reflections

Jun 21, 2005 | 10:17 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Monday, June 20, 2005

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
CIA Director Porter Goss has told Time magazine, in an issue that hit newsstands June 19, that he has an "excellent idea" of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, but that certain "weak links" must be strengthened before the United States acts on this knowledge. "In the chain that you need to successfully wrap up the war on terror, we have some weak links," Goss is quoted as saying. "And I find that until we strengthen all the links, we're probably not going to be able to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice. "We are making very good progress on it. But when you go to the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you're dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play," he said. "We have to find a way to work in a conventional world in unconventional ways that are acceptable to the international community." Though Goss said nothing about where he believes bin Laden to be hiding, we think it likely the al Qaeda chief is in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) — an area which, like the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, offers safety in the form of difficult terrain, but which is far less challenging in terms of communications for a leader in exile. If this is true, it is not insignificant: Any operation to capture or kill bin Laden potentially could plunge deep into Pakistani territory — a situation that would pose another set of very specific challenges for the United States, as Goss' statement itself indicates. This is not to say that U.S. forces already have al Qaeda's top leader in their crosshairs. In fact, the confidence in Goss' tone notwithstanding, the statement possibly was issued because Washington could make a reasonable guess — but only a guess — where bin Laden actually is and wants to pressure him into making a move. If he moves, he would emit signals — cell phone calls, radio communication, vehicle movements — that could be picked up by electronic reconnaissance or observers on the ground, helping U.S. intelligence to triangulate his location. And it might be surmised that U.S. forces have the assets in place for a flush-and-seize operation, which would explain the timing of Goss' statement. One thing is certain: If U.S. intelligence did have a fix on bin Laden, top officials would not be publicly declaring this fact beforehand and alerting their most-wanted man in the process. Media reports have indicated that he might be hiding somewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan, a Pushtun-dominated area bordering Afghanistan. However, information we have gleaned from sources in Islamabad suggests bin Laden might be at a secure location in the southern parts of the NWFP instead. Of course, prudence would dictate that al Qaeda maintains a network of safe houses, but likely has a single area used as command headquarters following the group's ouster from Afghanistan in December 2001. Though both provinces feature mountainous, rugged terrain, the FATA is a much more isolated part of the country. Al Qaeda certainly requires an inaccessible haven in order to maintain security, but its leadership also must maintain a certain level of communication with various nodes of the network scattered not just in the country and the region, but the world over. Because it is home to several tourist resorts, the southern part of the NWFP has much better communications infrastructure than the FATA, and thus could be a more likely location for bin Laden. From al Qaeda's standpoint, the NWFP is quite hospitable on other levels as well: Mountain peaks ranging up to 14,000 feet above sea level, sparse roads — and most of those gravel-top — make it a very difficult area in which to mount standard military operations. Moreover, the people native to this region are a religiously conservative lot, with a potential sympathy for the jihadist cause — which might explain countermilitancy operations now being conducted in the areas of Swat and Dir in NWFP.

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