Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, the world's most wanted terrorists, are hiding "inside Pakistan", CIA chief Leon Panetta has said and claimed that aggressive US operations against Al-Qaeda have disrupted its ability to plan sophisticated attacks.
Panetta said the US spy agency does not know precisely where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are hiding, but his officials believe the two are inside Pakistan, "either in the northern tribal areas or in North Waziristan, or somewhere in that vicinity."
While there have been no confirmed sightings of either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri since 2003, the continued pressure on them increases the opportunities for catching one of them or both, Panetta said.
"We thought that the increased pressure would do one of two things: that it would either bring them out to try to exert some leadership ... or that they would go deeper into hiding," he said.
"And so far we think they are going deeper into hiding," Panetta said in an interview to 'Washington Post'.
Reflecting on his 13 months at the helm in the CIA, Panetta made no prediction about the fate of bin Laden who has eluded a worldwide manhunt for nine years.
But he claimed that so profound is al-Qaeda's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership.
The US operations against the outfit "are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda," Panetta said. "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."
Senior Obama administration officials this week gave sharply different views on how bin Laden would be dealt with if he fell into US hands.
Gen Stanley A McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday that the military would "certainly" try to capture bin Laden alive and "bring him to justice."
A day earlier, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr told a congressional panel that bin Laden would never go on trial in the United States because the chances of him being caught alive are "infinitesimal."
He predicted flatly that bin Laden will be killed - either by US forces or by al-Qaeda operatives determined to prevent him from being captured.