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Central Asia/Russia

Bin Laden traced to Iran
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the whole of Afghanistan in the hands of anti-Taliban forces and accessible to United States ground forces, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and the leadership of his Al-Qaeda network remains a mystery.

The US were led a merry dance in the Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, being duped by mercenary local commanders into believing that thousands of Al-Qaeda fighters, as well as bin Laden, were holed up in caves in the mountains. (See Taliban's trail leads to Pakistan, Dec 13)

Of course, bin Laden was not sitting patiently waiting to greet the US troops when they and their local allies finally overran the region, the last pocket of resistance in the country. Instead, they found only a few hundred Al-Qaeda fighters and a number of women and children. Bin Laden and the "thousands" had already slipped into the Pakistan tribal areas, the US were told by the conniving commanders.

However, extensive investigations by Asia Times Online indicate that bin Laden has crossed the southwest border into Iran, where he is being sheltered by dissident Iranian guerrilla fighters of the Mujahideen-i-Khalq, a group with strong Iraqi links and which is outlawed as a terrorist organization by the United States. Interviews with Pakistani jihadi who fought in Afghanistan, journalists and intelligence sources support this view.

Drawing on the combined information of these sources, it appears that even before September 11 bin Laden changed his location within Afghanistan every few days, shuttling between Jalalabad, Kandahar and Kabul. In Jalalabad alone he had a number of places to live. The former governor of Nangarhar and now the governor of the eastern provinces, Haji Abdul Qadeer, provided him with costly residences.

Soon after September 11, the US demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden. Later, it expanded its demand to include the handover of the entire leadership of Al-Qaeda, and subsequently it said that it would attack Afghanistan to break the entire Al-Qaeda network. These demands strongly suggested to the Taliban leadership that US President George W Bush was obsessed with attacking Afghanistan regardless of whether they arranged for bin Laden to escape from the country or not.

At this stage bin Laden remained in Kabul, in a center for Arab fighters. That was the time when diplomatic efforts were under way to reach a peaceful settlement in handing over bin Laden. Having rejected the US demands, Taliban leader Mullah Omar decided to keep bin Laden in a secret place known only to a handful of people. He was hidden along with a small number of Arab bodyguards and his confidante, Egyptian Dr Aimen Al-Zawari and senior members of Al-Qaeda.

The manner in which messages and video tapes featuring bin Laden were delivered in Kabul to the Al-Jazeera television network and some newspapers indicates that he was not too far from Kabul. Many of the sources speculated that in the first 10 days of the war he was holed up in Bamiyan, home to the famous ancient giant buddhas until they were destroyed by the Taliban earlier this year.

Later, after the order to retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif was given, bin Laden went to Jalalabad, and briefly stayed in the Tora Bora caves. The sources suggest that he left this hideaway when the Taliban retreated from Kabul, moving back to Jalalabad, where he was handed into the protection of Maulvi Yunus Khalis. After the Taliban's retreat from the east, there was no place left for bin Laden except Kandahar, after which he would have no option but to cross a border into any one of six neighboring countries.

And it appears that he chose Iran, rather than Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or China. A leading source says that shortly before the collapse of Kandahar, Mullah Omar called a meeting in the town at which the governor and important commanders were present. Mullah Omar briefly mentioned the war situation, explaining the reasons for the sudden retreat from Kabul. He stressed that given the heavy US carpet bombing, there would be no way to defend Kandahar, and so he had arranged for the safety of senior "guest" fighters and would announce the surrender of Kandahar shortly.

The sources say that after this meeting bin Laden went to see Mullah Omar, along with a small group of Afghans and Arabs. Bin Laden's next destination was discussed, and it was not Chaman in Pakistan, as some reports have said, as it was infested with anti-Taliban militia.

The sources point out that that Iranian border areas are a nest of the Mujahideen-i-Khalq, who are fighting a war against the government in Tehran. They are minority Sunnis, and they have good relations with some of the Afghan and Pakistani tribes. When the Iranian government has taken its regular crackdowns on the group, members have taken refuge in Pakistani or Afghani tribal areas.

The group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on government buildings in Tehran as well as attacks on the offices of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. They derive most of their funds from smuggling arms and drugs, so they have good relations with other smugglers in the region, and the routes they use.

The sources say that bin Laden and close colleagues could have crossed into Iran using smuggling routes with the help of the Mujahideen-i-Khalq, and taken refuge in caves there that are said to be much more extensive and sophisticated than those of the Tora Bora.

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