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Bin Laden is likely with eager helpers

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Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The scene was clearly intended to vex Americans. On the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden flickered across the world's television screens casually strolling down a boulder-strewn hillside. He looked calm, peaceful and, worst of all, safe.

While it is unclear when the tape was made, the place where bin Laden is probably hiding today is somewhere along the rugged 1,500-mile Pakistan-Afghanistan border, U.S. and Pakistani officials say. Autonomous tribal areas on the Pakistani side are generally thought to be safer for him.

A midlevel Pakistani intelligence official involved in the hunt for militants believes that dozens of Arabs, perhaps including bin Laden, are hiding in Waziristan, the most inaccessible of the half-dozen autonomous tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border. He said the reason the Arabs have not been caught is simple: The local populace reveres them.

"Everybody knows them," the official said. "Everybody supports them."

Simply put, people are eagerly helping him because they still accept his view of the world.

"They don't see that as a crime or a sin" said Talat Masood, an analyst and retired Pakistani army general. "They don't see anything wrong with it."

Pakistani officials say they have little control of the border area, which deeply conservative ethnic Pashtun tribes have been allowed to rule for centuries. Since December 2001, Pakistani soldiers have been entering the tribal areas for the first time in their country's history, and more than 25,000 troops are now there.

In conversations, leaders in the tribal areas passionately insist that the Sept. 11 attacks never happened. Or if they did, they were a U.S. and Israeli conspiracy to defame Islam and create a pretext for U.S. global domination. Jews, they often insist, control America.

Those beliefs come from what continues to be one of Islamic militancy's most effective weapons: sophisticated propaganda. Jihadi Web sites, sermons in hard-line mosques, magazines published by militant organizations and large parts of Pakistan's Urdu language press continue to use a mix of fact and utter lies to portray the United States as a threat to all that is good to mankind.

The current issue of one magazine, The Crescent, is typical. The monthly is published by a new militant outfit headed by the former leader of Harakat-ul-Mujahadin, or the Movement of Islamic Fighters, which was declared a terrorist organization by the United States. That group was banned but survived simply by changing its name to Jamiat-ul-Ansar, or Party of the Volunteers.

An article titled "When America Was Struck by al-Qaida's Lightning" attributes the recent East Coast power outage to bin Laden. Another article says that "international Jewish companies" were secretly placing pig fat, a substance Muslims are barred from consuming, in Pepsi and Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste and all brands of lipstick. (It does not mention that Jews, who use those products too, are also forbidden to consume pork.)

"Crusaders, Jews and Hindus are now united and have come forward to wipe out the Islamic Ummah," a chart detailing the state of "The Bleeding Muslim World" warns, referring to the Muslim community. "The infidels are using the pretext of ending terrorism to achieve their nefarious designs."

Today, by many measures, Islamic radicalism appears to be stronger in western Pakistan than it is in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistani religious parties swept elections in the area last fall. A proposal to regulate and reform religious schools, known as madrassas, has stalled.

"The madrassas are full," said Samina Ahmed, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization.

American advertisements show Muslims living happily in the United States, but this has failed to decrease anger, according to public opinion polls. Western diplomats respond that whatever tactics the United States uses will be criticized but note that while anti-Americanism is widespread in Pakistan, it has so far proved not deep enough to bring widespread upheaval.

In recent months, though, some Pakistani military and police officials have expressed reservations about their role in the U.S. campaign. For example, a brigadier general who spoke on condition of anonymity said Pashtun Taliban fighters are waging a legitimate battle against a government in Kabul where Pashtuns are marginalized. In Quetta, a city in southwestern Pakistan, Afghan refugees said teachers in madrassas and members of hard-line religious parties urge young men to join the new Taliban insurgency. Taliban flags fly over some neighborhoods, and young men in black turbans openly declare themselves as former Taliban fighters to visitors.

As dusk arrived in the city last Saturday and the call to prayer sounded from local mosques, a young Afghan madrassa student in a turban demanded that a visiting American leave the area. As the foreigner drove away, a young boy spat in his face.

That depth of feeling, some Pakistanis note, is what makes Osama bin Laden so difficult to catch.