An intelligence analysis sent to the CIA director last week concluded Osama bin Laden has escaped American efforts to find him in Afghanistan and that he most likely has fled the entire region by sea, ABCNEWS has learned.
Officially, the CIA has denied the reports. "This is incorrect," CIA Spokesman Bill Harlow said in a prepared statement. "We have reached no such conclusion."
But in a major setback to the war on terrorism, CIA analysts have concluded bin Laden escaped from the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan and into Pakistan around the first week of December, intelligence officials said.
The officials also told ABCNEWS that one captured al Qaeda fighter claims to have witnessed, in one of the Tora Bora hiding places, bin Laden turning over operational control to one of his deputies.
"I think that most intelligence analysts are absolutely convinced at this point that bin Laden has slipped the noose and has left Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Vince Cannistraro, an ABCNEWS analyst and former CIA counterterrorism chief.
To fool U.S. forces in the area, the CIA believes, bin Laden left behind a tape-recorded message that was transmitted only after he was long gone.
Asked about bin Laden's whereabouts, Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABCNEWS he did not know where bin Laden was but said U.S. forces were in "hot pursuit" of him.
"I can't say he is out of that immediate region. I have seen nothing that suggests we know where he is, whether it's in Afghanistan, Pakistan or somewhere else," Powell said Monday.
A New Base?
U.S., German, British and French forces have been searching dozens of ships in the Arabian Sea for the last two months and last week's CIA report concludes bin Laden most likely fled by sea from Pakistan.
"That is not good news for the U.S.," Cannistraro said. "Bin Laden and his top assistant [Ayman] Al-Zawahiri can reconstitute now in places where they have known bases, Southeast Asia or the east coast of Africa."
American intelligence authorities say that while al Qaeda has been disrupted, and a few leaders have been captured and killed, bin Laden himself remains one step ahead of the United States, with the central nervous system of his terror network still intact.
Continuing Afghan Threat
Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers have captured seven new prisoners in Afghanistan and Marines have uncovered a weapons stockpile in an underground tunnel complex near their main airbase in Kandahar.
Marines on patrol near the base in southern Afghanistan on Monday night spotted several men who appeared to be armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers.
The men were headed toward an abandoned house near the base, in the same area that was used to launch an attack last week, according to a spokesman for the Marines.
When an armored vehicle went out in pursuit of the men, they disappeared into the night, but a cache of weapons — including rockets, mortars and fuses — was found.
Marines searching the area also found a web of tunnels. Demolition experts then blew up the house and sealed the entrances to the tunnels.
It is believed the weapons had been brought in within the last week because the area had been searched after an attack last week, the spokesman said.
The same area was used by gunmen Thursday to launch an attack while a C-17 transport plane took off with the first batch of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners heading for the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Looking Ahead to the Next Phase
Military officials have decided it's time to wrap up the searches of the massive Zawar Kili cave complex in eastern Afghanistan and go after targets elsewhere in the country.
"It's now time to go look elsewhere," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday.
In recent days, the Zawar Kili caves had been the focus of intense U.S. aerial strikes that have closed the entrances to dozens of the caverns. U.S. military officials believe the complex was being used as a staging post on the way to Pakistan by al Qaeda and Taliban networks. Precision-guided munitions from B-52 and B-1 bombers, as well as carrier-based F-18s, destroyed the buildings and sealed the caves, Stufflebeem said.
In an interview with ABCNEWS anchor Peter Jennings, Powell refused to say where U.S. forces would strike next in the war on terrorism. But Powell stressed that the Bush administration was not targeting specific countries — such as Somalia, Yemen, or the Philippines — but terrorist networks themselves.
"Rather than look for a specific country to go after, we're going after terrorism," Powell said. "We're going to go after terrorism wherever it is located. … In many of those instances, for example, Indonesia and the Philippines, they are concerned about their own home-grown terrorists and we will work with them to try to deal with the threat."
Powell also said U.S. military trainers would help the Philippine government and its armed forces to deal with terrorists who threaten both the interests of the Philippines and the United States.
Philippine deputy chief of staff for education and training Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio announced today that he and Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, will oversee military exercises in the island nation focused on wiping out Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group linked to al Qaeda.
The exercises will involve 600 U.S. and 1,200 Philippine soldiers, and American personnel will be allowed be allowed to visit the front lines as observers, according to the Philippine official.
Afghan Warlord Supports Interim Government
Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord with a history of switching sides, pledged his loyalty today to the interim Afghan government he initially criticized. Last month, Dostum took credit for the defeat of the Taliban in the region, but declared his opposition to the proposed provisional government of Hamid Karzai because he felt that his faction had not been treated fairly during talks in Bonn, Germany. Before his appointment as deputy defense minister, he had threatened to boycott the interim government.
Dostum has softerned his stance since then and today pledged his unconditional support for the interim Afghan government at a press conference. Still, he said Afghanistan would ultimately need to give power to regional leaders while it rebuilds from 22 years of war.
As Dostum pledged his support, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to lift a 1999 international ban in Ariana Afghan Airlines, Afghanistan's airline, and unfreeze its financial assets. The Security Council's decision was based on the routing of Taliban leadership and its replacement by the interim Afghan government. The decision will release Ariana's $23 million in assets to the interim government.
American Reportedly Kidnapped in Afghanistan
In other developments:
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that American al Qaeda John Walker would be charged with four counts of aiding and abetting terrorists, none of which will carry the possibility of the death penalty. See Story.
A woman in Alabama says her husband was kidnapped last week as he was delivering medical supplies in Afghanistan and is being held for ransom. She reported the abduction to the State Department, and to the office of a California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who's a long-time friend. Rohrabacher's chief of staff said the missing man is Clark Bowers, who another member of the congressman's staff described as "a thrill-seeker in a war zone," according to The Associated Press. A State Department official said they were investigating the report, seeking the help of the Afghan interim and Pakistani governments.
Fifteen special operations servicemen wounded in the conflict in Kandahar and the uprising by prisoners at a fortress outside Mazar-e-Sharif were awarded Purple Hearts.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has left Uzbekistan unexpectedly for Islamabad in Pakistan and may also visit the Afghan capital Kabul before returning to Uzbekistan, an Uzbek government official told Reuters. Daschle arrived in Tashkent on Sunday at the start of what was scheduled as a nearly week-long visit to former Soviet Uzbekistan, to stress Washington's long-term political interests in the region. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent declined to comment on the senator's trip.
Secretary of State Powell left today for a trip to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan this week. He will try to ease the simmering tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi before ending the trip with a visit to Afghanistan.
Four relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States arrived in Afghanistan today to meet Afghans who lost family in the U.S. bombing campaign. The organizers of the mission, Global Exchange, hope the visit will help heal wounds between the two countries. The four are scheduled to spend three days in Afghanistan.
ABCNEWS' Brian Ross and Martha Raddatz in Washington contributed to this report.