Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2004 / 5 Adar, 5764

Stratfor Intelligence Brief by
George Friedman

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Osama in a box? U.S. intelligence leaks are puzzling | Reports are circulating around the world that U.S. and British special operations teams have trapped Osama bin Laden and a group of his followers in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan.

Obviously, if this is true - and it leads to the capture of bin Laden - it is a major event. It is equally obvious that trapping bin Laden in the extraordinarily rugged terrain of northwestern Pakistan is not going to be easy.

The source of this story appears to be the British Sunday Express, which quoted U.S. intelligence sources without explaining why U.S. intelligence would be broadcasting the information. The story was subsequently picked up by most wire services around the world and has, by now, been accepted as unquestionably true.

According to the report, bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar are trapped inside a box that is 10 miles square. The report also says that the area is under intense surveillance from a geostationary spy satellite, a signals intelligence ("sigint") satellite, which is picking up signals from bin Laden's radios and satellite phones.

Are there imagery satellites in geosynchronous orbit? Maybe there is a new generation of black systems up there, breaking the bounds of technology. If so, only the black-systems (ultra-secret intelligence) community - and the Sunday Express readership - knows that fact.

According to the report, the troops are absolutely certain that bin Laden is trapped. That is puzzling. If a signal intelligence satellite is picking up emissions from bin Laden, that means he has communications gear. It also means that someone with access to the Internet is going to call and tell bin Laden to shut down his damned cell phone, which would make tracking him a bit tougher.

So why would U.S. intelligence tell the Sunday Express that it not only had him trapped, but also that it had him nailed by sigint - that, or give away a really spectacular breakthrough in image intelligence, one that can spot a 6-foot, 5-inch Arab from geosynchronous orbit?

Obviously, U.S. and British troops are hunting for bin Laden: Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that of Feb. 19. But this report is shaky on the surface. Besides, a 10-by-10-mile box in that terrain requires many troops to plug all of the trails that lead out of it, and bin Laden certainly has guides who know all of them. Saying bin Laden is trapped in a 10-by-10-mile box means that the United States and Britain have enough troops, sensors, helicopters and aircraft to seal off the area. Could be, but it's a lot of area in some awful terrain.

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The really interesting thing, of course, is what will happen if they actually kill or capture bin Laden. There are two schools of thought on this. The first holds that al-Qaida will collapse as an organization and it will take a generation to resurrect it. The second is that bin Laden has not been in control of al-Qaida since the fall of Afghanistan, and that command has devolved to regional commanders.

It is hard to judge this. Al-Qaida has been relatively quiet since Sept. 11. It has struck around the globe, but never in any action coming close to what it did then. Al-Qaida just might be finished anyway.

There is no doubt but that the United States is going to go into Pakistan to get bin Laden. It is interesting that there has not been a sound from Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf about what are obviously U.S. and British penetrations of Pakistani territory. That issue seems to be settled. The United States is coming in, and it is coming after bin Laden.

In my view, it is possible that the United States will get lucky and capture him in a stunning raid. However, I still tend to feel that the most likely closing campaign will be a systematic, fairly large-scale intrusion into the region that will capture not only bin Laden, but also the rest of al-Qaida's command network. I also suspect that that attack will destabilize Pakistan sufficiently to create broader problems for the United States, potentially requiring more troops. And I don't see that action being possible until the fall.

But then, a raid might work. And bin Laden might be trapped. And sometime this week, he - or his body - will be brought out to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

It would not end the war, but it would certainly move it toward the end. Somehow, I just don't think it will be that easy, and I certainly hope that intelligence officials are not leaking information to the Sunday Express. But maybe it will be that easy, and maybe the Sunday Express is now the channel of choice for U.S. leaks.

George Friedman is president of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major government. Comment by clicking here.


02/19/04: Ahmad Chalabi key figure in Iraq intelligence fiasco
02/12/04: U.S.-Pakistan tussle over nukes is part of a larger game
12/23/03: The capture of Saddam and the dollar war
10/03/03: Pope and dagger: John Paul II's political legacy
09/08/03: The economy and al-Qaida

© 2004, Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Distributed by TMS, Inc.