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Bin Laden was 'on CIA radar for months'

  |   May 3, 2011 at 2:43 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 3 (UPI) -- The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs culminated a clandestine operation that went into high gear earlier this year when the al-Qaida leader broke cover in northwest Pakistan, says a Pakistani Islamist expert with access to jihadist circles.

Indeed, according to Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online, bin Laden arrived at his hideout in Abbottabad, near Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, about 10 days ago and had planned to leave in a few days' time.

If that's correct, the pre-dawn helicopter-borne raid on bin Laden's walled compound was a close-run operation that could have come up empty had it not happened when it did.

Shahzad reported March 25 that bin Laden had suddenly broken cover in North Waziristan, an Islamist stronghold in northwest Pakistan where he had been reported in hiding, attracting the attention of his longtime pursuers.

U.S. President Barack Obama noted when announcing that the SEALs had killed bin Laden that the CIA picked up the al-Qaida leader's trail last October and that the world's most wanted fugitive had been on intelligence radars early this year.

Asia Times Online reported in March that the CIA mounted "a series of covert operations in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan following strong tip-offs that … bin Laden has been crisscrossing the area in the past few weeks for high-profile meetings in militant redoubts."

Bin Laden's reason for surfacing, a big risk considering the $50 million U.S. bounty on his head, was to develop a strategy to counter the unprecedented political upheaval sweeping the Arab world, bringing down or threatening repressive regimes -- something al-Qaida and its fellow travelers had signally failed to do.

"Bin Laden had been spurred into action to create unity within the Islamist cadre of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Afghan battle against the Americans," Shahzad observed.

Among the Islamist leaders bin Laden was reported to have met with was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the legendary warrior leader of Hizb-e Islami, one of the main Afghan factions fighting the Americans.

Like bin Laden, Hekmatyar is a veteran of the decade-long war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and one of al-Qaida's staunchest supporters.

Bin Laden also met other jihadist leaders in Waziristan, although there has been no word of the outcome of the gatherings.

Nor has there been any sign that bin Laden was successful in developing a new political strategy to counter the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world that stole al-Qaida's thunder.

But there has been a marked convergence between al-Qaida and the major Islamist organizations in South and Central Asia such as Lashkar-e Taiba, or Army of the Pure, and the Haqqani Network led by Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, who heads the Afghan Taliban.

LeT, one of the largest and best-funded militant Islamic groups in the region, was behind the three-day November 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India's financial hub, in which 166 people were killed by a squad of gunmen.

For many years, LeT, like other Islamic groups in Pakistan, focused in fighting India in disputed Kashmir. But over the last few years LeT, like al-Qaida part of the extremist ultra-conservative Salafist creed within Islam, has widened its ideological horizons and is becoming a global organization, due in large part to bin Laden and his lieutenants.

LeT operatives have been tracked in the United States, Europe, Australia, East Asia. European intelligence officials say Lashkar-e Taiba has become a key source of inspiration for radicalized Muslims living in Western Europe.

These groups have increasingly operated in close cooperation with al-Qaida and these days provide many of its most effective commanders.

This new generation of operational leaders, such as Haqqani's son Sirajuddin and Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, the one-eyed Pakistani veteran of the 1980s Afghan war and the Kashmir bloodletting, are expected to be highly influential within the jihadist elite in the post-bin Laden era.

All are ferociously anti-American and likely to be more so after the assassination of bin Laden and the disposal of his body at sea.

Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief, noted that bin Laden's death "is likely to revive international terror operations against Western capitals that had been frozen following the great Arab revolt of 2011."

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