    Some reporters think he's already in U.S. custody Some reporters say U.S. troops already have bin Laden, but Bush is waiting for right time to play his ace in the hole


    KABUL—These days, rumours are flying among foreign journalists here that Osama bin Laden — the world's most wanted man — is about to be snared.

    Some journalists are even wagering on the exact day the Al Qaeda leader will be pulled from his hole, mountain, cave or bunker.

    Few scribes affirm their assumptions are fuelled by concrete intelligence.

    But most admit to basing their claims on sheer speculation — that President George W. Bush will snag bin Laden just in time to clinch the Nov. 2 U.S. presidential election.

    Some journalists have gone so far as to assert that the Americans have already bagged bin Laden, but Bush is waiting for the most opportune time to play his ace in the hole.

    "George W. is just waiting for the right moment to pull bin Laden out, and show him to the world," a U.S. newspaper correspondent said recently.

    "The American public ... will reward him with another term in office."

    I must admit that, for several months, I harboured the theory that Bush, in a moment of desperation, would miraculously catch his Number 1 enemy.

    My conjecture was formed last February, during an interview with a top Afghan security official in Kabul.

    The official told me the Americans could catch bin Laden at any time.

    To emphasis his point, he leaned over his big wooden desk, glanced at his wristwatch and said that if the Americans wanted, they could have their man in custody by 3:30 p.m.

    It was 3:15 when he spoke.

    I asked him why the Americans didn't do just that, to which he replied: "That would mean they would have to leave."

    The last recorded statement believed to have been spoken by bin Laden came in the form of an April 15 audiotape.

    But so far, among the pack of journalists who haunt the media centre in Kabul to attend daily briefings on Afghanistan's continuing presidential election process, there has been no speculation that the Al Qaeda chief is dead.

    Apart from the common theories that bin Laden is in Afghanistan or Pakistan, there is at least one other area being touted.

    British journalist Gordon Thomas this month claimed in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that bin Laden was given asylum by Chinese authorities in exchange for placating some 5 million Muslim guerrillas who are rising against Beijing.

    If George W. does know where bin Laden is, this would be a good time to play that ace.

    He is taking some hard hits on the issue from Democratic opponent John Kerry as the two candidates tear across the United States in a flurry of final campaigning.

    Kerry pounced on the president for admitting that chasing down bin Laden — architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — is not the principal aim of the war on terror.

    Thundered Kerry: "Compared to this president, who made significant boasts about chasing after Osama bin Laden and then only months later said, `I don't know where he is and I don't really care and I don't think about him that much,' let me make it clear: I will fight a tougher, smarter, more effective war on terror."

    The president took a defensive stance.

    "Of course we're going to find Osama bin Laden. We've already got 75 per cent of his people," he said.

    "And we're on the hunt for him. But this is a global conflict that requires firm resolve."

    Three years have passed since Al Qaeda's top members vanished after organizing the deadliest terror attack in history. Yet the constant, near-mystical presence of bin Laden continues to haunt the U.S.-led military dragnet in the craggy mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Earlier this year, France's chief of defence admitted that the elusive bin Laden had escaped capture several times.

    "Our men were not very far," Gen. Henri Bentegeat said in March. "On several occasions, I even think he slipped out of a net that was quite well closed."

    Most military and intelligence officials tend to agree that bin Laden and his top associate, Ayman al-Zawahri, are holed up somewhere along the rugged, 2,500-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    The fugitives don't seem to settle in one spot for long.

    Last February, bin Laden was believed to have left southeastern Afghanistan to take refuge in Pakistan's South Waziristan region.

    It was reported in the Pakistani Urdu press that he was under the protection of rings formed by dozens of Al Qaeda fighters and more than 1,200 Taliban who easily blend in as local Pashtun tribesmen.

    Bin Laden moved from that area when some 70,000 Pakistani troops converged on the semi-autonomous tribal region and made dozens of arrests of suspected Al Qaeda members.

    U.S. forces hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan have expressed frustration about their prey's ability to elude them by slipping across to the Pakistani side.

    Even though Pakistan became a key post-9/11 ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, it refuses to permit foreign troops to hunt for militants on its soil.

    American bounty hunter Jack Idema, while on trial in Kabul for torturing Afghans in his private jail, said he gave U.S. authorities the exact address where bin Laden was hiding in Peshawar, a Pakistani border town near the Khyber Pass that served as the key staging area for the jihad in Afghanistan.

    Idema, who has spent much time tracking bin Laden, said he couldn't understand why it took the Americans several days to reach the address.

    By then, bin Laden, was gone, he added.

    Since last February, the U.S.-led military coalition has intensified its search by bolstering manpower by 50 per cent to its current 18,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan.

    They pay for information, track suspicious areas by satellite, conduct house-to-house searches, monitor cell and SAT phones, search vehicles at surprise checkpoints and conduct air assaults.

    Last March, the U.S. House of Representatives doubled bin Laden's bounty to $50 million.

    The concentrated effort seems to have paid off. In the past two months, dozens of terror suspects, including some key Al Qaeda operatives, have been arrested in Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

    Maj. Scott Nelson, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, says the coalition receives daily tips on bin Laden's whereabouts from Afghans and Pakistanis, ranging from first-person sightings in the mountainous border region to someone who talked to someone who talked to someone who saw the fugitive.

    "There's a tendency for people to embellish these things," says Nelson, adding that following up every lead is a painstaking procedure.

    Yet, Nelson says the coalition is getting closer to nabbing their man.

    "His routine is going to give him away," he insists. "Somebody is going to turn him in."

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