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Keeping an eye on bin Laden

Alleged master terrorist Osama bin Laden is increasingly on the move within Aghanistan and ramped-up U.S. surveillance efforts have helped disrupt his wide-flung network of support, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials tell NBC News.
/ Source: NBC News producer

Alleged master terrorist Osama bin Laden is increasingly on the move within Afghanistan and senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials assert that an intensified surveillance effort has helped disrupt his global guerrilla network. As evidence, these officials told NBC News, reports of terrorist threats against U.S. embassies and military facilities linked to the bin Laden network have diminished sharply in recent days.

“IT HAS BEEN very quiet,” one official said. Another noted that this past weekend was “the quietest I have had since I took this job.”

Officials say one reason is that bin Laden is increasingly unable to communicate, increasingly setting up camp in remote corners of Afghanistan and that he is moving “about every other night”.

Bin Laden has been “setting up and evacuating tent villages every week” and moving among them in a kind of shell game, one official said on condition of anonymity.

Bin Laden has most recently has been reported near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, but the official says “he is in one of the most remote corners of the world” and hard to track in real time.

InsertArt(1202394)Using a combination of imagery, electronic eavesdropping and human intelligence the United States is developing a pattern of bin Laden’s movements, but much of it is after the fact.

The United States has not picked up any recent reports of planned attacks by bin Laden on U.S. personnel and says some of that has to be attributed to increased U.S. surveillance and increasingly proactive measures to increase security at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

“It has been quiet lately,” said the official. “and part of that has to be attributed to our efforts ... a series of tactical disruptions leading to a strategic change for him. He hasn’t been able to communicate or recruit couriers as easily as he used to. That is one reason you have not seen him carry out an attack.”

U.S. intelligence continues to track his attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, “but it isn’t as easy as it looks and bin Laden is so good at truck bombs,” the official said.

“What is a better image for him?” the official asked. “A ton of rubble from a successful truck bombing or a lot people with diarrhea from a screwed up biological weapon attack?”

Asked if the United States was optimistic about stopping bin Laden, the official said “we won’t be optimistic until we capture him or kill him.”

The United States has been trying to get the Taliban, the radical Islamic party that controls most of Afghanistan, to turn bin Laden over to a third country for trial under Islamic law, but the Taliban says it will not do so unless bin Laden himself agrees.

In an interview two weeks ago, the Taliban’s U.N. ambassador designate, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, said

“If Osama bin Laden himself wants to go to any other country, we will support the idea and even facilitate for his departure to any other country.”

Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer based in New York.