Bin Laden and his supposed Indian excursion

Unlikely that he should venture into Indian territory

DEBKAfile and Asia Times report that after a reported sighting no less a person than Osama bin Laden himself, US and Indian forces are planning a joint operation on the India-Pakistan border to capture the al Qaeda boss.

Bin Laden was actually spotted in the flesh just a few days ago – according to DEBKAfile’s counter terror sources. Between October 17 and October 19, an Indian air force reconnaissance plane picked him up in the Tibet-Laddakh region close to the North-Eastern corner of Pakistan bordering India and China. Additional surveillance aircraft were called in and identified the al Qaeda leader on the move with a 10-vehicle convoy of black Japanese minivans. Four of the vehicles turned up again on October 22 heading east towards the Chinese border. Our sources maintain that the rumored sightings of bin Laden on the Lingzi Thang Plain on the Tibetan border in June may have been true then but are now outdated. In any case, he was not at the time in Pakistani Waziristan or the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The agents hunting the al Qaeda leader are working on the premise that he has decided to wait out the winter months in one of two regions: Hunza province in the Northern Frontier tip of Indian Kashmir or Little Pamir, where fanatical Tajik tribes have never allowed any Kabul government – whether Taliban or led by Karzai – to secure a foothold…

Sunday, October 24, a senior FBI agent, briefed first in Pakistan, flew from Islamabad to New Delhi to meet Indian security bosses and examine the aerial shots of the bin Laden convoy.

Our intelligence sources report that, after the American agent studied the data and questioned the Indian intelligence officers who saw the terrorist chief leave his minivan several times, he relayed Washington’s request for the Indian government to put its security forces in the North Western region on red alert and round up troops for combing operations in the region before the snowfall.

New Delhi complied the next day and also stepped up its vigilance on the Kagil-Leh Highway and along the Tibetan border. [DEBKAfile]

Reports of the bin Laden sighting, even if speculative, come on the back of news of heightened activity in the Ladakh region (northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir) by the Aviation Research Center (ARC), a specialized reconnaissance agency of India’s Research and Analysis Wing, which looks after external intelligence. Highly placed defense sources have been quoted as saying that the Ladakh region has seen an unusual number of sorties by ARC aircraft. While there is little information about the purpose of such missions, the ARC’s sudden activities could trigger further speculation that bin Laden may be lurking in what India refers to as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. [Asia Times]

Osama bin Laden could not have survived all this while without the knowledge or support of Pakistani intelligence. Indeed, in this context, it is inconceivable that the ISI would allow him to stray too close to Indian territory, making the prospect of him actually crossing over into India extremely unlikely.

Moreover, mere reports of Bin Laden’s presence in Indian (or Chinese or Russian) territory do not help Gen Musharraf at all — his usefulness to America has an expiry date that is closely linked to the capture or killing of top al Qaeda leaders. Gen Musharraf is certainly not one to sign his own pink slip.

Even in the unlikely event that Bin Laden is making his own travel and accomodation arrangements without help from the ISI, Pakistani Kashmir is not exactly the safest place for him. In 1988, Bin Laden played a key role in a massacre of Gilgit’s Shia population at the behest of Pakistan’s previous dictator, Gen Zia-ul-Haq. He could hardly go unnoticed in a place where the local population has some old scores to settle — unless of course, he is under the care of the ISI, which brings us back to the previous argument.

Inflitrating Osama bin Laden into Indian territory is one act of cross-border terrorism that Pakistan is unlikely to be guilty of.

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