Behind the scenes, Bin Laden raises the stakes

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The Independent Online

Amid all the drama on Pakistan's political stage, one figure lurks unseen – Osama bin Laden. Last month, however, he made himself heard.

The al-Qa'ida leader released a tape in which he declared war on President Pervez Musharraf and urged Pakistanis to rise up in "armed rebellion" against him in revenge for the assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad. As polls show that Bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than the President, it was an ominous message.

It is a constant embarrassment to Pakistan's leader, whose administration has received billions of dollars from the US for enlisting in the "war on terror", that America's principal target is almost certainly on Pakistani soil. While Islamabad insists with waning conviction that he is hiding in Afghanistan, Western intelligence agencies are convinced that Bin Laden is in Pakistan's "federally administered tribal areas" along the Afghan border, probably in North or South Waziristan.

Here, al-Qa'ida has managed to restore its network, according to recent assessments. The London bombers went to Waziristan for training and support. After a disastrous attempt at military intervention which left hundreds of Pakistani soldiers dead, Islamabad did a deal with tribal leaders last year under which they were supposed to keep out foreign militants. Instead, cross-border raids and suicide bombings in Afghanistan rose sharply. Pakistan has now sent the troops back in at US urging, but the tribal areas remain a law unto themselves.

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