The recently released cache of U.S. reports from Afghanistan provides fleeting glimpses into the possible whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the years since his escape from American forces at Tora Bora.
Documents released by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks and published in the British newspaper The Guardian quoted intelligence sources as saying bin Laden wanted al Qaeda operatives disguised as journalists to attack Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a news conference in 2004. In 2005, his financial adviser and an Afghan insurgent leader reportedly were dispatched to obtain rockets from North Korea to use against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In 2006, he was reported to be attending monthly meetings in the
Pakistani city of Quetta with fellow fugitives from the leadership of the Taliban, the Islamic militia that hosted al Qaeda when it controlled most of Afghanistan. Another report the same year states that he arranged a marriage for a valued lieutenant, a specialist in building roadside bombs.
Neither the documents cited only by the Guardian, which had advance access to the Wikileaks documents released Sunday, nor the information contained in them could be independently verified by CNN. The CIA would not comment on secret documents. But a U.S. counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity that American authorities believe that the al Qaeda leader "has gone into deep hiding."
"We think he's spending a heck of a lot of time trying to avoid being
captured or killed," the official said. "After all, he's seen many of his top lieutenants taken off the battlefield since 9/11 - and especially over the past two years. We haven't had a firm fix on his location for a number of years. If we did, he wouldn't be there. The aggressive search for him continues without pause."
Bin Laden's organization carried out the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people and triggered the nearly 9-year-old Afghan war. The U.S. government has put a $25 million price on his head, but he has evaded capture.
In 2005, then-CIA Director Porter Goss told Time magazine that he had "an excellent idea" where bin Laden was but said that until "some weak links" were strengthened, "We're probably not going to be able to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice."
And in June, current CIA chief Leon Panetta told ABC's "This Week" that bin Laden "is in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan," but there had been no precise information about his possible whereabouts for several years.
"Since then, it has been very difficult to get any intelligence on his exact location," Panetta said.
An August 2006 threat report included in the Wikileaks cache notes that a "high-level meeting" in Quetta resulted in six suicide bombers being dispatched to targets in northern Afghanistan. The meetings "take place once every month," either in Quetta or in villages along the Afghan-Pakistani border, "and there are usually about twenty people present," it states.
"The top four people in these meetings are Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Barader (PHON)," it states.
Like bin Laden, Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has been at large since the invasion. His deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was reported captured in Pakistan this year, and Dadullah was killed in a U.S. airstrike in May 2007.
Another report states that Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar joined bin Laden's financial adviser, identified as "Dr. Amin," on a trip from Iran to North Korea in November 2005.
"While in North Korea, the two confirmed a deal with the North Korean government for remote-controlled rockets for use against American and coalition aircraft," the report states. "The deal was closed for an undetermined amount of money. The shipment of said weapons is expected shortly after the new year."
Hekmatyar, a onetime prime minister who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, now leads an Afghan militia that has aligned itself with the Taliban against U.S. and allied troops.
– CNN's Katie Glaeser and Pam Benson contributed to this report.