WASHINGTON (AFP) – Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden’s trail has gone cold, and US and Pakistani officials have no active leads on where he might be hiding, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in a spate of interviews
“He is alive, but more than that, where he is, no, it’ll be just a guess and it won’t have much basis,” Musharraf said in an interview with The Washington Post, published after his official visit here Saturday.
“We don’t know where he is.”
“When you talk only of bin Laden, frankly, the issue is not going and locating one individual. We are operating against all terrorists,” Musharraf told CNN. .
“Now, within that, we don’t know where he is. He may be anywhere and therefore in our strikes, in many of our strikes we find some leader or the other,” he said.
“He could be anywhere and he would be knocked out if at all he is in one of the areas where we strike.”
“Anyone who says probably he is in Pakistan, I would like to ask him, what do you base this judgment on?” Musharraf said. “He could be on Pakistan side, he could be on Afghan side” of the mountainous border region.
Musharraf said Pakistani forces are still aggressively pursuing bin Laden, the author of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the target of a massive international manhunt.
But he said the trail has gone cold in large part because the US-led coalition in Afghanistan (news – web sites), and because of insufficient recruitment and training for new Afghan army, creating “voids … where US forces or coalition forces are not there,” he said.
“Now, when we operate in many areas, we don’t know who we are operating against,” Musharraf said.
Meanwhile, one of the Central Intelligence Agency (news – web sites)’s former top analysts on bin Laden warned that another Al-Qaeda attack on the United States, with some kind of nuclear device, remains likely.
“Whether it’s actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device… Yes, I think it’s probably a near thing,” Michael Scheuer told the CBS television program “60 Minutes.”
“One of the great intellectual failures of the American intelligence community, and especially the counterterrorism community, is to assume if someone hasn’t attacked us, it’s because he can’t or because we’ve defeated him,” Scheuer said.
“Bin Laden has consistently shown himself to be immune to outside pressure. When he wants to do something, he does it on his own schedule.”
Pakistan, a key ally in President George W. Bush (news – web sites)’s “war on terror,” is now in the frontline of the global crackdown on terrorism, and its security forces have captured some 600 Al-Qaeda suspects in the past three years.
Musharraf has won Bush’s firm alliance since he sided with Washington to oust Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, originally backed by Pakistan, after the September 11 attacks.
But Musharraf criticized the US-led invasion of Iraq (news – web sites), saying it had weakened global security.
“I think it’s less safe,” he told CNN. “We have landed ourselves in more trouble.”
“The situation is not really good, but the direction that we’ve taken I think is correct… to have elections and bring a politically acceptable government in Iraq,” he told Fox News.
During his visit to Washington, Musharraf discussed a potential purchase of US F-16 fighter jets to upgrade the defense capability of his country, but did not leave with any new commitments.
Pakistan reportedly wants to buy up to 25 of the F-16s, which cost around 25 million dollars each, by mid-2005 to add another squadron of such planes to the nuclear-armed nation’s existing fleet.
Any defense sales to Pakistan would be watched closely by its nuclear-armed archrival India, which has reportedly expressed interest in buying the US Patriot missile system that can defend against ballistic and cruise missiles and aircraft.
Some critics in the South Asian nations have raised concerns that the potential arms sales could further fuel a regional arms race and political instability while the two rivals hold delicate peace talks to resolve the thorny Kashmir (news – web sites) dispute.
Pakistan has a long-standing military rivalry with India, with which it has fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.