The U.S. won’t say it officially, but an exhaustive Daily News investigation finds the world’s biggest manhunt for the monster who murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11 has zeroed in on Chitral’s stunning peaks and deep valleys.
Six U.S. and foreign officials confirmed to The News that northwestern Pakistan’s impenetrable Hindu Kush mountains – which boast some of the world’s tallest climbs – in the Chitral region have been eyed as Bin Laden’s hideout since 2006 by Osama hunters aiming for the big kill.
A lengthy review of evidence, including recent Predator fly-bys, Bin Laden’s tapes since 9/11 and interviews with three dozen experts on Al Qaeda, Pakistan and special operations, point to these vast mountains as the terror chief’s most likely haven.
Captured Al Qaeda leaders have given up as his hideout. "Debriefings of Al Qaeda leaders arrested confirmed this," said Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda."
Two senior foreign officials said the nearby town of Kalam also is suspect.
Drones were first spotted spying on Chitral last summer and were seen again as recently as Feb. 2. Chitral is so far from U.S.-run airfields that drone sorties are limited to just a few hours because of fueling issues.
Moreover, Islamic militancy is taking root in several Chitrali valleys leading to the Afghan border, prompting Pakistan’s tourism ministry to decree them off-limits to foreigners, local sources said – reinforcing the suspicion Osama is nearby.
CIA Director Leon Panetta has told Congress he asks "every day" where Bin Laden is hiding.
Reports of his location were rare after he escaped a U.S. onslaught in Afghanistan in 2001.
Saturday, Bin Laden’s 29th tape since 9/11 was broadcast on Al Jazeera. He branded Israel’s ongoing Gaza offensive a "holocaust," accused moderate Arab leaders of plotting with the West against Muslims, and urged his followers to prepare for holy war.
"There should be serious work and preparation for jihad to fulfill righteousness and defeat evil," he said.
It was too soon to date when the latest tape was made.
The CIA believes a Jan. 14 Bin Laden rant about Gaza was recorded in December – before Israel’s incursion and before Chitral was cut off from the rest of Pakistan by heavy snows.
The News has found that only four of his tapes were ever recorded in the harsh winter months from January to March. Most were made in the fall, and no tapes were recorded in winter after 2003 until a year ago.
Experts say this is a new clue which may mean he lives so high up he’s snowbound in winter – safer from attack but unable to dispatch couriers on foot with his screeds.
"It does suggest some sort of seasonal limitation," said Arthur Keller, an ex-CIA case officer in Pakistan. "It fits the known facts, including rumors and hints he had long since moved away from Waziristan and was hiding further north in Bajaur or Chitral."
The CIA says Al Qaeda leaders live in "an isolated outpost in northwestern Pakistan."
Chitral "is a natural route from Afghanistan" into the Hindu Kush, observed an ex-operative in "Alec Station," the CIA’s Bin Laden unit. The jagged range of shark’s teeth peaks have always been a sanctuary for brigands lying low.
"It’s closed by snow in winter, has hard to reach high villages and difficult helicopter access, a Sunni Muslim population and no random visitors," said one expert, who needs anonymity to protect Chitrali allies. But, it’s "hard to get out of if cornered."
Chitral is 300 miles north of the Waziristan tribal belt U.S. drones have bombed 39 times since June. But last month, Predators were over peaceful Chitral – no missiles have ever been fired there – for the fifth occasion since August.
"Drone Aaya!" blared a Nov. 24 Chitral News headline about a visit by the "dreaded" spy planes. "People were looking [up] with a mix of curiosity and anguish," they reported, adding, "Some said it was looking for Osama."
Pakistan’s refusal to issue mountaineering permits to outsiders for three Chitrali valleys is because of militant activity, local sources say.
Some intelligence officials downplay Chitral’s importance or argue that Bin Laden is in a teeming Pakistani city similar to ones where his aides were nabbed after 9/11 – even though Al Qaeda leaders moved to the tribal areas years ago, where eight top goons have been assassinated in recent months.
Ex-CIAer Keller disagrees. "Hiding out at altitude in a remote mountain lair could certainly be the trick they’re using to stay off our radar," he insisted.