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Osama's last plan: Grand coalition of militant groups

world Updated: Jun 01, 2011 02:24 IST
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Osama bin Laden spent much of his last weeks alive planning a new attempt to bring the disparate factions among insurgents and militants fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan together under the umbrella of al Qaeda.

The terrorist leader, who had made repeated efforts to unify militant groups, was even considering risking leaving his safe house in Abbottabad, the northern Pakistani garrison town, to try to build a fresh alliance through face-to-face meetings, sources in Pakistan, Afghanistan and America have told the Guardian.

Western intelligence services and Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions committee, told the Guardian the reports that Bin Laden was planning a "grand coalition" were credible.

"Bin Laden found it pretty difficult to be marginalised and was making a huge effort to stay relevant. There was some indication that he was looking at re-energising links with [other local militant groups] to give himself a central role," Barrett said.

Mediating alliances and focusing the efforts of disparate groups has been a favoured strategy of Bin Laden since the late 1980s. Many experts say that, with the growing sophistication of local groups such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the role of international militants in the region has diminished.

Western intelligence officials in Kabul told the Guardian they believe there are probably no more than 100 extremists affiliated with al Qaeda fighting in Afghanistan and that relations with the other insurgent groups there and in Pakistan are "variable and dynamic".

"Most of the guys fighting in this region have a very local focus. That leads to friction with the internationals," one said last week.

Bin Laden had known key insurgent figures such as the cleric Jalaluddin Haqqani or the Islamist former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for decades.

American investigators hope the trove of data seized in the raid on the Abbottabad compound this month, in which Bin Laden and his 22-year-old son, Khaled, were killed, will cast light on the relations of al Qaeda and other militant groups in the region and beyond.

Special forces seized dozens of computers, 10 hard drives and more than 100 storage devices, such as disks, DVDs and flash drives, from the safe house. The data includes emails sent as recently as April by a courier on behalf of the al Qaeda leader.

The sheer size of the haul - described by one official recently as a mother lode of intelligence - has slowed the flow of information, however.

Almost all the data is in Arabic, and needs to be translated into English.

A further problem, U.S. officials have said, is that it is unclear whether many of the messages, instructions and notes written by Bin Laden were ever sent or ever reached their intended destination.

"They could have been just jottings. He probably got bored, like anyone else," Riedel said.

American former intelligence officials told the Guardian the immediate priority of the dedicated teams set up to work through the data would be to search for any operational information that could avert terrorist plots, rather than to focus on more strategic issues. So far, the investigators have found evidence confirming only that certain broad types of target - such as trains and planes - were still of interest to Bin Laden.

According to officials and an American law enforcement bulletin two weeks ago, Bin Laden was also interested in hijacking and blowing up oil and gas tankers.

There are also indications that bin Laden was contemplating trying to negotiate some kind of pact with the Pakistani government.