India and the road to OsamaNEW DELHI - Speculation is rife in India that Osama bin Laden, who has gate-crashed the United States elections with the release of his latest video, is holed up in eastern Pakistan, in the northern regions of the country's portion of Kashmir, with even the possibility that he might have already ventured into Indian territory.
Reports, calculated leaks and intelligence are flowing thick and fast that bin Laden is not where he was originally thought to be - somewhere along the harsh Afghanistan-Pakistan border, running from cave to cave to escape intense shelling. This view has been further strengthened by the fact that the recent bin Laden tape, in which he addressed the American people, was delivered to the upscale Islamabad office of Arabic network television channel al-Jazeera. This has given credence to India's long-standing fear that most of al-Qaeda's operatives are holed up and living comfortably in urban hideouts in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, with the complicity of the Pakistan establishment. The US-Pakistan operations on the Afghan-Pakistan border have been dismissed by India as a wild-goose chase at the instance of Pakistan to keep US troops occupied and confused.
Independent confirmation by Asia Times Online, however, has elicited mixed reactions from Indian government officials. While sources in the military say that all reports about sighting bin Laden close to the Indian border are mere "hogwash" and "media speculation", intelligence sources who report to the Home Ministry say that there is considerable concern, as well as the belief that bin Laden is indeed in Pakistan and moving to the northeastern regions close to the Himalayas as a prelude to a winter retreat before he surfaces again in spring.
It goes without saying that the military generally tends to be more closed about any sensitive information because of operational difficulties faced in the wake of any such leakages, while intelligence agencies not in the field of combat are generally more forthcoming about information. Indeed, intelligence officials here confirm the news that a senior official of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) flew to India last week to alert Indian intelligence agencies about the possibility of bin Laden sneaking into India. The Pakistan-based official sought Indian assistance for joint operations by Indian and US forces to nab the world's most wanted fugitive if he crossed over from northeastern Pakistan, the sources said. The official's visit followed the reported spotting of bin Laden in northeastern Pakistan, close to the Pakistan-China-India border. The sources said the FBI official met senior officials related to internal and external security and appeared to have information about the impending release of the latest bin Laden videotape.
Apart from the fact that bin Laden is the world's most wanted fugitive, his presence close to the Indian border could have a huge impact on the United States' "war on terror", irrespective of who wins the US elections. The US will have to seriously re-think its strategy of aligning with Pakistan when it will be India's assistance, both military and intelligence, that may be required to finally crack down on bin Laden. It may also result in the amassing of Indian and Pakistani troops along the Indo-Pakistan border to scour for bin Laden, leading to problems of logistics, command and control.
Hideaway in Kashmir?
Reports of the bin Laden sighting, even if speculative, come on the back of news of heightened activity in the Ladakh region (northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir) by the Aviation Research Center (ARC), a specialized reconnaissance agency of India's Research and Analysis Wing, which looks after external intelligence. Highly placed defense sources have been quoted as saying that the Ladakh region has seen an unusual number of sorties by ARC aircraft. While there is little information about the purpose of such missions, the ARC's sudden activities could trigger further speculation that bin Laden may be lurking in what India refers to as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The former commander of US Central Command, Tommy Franks, wrote in the New York Times last month that even in late 2001 there was intelligence speculation that bin Laden might be hiding in Kashmir. That was around the time when the US had pounded the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, with reports saying that bin Laden had been injured and forced to flee.
Indeed, in the past few days there has been a surfeit of news about the alleged whereabouts of bin Laden. The United States' Fox News Channel and a website reported to have close links to Israeli intelligence agency Mossad have claimed that an Indian air force reconnaissance plane sighted bin Laden's convoy a few days ago in the Tibet-Ladakh region close to the northeastern border of Pakistan, near India and China. The view has been endorsed by the website Debka.com, which is believed to be run by Mossad. Additional surveillance aircraft were called in and identified the al-Qaeda leader on the move with a 10-vehicle convoy of black Japanese minivans, the website says. Fox, too, made similar claims.
However, doubts have been expressed about the ability of Indian agencies to nail so accurately a convoy and identify it as that of bin Laden. India's abilities to monitor a foreign land are primarily based on a series of satellites, aerial reconnaissance by aircraft and signal intelligence. While the satellites have a resolution of about five meters, a plane like the Jaguar - a deep-penetration fighter jet - can monitor up to 80 kilometers within enemy territory. But neither possesses the ability to pinpoint accurately a specific person in a convey.
Despite the speculation surrounding the whereabouts of bin Laden, there are several conclusions about the fugitive that cannot be denied - he is not on the run; he is healthy, not injured and well fed, as his earlier gaunt visage has been pretty much filled out; he decides when he wants to issue another videotape, unlike Saddam Hussein, who disappeared from his state-run satellite television radars once US troops got close to him; bin Laden says the security of the American people (and by default the rest of the world) is in their own hands, though it is not and perhaps won't be for some time to come; he also knows that millions of dollars might have been spent on promotions and advertising campaigns by incumbent US President George W Bush and challenger John Kerry to propagate their cause, but it is his one videotape that may influence the way the American voters are going to exercise their choice for president.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delh-based journalist.