WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- With his latest video sally, Osama bin Laden, still the world's most wanted terrorist, has repositioned himself as the only leader willing to confront the world's sole superpower. Bin Laden has been living in hiding in Pakistan for almost three years, where he evidently enjoys high-ranking protection.
Standing at a desk in a white turban and gold-colored ceremonial cloak, his message was clear: Not on the run but sharing the limelight with President Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, and hard at work as the leader of disenfranchised Arabs and other Muslims who seek the liberation of Palestine and the downfall of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and absolute monarchies and emirates of the Gulf.
Yasser Arafat's passing from the world stage also leaves a revolutionary vacancy. Thus, bin Laden's latest peroration is designed to outflank Muslim moderates who have failed to obtain a change in Washington's pro-Israeli, benign neglect of the Palestinian crisis for the duration of the Iraqi crisis.
Bin Laden now knows fact certain countless millions of Muslims, surveyed by the Pew Foundation two years in a row, trust him more than George W. Bush. In Muslim countries with a combined population of 450 million, bin Laden was a clear winner as a "freedom fighter" over the U.S. president. In Morocco and Jordan, two traditionally pro-Western countries, at least at the regime-to- regime level, Mr. Bush's trust level was less than 10 percent of the people in either country
Bin Laden also scored majorities among the 6 million, mostly poverty-stricken North Africans living in slums on the outskirts of France's major cities. Similar paeans echoed among one million South Asians living in the greater London region.
Pakistani denials notwithstanding, Osama bin Laden has been living in Pakistan since Dec. 9, 2001, when he escaped from the Tora Bora mountain range into Pakistan. Countrywide, bin Laden feels secure in the knowledge that 66 percent of Pakistanis -- which moves up to more than 80 percent in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, the two provinces that border Afghanistan and which are governed by admirers of bin Laden who consider Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, a personal friend.
This reporter and a multilingual UPI team, tipped by a major tribal leader about bin Laden's progress as he exited from the Tora Bora mountain range through the Tirah valley, arrived at the location on Dec. 11, 2001. Local villagers confirmed bin Laden, on horseback, accompanied by some 50 fighters, had come out of the Tirah Valley two days before. They were close to a main road that led from Pakistan's FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). Bin Laden left in the direction of Peshawar in a SUV with smoked windows.
On either side of the road from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, to the Afghan border, there are large adobe-walled compounds of landowners and important tribal leaders. Osama bin Laden would be safe in any one of scores of such compounds.
Taliban's top leaders own similar estates where they are allowed to live with impunity. Chaman, the Pakistani border town, is also home turf to a new crop of Taliban leaders. Some Pakistani journalists have the satellite phone numbers of Taliban's intelligence chief and other officials who feed them exaggerated or imagined tidbits about their exploits against U.S. forces on the other side of the mountain range.
Bin Laden could be sheltered in any of Pakistan's major cities. The sprawling port city of Karachi on the Arabian Sea, surrounded by miles of slums, contains some 15 million people. In Peshawar, a city of 3.5 million, many Pathans, like bin Laden, are over six feet. In FATA, rickety local buses, display posters of bin Laden captioned "Freedom Fighter." Bin Laden also enjoys the protection of renegade members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
Before Operation Enduring Freedom collapsed the Taliban regime in November 2001, some 1,500 ISI operatives ensured the security of Mullah Omar's regime. They maintained permanent liaison with bin Laden and his top lieutenants as he moved around a score of terrorist training camps and safe houses in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
Conventional wisdom among the al-Qaida-watchers in Pakistan says the Musharraf regime is reluctant to launch a countrywide crackdown to find bin Laden. Whether captured dead or alive, president Musharraf would feel obligated to turn him over to the United States. And Pakistan might then have to face a disinterested U.S. administration and the loss of billions in aid.
Musharraf has said at different times he knew bin Laden was dead, then that he was alive but ill. Today, he concedes bin Laden may be in a mountain hideout where fiercely loyal local tribesmen would not betray him for the $25 million offered by the United States.
Three months before the release of the 9/11 Commission report, commission chief of staff Phil Zelikow asked a prominent Pakistani whether he could "fill in the gaps about what was happening behind the scenes in Pakistan in the period immediately preceding the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington." He traveled the length and breadth of Pakistan working his sources, which included many former ranking government officials, retired senior officers and ex-ISI personnel.
The requested report arrived in Washington too late to be included in the commission's 567-page report, which mentioned Pakistan 311 times. Even if it had arrived in time, it probably would not have been included. The material that was turned over to Zelikow, a former member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001-2003), could prove even more embarrassing to Musharraf than the information supplied by U.S. intelligence about the international nuclear black market arms bazaar that was run for the benefit of America's enemies (North Korea, Iran and Libya).
The godfather of Operation Proliferation was Dr. A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and a charter member of the country's pantheon of national heroes.
The unpublished addendum to the 9/11 report stated: (1) Former senior ISI officers knew about the 9/11 plot before the attacks took place; (2) Osama bin Laden has not left Pakistan since he escaped from Tora Bora; (3) Bin Laden was treated for renal problems at a military hospital near Peshawar.
Musharraf will of course, deny all this. Even though he was Army chief before he staged the military coup in October 1999 that gave him absolute power, Musharraf told the United States he knew nothing about Dr. A. Q. Khan's activities. This stretched credulity to the breaking point. He pardoned Dr. Khan and allowed him to keep his ill-gotten nuclear fortune. Future denials about Osama bin Laden will ring just as hollow.