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