11 September 2001>News Stories>The Hunt for bin Laden Gears Up on a Trail Gone Cold

The Hunt for bin Laden Gears Up on a Trail Gone Cold

John F Burns . NYTimes . 22 September

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 22

Children with toy guns at a protest in Lahore, Pakistan, against possible American strikes in Afghanistan.

Now the manhunt begins, on an epic scale, in a vast and forbidding landscape, for a man whose guile and capacity for eluding his enemies have made him a legend to Islamic militants all over the world.

The United States has demanded the handover of Osama bin Laden under threat of American military might, and the Muslim clerics who rule Afghanistan, after days of vacillation and obfuscation, have finally refused.

More than that, the Taliban, heedless of the risk to themselves and their government, seemingly unknowing and even uncaring about the scale of outrage across the United States, continue to disavow any knowledge of Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts and have challenged America to a fight.

Even as droves of residents were reported to be fleeing the Afghan capital, Kabul, in anticipation of an American strike, the Taliban, who have boasted of their country's long history of thwarting more powerful invaders, claimed today to have shot down an aircraft over northern Afghanistan, perhaps an opposition helicopter or an unmanned American reconnaissance drone. Later, they said they had gotten one of each.

For his part, Mr. bin Laden is where he has so often been since he proclaimed his holy war in the mid- 1990's and set out to kill as many Americans as he could everywhere, and nowhere, the subject of countless rumors and speculations. The only thing certain is that each passing day gives the world's most wanted fugitive more opportunity to move and to hide.

As of today, 24 hours after the Taliban announced their "final decision" to refuse his handover, this much was known publicly about Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts: virtually nothing.

All week stories trickled out of Afghanistan, from which the Taliban had expelled most Western journalists this week. These accounts, some said to be from Taliban sources, some from newspapers in Pakistan that have a strong record of reporting on Mr. bin Laden, vary widely. But all seem to agree that the Saudi- born terrorist leader disappeared from his most common hideouts around Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, and Kabul sometime after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Beyond that, nothing is even remotely sure. One report, in The Dawn, an Islamabad-based newspaper that is among the most respected in Pakistan, said earlier this week that Mr. bin Laden had last been seen at one of his training camps outside Kabul, at a village called Chahar-i-Ansari, last Sunday.

There, this report said, he took an oath of allegiance from 500 fedayeen fighters Arabs sworn to die for their cause then rode out of the camp on horseback. "They left behind the vehicles, and left on horses," the paper quoted a source in Kabul as saying. "He must have gone to some place which is not motorable."

Another report in The Dawn today gave a different account. It said that Mr. bin Laden had left a heavily protected house in the "air force colony" on the outskirts of Kandahar and had taken his three wives and many children to the province of Uruzga, in a mountainous region north of Kandahar on the southern side of the Hindu Kush, the home region of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The paper quoted "highly competent sources in Afghanistan," but did not say whether they were with the Taliban.

In the same account, the paper listed what it said were some of Mr. bin Laden's habitual hideouts in at least eight Afghan provinces, stretching nearly 700 miles from Nimruz, in the southwest, through Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar, Nangahar, Logar, Khost and Kabul in the east, and at points as far as 200 miles north and west of the Pakistan border a region about half the size of Texas.

Describing Mr. bin Laden as "a security-conscious man who does not stay at one place for more than two nights," the paper said that since the Sept. 11 bombings Mr. bin Laden had been moving around Helmand and Uruzgan, in the southwest.

Beyond these accounts, reports of where America's quarry might be have assumed a speculative and at times almost fantastic quality. Mr. bin Laden, according to an array of accounts, could have fled Afghanistan altogether to Pakistan, most credibly, since the two countries share a 1,400-mile border of mountains and deserts that has long been porous to fugitives, smugglers and refugees.

But he might possibly try to make his way to any one of a dozen Muslim countries and regions, including, among others that have figured in the speculation Chechnya or Dagestan in southern Russia, western China, Lebanon or even Paraguay.

One country bound to be closely watched is Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Mr. bin Laden, whose father Mohammed left Yemen's Hadhramaut Province in 1931 as a migrant to Saudi Arabia. Although the construction firm founded by Mohammed bin Laden turned the family into one of Saudi Arabia's richest, Osama bin Laden has strong personal links to Yemen, and chose it in the early 1990's as the base for several thousand young Arab militants trained in Afghanistan, some of whom formed Islamic terror groups tied to Al Qaeda.

The last time Mr. bin Laden was under pressure to leave Afghanistan, after Al Qaeda bombed two American embassies in east Africa in 1998, he told an interviewer that he would like to live in Yemen, where, he said, he could hide in the mountains and deserts and "breathe the air."

In the past, Al Qaeda representatives are known to have evaded international watch lists on their way between Afghanistan and Yemen by crossing the Makran desert of Pakistan, southwest of Kandahar, then heading out across the Arabian Sea for Yemen aboard small boats, sometimes on the traditional sailing craft called dhows that ply the coasts of Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

Most other destinations outside Afghanistan, other than Pakistan, seem improbable. After the terrorist attacks in the United States, if not before, the watch for Mr. bin Laden would have been intense at the frontiers of every country bordering Afghanistan. One theory has been that he might have shaved his beard an expedient that an Al Qaeda training manual found by investigators after attacks in Europe urged as a means of escaping detection. Even then, at 6 feet 3 inches, the Al Qaeda leader would not be hard to spot.

But many of the most likely hideouts for Mr. bin Laden, in the view of Bush administration officials, and also of the officials in Pakistan's military intelligence wing, remain in the more remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States had "reason to believe" that Mr. bin Laden was still in Afghanistan, but refused to discuss any specifics. A Western diplomat in Islamabad who has discussed the matter with some of Pakistan's highest- ranking intelligence officials said Friday that Western officials were unsure where Mr. bin Laden might be. "I don't know," the diplomat said. "I honestly don't know."