Did Quake Shake Bin Laden's Lair?

Osama bin Laden
AP
Did Osama bin Laden's secret lair crumble in the earthquake that devastated northwest Pakistan?

So far, U.S. government officials and terrorism experts caution against too much speculation about whether the al Qaeda chief may have been killed, injured or forced from hiding.

"There's a lot of people who know that that's an obvious question" was the most Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita would say Tuesday about U.S. thinking on bin Laden's fate.

Federal officials who track terrorism for a living said there's no evidence yet to suggest that bin Laden or his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was injured or killed in the quake.

Yet the quake has caused many in and out of government to ask, "What if?"

Bin Laden has managed to avoid capture for nearly a decade, including a feverish manhunt since he ordered the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The United States is offering up to $25 million for information leading to his killing or capture.

He has been rumored to be taking cover anywhere from urban areas of Pakistan to remote cave structures winding along the Afghan-Pakistani border to villages in western Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

Any of these possible hideouts could have been at least shaken by Saturday's 7.6-magnitude quake, forcing bin Laden to move.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington, noted that some also theorize that he may be hiding in the disputed region of Kashmir, controlled by the Pakistani military, which was devastated by the temblor.

The region is difficult to move in and out of, Hoffman said, and Islamic extremist groups friendly to bin Laden have camps and operations there.

"It's enormously tempting to speculate" about bin Laden's situation, Hoffman said. But "without knowing where he is, it's impossible to say."

Rumors that bin Laden is suffering from kidney failure and requires regular medical care have persisted, but never been confirmed. His deteriorating appearance in videotapes released shortly after U.S. bombing began in Afghanistan in October 2001 fueled that speculation.

Yet, in 2002, a prominent Pakistani doctor admitted treating bin Laden before and after Sept. 11. The doctor said the terrorist leader was in excellent health and showed no signs of kidney disease or dialysis.

Bolstering that case, bin Laden appeared healthy in a video released in 2004 before the November U.S. elections.

The United States is probably using satellite imagery and eavesdropping technology to search for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts. But most terrorists are apprehended after a tip from a source on the ground, which has proven elusive in bin Laden's case.

When asked whether additional efforts were now going toward detecting bin Laden's movements, Di Rita said: "We're not trying any harder or less to find bin Laden than we've been doing since 9/11. It's a tough problem, and we have a lot or resources dedicated to it."

Many U.S. resources are going toward humanitarian relief. Di Rita said that within the next couple of days there probably would be 25 to 30 U.S. military helicopters sent to Pakistan from Afghanistan, Bahrain and other countries in the region.

The Pakistani government has asked the U.S. military for heavy equipment like earth movers, forklifts, bulldozers and trucks, in addition to tents, blankets and food. The U.S. military also is flying aerial reconnaissance missions to help pinpoint areas for emergency supply deliveries, Di Rita said.

Milt Bearden, who spent three decades at the CIA and was the agency's top official in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989, said that if bin Laden survived the quake, the thousands of Pakistani forces that have been pursuing him in the tribal areas will be pulled out to deal with rescue operations, hampering efforts to go after him.

Bearden said the U.S. could ask Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for permission to conduct discreet operations in Pakistan.

But "my gut is that he says no, for the simple reason that as good as our Special Operations people are, nobody ever has been good enough to operate in there without getting into trouble," dating back to Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., Bearden said.

If bin Laden died, the world may never know. Bearden said his fate might be anyone's guess: "A dead guy squashed, he just disappears or someone drags out a body and says ... 'That's bin Laden.'"