Associated Press November 20, 2001
Bin Laden's Hiding Places Shrinking
By Sally Buzbee
Osama bin Laden's hiding places are shrinking, but they aren't gone. The accused terrorist could sneak across a mountain border to Kashmir, blend in with refugees inside Afghanistan or - perhaps most likely - hunker down in a cave and hope not to be found.
Even with America's chances improving, "People can hide in caves for long periods," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday. "This will take time." If he's attacked, bin Laden may try to ensure that others - Americans - die with him, experts warn: Either by strapping on explosives to detonate if U.S. troops approach, or by ordering another strike on America as a final act.
"He may try to hide from us, wait it out. Or he may decide to die a martyr and launch some attack when he's going down," said Herbert E. Meyer, vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council during the Reagan administration.
For the first time, U.S. officials sound optimistic they will eventually get him. The rout of the Taliban has shrunk the area where bin Laden can hide, President Bush said Monday. "The noose is beginning to narrow," Bush said.
And a $25 million reward, plus money offered secretly by the CIA, may persuade local people to look hard for bin Laden, even crawling through tunnels and caves, Rumsfeld said.
U.S. intelligence considers it most likely that bin Laden will remain in Afghanistan, rather than try to flee elsewhere. He's expected to either hide in one location, or move between several hide-outs in the rugged, mountainous strip of Afghanistan running roughly from southeast of Kandahar, up to south of Kabul and Jalalabad.
In the past, bin Laden always has traveled with a small, armed security force. He's believed to use couriers to communicate because he knows the United States can eavesdrop on any phone conversation.
Among bin Laden's options:
- Sneak out of Afghanistan on foot.
Bin Laden could try to escape across the Pakistani border, perhaps to the contested Indian-Pakistani border area of Kashmir where he has supporters. But once he gets there, bin Laden has fewer of the mountain hide-outs he has in Afghanistan, said Tim Brown, a defense and intelligence analyst at Globalsecurity.org.
Other nearby countries don't want him: Iran has its own fight with bin Laden. Countries to the north are cooperating with the United States and Secretary of State Colin Powell says China also would not take him in.
Bin Laden could disguise himself as a woman in an all-enveloping burqa, travel with just one or two people and even try to blend in with the region's thousands of refugees, Brown said. But bin Laden is well over 6 feet tall, and if anyone recognizes him, he would have little protection without armed guards.
- Sneak out of Afghanistan by air.
Bin Laden might have access to a helicopter, Rumsfeld says, and helicopters can fly low to avoid detection. But U.S. airborne-radar planes can spot even low-flying helicopters that follow the contours of hills and valleys in a risky flight path.
Bin Laden could fly by helicopter to Pakistan, then take an airplane to Somalia or Sudan, both chaotic, lawless places where he was welcome in the past. But even those countries might reject him now out of a fear of U.S. military attacks, Powell said.
- Hide out in caves in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden spent years fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and spent many of his millions creating a network of caves and underground hide-outs for troops and supplies out of the existing, ancient network of water trenches.
The United States is bombing any hide-out it knows about, both south of Jalalabad and south of Kandahar, using "bunker-busters" that can dig under the surface and explode in a tunnel, and fuel-air explosives that can suck out a cave's oxygen.
The United States could also send commandos into caves, but that is extremely dangerous. Rumsfeld said he hoped "substantial monetary rewards" will convince "a large number of (Afghan) people to begin crawling through those tunnels and caves looking for the bad folks."
If bin Laden is killed in the bombing of a cave, U.S. officials may never recover a body and never know for sure that he is dead.
- Choose to die.
In his most recent interview, bin Laden said he was "ready to die" and predicted attacks against Americans would continue even if he's gone. He might refuse to be captured alive, and instead blow himself up and hope to take American troops with him.
Whatever bin Laden does, "It's awfully tough to pinpoint one single person," Meyer warned. He gives America a 50-50 chance of catching bin Laden. "Even that is pretty good," he says.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press