"The United States does not know where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is hiding and has not had any good intelligence on his whereabouts," said US defense secretary Robert Gates on ABC's This Week program Sunday, Dec. 6.
He did not confirm a BBC report that a detainee might have seen bin Laden in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni in January or February, only adding emphatically:
"We don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we'd go and get him." Asked when was the last time the United States had any good intelligence on his whereabouts, Gates said, "I think it's been years."
The lack of clarity about what constitutes "good intelligence" let the defense secretary off the hook and saved him answering the question. On such murky issues as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, there is no such thing as good or bad intelligence, only fragmentary data which is either proved or disproved; even information coming from a usually reliable source may fail to pan out.
In the last six months, DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources report, intelligence data has been reaching Washington stating that the al-Qaeda leader with his staff and security corps has crossed from Afghanistan into Baluchistan, Pakistan.
With an area of 347,190 km² (134,051 mi²), Baluchistan covers 44 percent of Pakistan and is easily the largest of its four provinces. It is bounded by Iran to the west, Afghanistan and the North West Frontier in the north, Punjab and Sindh in the east and the Arabian Sea to the south.
Its population is sparse, only 7.5 million, due to its rugged mountainous terrain and scarcity of water.
The Sulaiman Mountains dominate the northeast corner, with a natural route through the Bolan Pass for crossing between Baluchistan and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The capital, Quetta, is located in the most densely populated northeast, situated in a river valley near the border with Afghanistan. It too has a direct road link in the northwest to Kandahar.
Bin Laden improves his location, gaining a supportive population and convenient terrain
Our sources report that at least five reasons motivated Bin Laden's transfer to Baluchistan:
1. More than half of its population is made up of his friends, Pashtun tribesmen, who were dislocated by the war in Afghanistan. He can count on them for hideouts and help in slipping secretly from place to place.
This support is crucial because bin Laden is known for never staying in one place more than a night or two.
2. Because Baluchistan is far from the war zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it draws less attention from Western intelligence services and US drones. He therefore enjoys greater freedom of movement than in other parts of the country.
3. Baluchistan's lofty mountains divided by vast, unpopulated deserts provide him with inaccessible hideouts far from human habitation and surveillance.
4. Bin Laden joins up with his great ally, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has hidden in Baluchistan for years with his staff and Shura council. They keep him abreast of the war situation and give him a chance to influence decision-making on its progress.
5. Never since he disappeared in 2001 has the al Qaeda leader been known to be established a hideout within reach of the open sea. This access has given him new options. He can, for instance, travel by sea from Baluchistan to the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa to inspect the al Qaeda of the Maghreb's cells; or, if Ali Abdullah Salah's Yemeni regime is swept away by the Iran-backed rebellion, he might visit his ancestral homeland of Hadhramauth. Surviving to return to any part of the Arabian Peninsula would be a great personal triumph.
Cutting off his escape route – and generating suspicions
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources note that bin Laden's relocation is the reason why the US is making Baluchistan a key focus of the intelligence effort accompanying the Afghanistan war.
(A separate article in this issue deals with the war's expansion to Pakistan).
US Predator UAVs and squadrons of manned surveillance aircraft are busy collecting every shred of datum that might betray Bin Laden's movements. The search is supported on the ground by dozens of CIA agents buried among the province's assorted ethnic groups and Baluchi resistance movements.
The intensified American intelligence operation has sown the suspicion in the upper echelons of the Pakistani military in Islamabad that Washington is in fact covertly engaged in an operation to separate Baluchistan from the rest of Pakistan and declare the breakaway province independent should the central regime in Islamabad go under.
Tehran shares the suspicion that the flock of CIA agents in Pakistani Baluchistan is likewise actively supporting the Jund Allah organization's campaign to free Iranian Baluchistan from the grip of the central regime in Tehran too.
Regardless of those suspicions, DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources are convinced that the Americans have boosted their military and intelligence presence in Baluchistan for the overriding objective of cornering the elusive Osama bin Laden – and if possible, Mullah Omar, too, by cutting off their escape routes from Baluchistan.