ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – If Osama bin Laden is directing plans for an attack on the United States – as Washington intelligence officials suspect – his instructions are likely coming out of the craggy mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the back of a donkey or under the shawl of a villager.
After the arrests of several top lieutenants, bin Laden and his right hand man, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, have learned their lessons well, Pakistani intelligence officials and international terrorism experts say. They don’t use satellite or cell phones, don’t trust anyone outside their innermost circle and never come up for air.
Messages from the men likely pass through the hands of numerous couriers, most of whom have no idea where they originated, before they are sent aso e-mails or conveyed by phone to other militants.
“If bin Laden wants to convey something, he gives a letter to someone in his circle, who takes it a certain distance and then hands it to someone else, and then someone else until it reaches its final destination. Nobody knows who the letter is from except the first person, who is one of bin Laden’s most trusted men,” said a senior Pakistani intelligence official.
The Bush administration believes plans for a terror attack are being directed by the most senior levels of the al-Qaida leadership, including bin Laden, a U.S. intelligence official said in July.
How much input the top men have is open to question, but a Pakistani government official said several captured al-Qaida men have told authorities they received instructions from bin Laden.
“Probably he is alive, and some al-Qaida suspects captured in Pakistan have talked about receiving verbal messages from him through different channels,” he said .
The American and Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
There has been no confirmation of bin Laden and al-Zawahri’s whereabouts since they slipped away during a U.S.-Afghan assault on their mountain hideouts in Tora Bora in late 2001, but they are believed to be hiding in the mountains along Pakistan-Afghanistan border, protected by deeply conservative tribesmen who share their beliefs.
With the exception of about a half-dozen audiotaped messages the CIA has authenticated as being his voice, there has been virtually no sign of bin Laden since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That silence has lent him almost a mythic quality, especially among his followers, but officials say he is still very real, and very dangerous.