Saturday 17 May 2003
Bush Administration officials have acknowledged that the United States now faces serious obstacles in finding Osama bin Laden and other remnants of al-Qaeda's leadership.
In the first public comments in months about the possible whereabouts of bin Laden, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters they cannot even be certain whether bin Laden is alive.
"I just don't know," Mr Rumsfeld said. "What can I say? Who knows?"
But other government officials said privately that it was possible that bin Laden ordered the suicide bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia this week.
"There is no definitive evidence suggesting that at this point, but he's the leader of the organisation and he has ordered attacks before," a US intelligence official said. "We think it's certainly plausible" that bin Laden himself played a role in the bombings, which US and Saudi officials believe was the work of al-Qaeda.
General Myers said the Saudi attacks illustrate that al-Qaeda is still a serious threat, despite all US efforts.
Mr Rumsfeld said there would probably be more al-Qaeda attacks. "But it's tougher for them, and we intend to make it still tougher."
The suicide attacks in Riyadh raised new questions about the whereabouts of bin Laden and his lieutenants.
Steve Emerson, a terrorism specialist at the Investigative Project, a Washington think tank, wondered whether the same level of effort is being applied to the hunt now while US forces are searching for the deposed Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and other Baath party leaders.
"They were gaining some momentum" in tracking down bin Laden, Mr Emerson said. "The question is, are they putting the same number of people on the ground as a year ago or are they giving up?"
Mr Rumsfeld and General Myers described a search effort hamstrung by a series of obstacles. The US national security apparatus is not set up to find one individual, they said.
At the same time, some countries are still harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, despite the muscular US approach to fighting terrorism, they said.
Mr Rumsfeld singled out Iran. "We know there are senior al-Qaeda in Iran." Iran has denied that it is knowingly harbouring al-Qaeda leaders.
Their comments reflect a decline in momentum that seemed to be building in March with the capture in Pakistan of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, a leading al-Qaeda planner.
"It's very hard to find a single individual in the world," Mr Rumsfeld said.
"We have not focused our capabilities in doing that until more recently."
Many of the al-Qaeda suspects are thought to be seeking refuge in a no man's land at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. "There are ungoverned areas in the world . . . and that is a problem," Mr Rumsfeld said.