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Hunt for bin Laden goes online

Alive or dead, terrorist suspect remains a wanted man

Videotapes showing the left-handed Osama bin Laden gesturing with his right hand led some viewers to believe that his left arm was injured.
Videotapes showing the left-handed Osama bin Laden gesturing with his right hand led some viewers to believe that his left arm was injured.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. intelligence agents searching for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have followed the trail of the world's most wanted man into cyberspace, CNN has learned.

Counterterrorism experts are monitoring a number of Web sites and computer servers they believe might contain recent messages from bin Laden.

Al Qaeda is said to be computer savvy, and some investigators believe they have found markers or code words that indicate bin Laden is trying to signal supporters that he is alive.

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"It's either bin Laden or an elaborate cyber-deception campaign" by his lieutenants, an intelligence official told CNN.

CNN reported earlier this year that al Qaeda has used at least one Web site to post information and keeps changing the site's address to stay ahead of investigators.

Authorities also are investigating information from detainees that suggests al Qaeda members -- and possibly even bin Laden -- are hiding messages inside photographic files on pornographic Web sites.

Bin Laden and al Qaeda are blamed for planning and executing the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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The attacks prompted the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, which toppled the ruling Taliban that had sheltered al Qaeda and bin Laden.

Report inconclusive

CNN has learned that a recently completed counterterrorism analysis concluded that no one knows whether bin Laden is still alive.

Captured al Qaeda fighters told U.S. interrogators that bin Laden was wounded in the left hand in the attack on his base at Tora Bora. In a videotape released in December, bin Laden never moved his left arm and his hand was never shown.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that bin Laden has not been heard from since. Bin Laden has good reason not make further public appearances, he said.

"One might be he is not physically able, because he is injured in some way," Rumsfeld said. "Another might be because if he is afraid if he does it, he will get caught."

The intelligence report suggests that if bin Laden is still alive, he might be waiting to emerge when the next attack occurs.

Last week, the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Arabic-language magazine, said associates of bin Laden told him the al Qaeda leader was still alive and was recovering from a shrapnel wound to his shoulder. The editor, Abdel-Bari Atwan, said he was not given any other details.

"They never indicated where he is, " Atwan said.

Some intelligence officials believe bin Laden could be hiding in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region encompassing several hundred square miles. If so, he likely is constantly on the move, they think.

New attacks?

In an audiotape broadcast on the Al Jazeera television network last month, al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said that bin Laden, his top lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri and "98 percent of the leadership of al Qaeda are safe" and planning new attacks against the United States. Taliban leader Mullah Omar was also alive, he said.

"I really want to assure the Muslims that Sheikh Osama bin Laden, with the mercy of Allah, is in a good health, and all rumors about Sheikh Osama's sickness or injuries in Tora Bora is completely inaccurate news," he said. Bin Laden would soon appear on television, Abu Ghaith said.

Alive or dead, bin Laden remains a powerful symbol.

"Those people who are going to rally behind him are going to rally behind him dead or alive," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle Eastern studies professor at the University of Maryland.

"You're going to have a core that, no matter what happens to him, are going to be his core supporters.

"He is terrifying to Middle Eastern elites. He is terrifying to Middle Eastern governments," Telhami said.

"He is terrifying to those who aspire to have a normal life because ... if it could be done to the United States, it could be done to them."

-- CNN correspondents Barbara Starr and Garrick Utley contributed to this report.




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