Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden may periodically slip back into Afghanistan from his remote hideout in neighbouring Pakistan, a senior White House official says, adding a new twist to the mystery of the elusive terrorist’s whereabouts.
President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, said bin Laden, believed hiding mainly in a rugged area of western Pakistan, may be spending some time in Afghanistan, where he was based while plotting the September 11 attacks on the United States.
But Obama’s Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, said the U.S. has lacked good intelligence on Laden for a long time — “I think it has been years” — and did not confirm that he’d slipped into Afghanistan.
Jones and Gates spoke on separate TV interview shows on Sunday as part of an administration effort to explain and defend Obama’s new Afghan war strategy, which Gates said includes a focus on preventing Al Qaeda from again gaining a foothold inside Afghanistan.
A concern is that the Taliban, if permitted to regain power in Kabul, could facilitate a return of Al Qaeda’s leadership.
The failed hunt for bin Laden has been one of the signature frustrations of the global war on terrorism that former President George W. Bush launched after the September 11 attacks.
When U.S. forces ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001, bin Laden fled into Pakistan from his mountain redoubt. Despite being isolated, bin Laden has managed to periodically issue audio messages.
The main explanation given by both the Bush and Obama administrations for not getting bin Laden is that they simply don’t know where he is.
“If we did, we’d go get him,” Gates said on Sunday. Jones, a retired Marine general, stressed the urgency of targeting bin Laden and spoke of a renewed campaign to capture or kill him.
Asked on CNN’s State of the Union whether the administration has reliable intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts, Jones replied, “The best estimate is that he is somewhere in North Waziristan, sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border.”