LONDON - Osama bin Laden could hide more easily in a city than a remote tribal region, a former Pakistani intelligence chief said on Tuesday, challenging the notion that the al Qaeda leader is probably holed up in a mountain cave.
Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani, former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), said news of outsiders' presence travels fast in the tribal areas and it would be hard to keep it secret for years.
"In the countryside or in tribal areas ... it's difficult to hide yourself because there people live ... and operate in a manner in which finding out about unusual presence is very important," Durrani told Reuters in an interview in London.
He said it was true that tribal customs placed great value on showing hospitality and not betraying a guest. "In the tribal code, anyone who seeks your protection has to be defended, if necessary with your life."
However, he added: "I am not sure over a period of four, five or six years that it would be possible even for the tribesmen to keep his presence under wraps."
Such information would have traveled or been divulged, given the incentives, Durrani said in a reference to the $25 million US bounty on bin Laden's head.
"My conclusion therefore is it's extremely unlikely that he is around that place."
On the run
In the six years since the September 11 attacks on the United States and subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Western intelligence officials have frequently said they suspect he is hiding somewhere in the inaccessible mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
"This is a man on the run in a cave who is virtually impotent other than his ability to get these messages out," White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend said last month when bin Laden issued his first new video for nearly three years.
Durrani said an urban centre could provide a better refuge.
"Why not a big city? Anywhere in Pakistan, Afghanistan. Anywhere outside the region where it is easier to keep cover," he said. "These are the places where you can hide yourself much better."
Other top al Qaeda figures associated with the September 11 attacks have been captured in Pakistani cities -- alleged plotter Ramzi Binalshibh in Karachi in September 2002 and self-confessed plan mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi in March 2003.
Pakistan has seen an upsurge in violence since July, when militants scrapped a peace deal with authorities in the tribal region of North Waziristan and army commandos stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad. US intelligence officials fear al Qaeda is using the tribal areas as a safe haven in which to rebuild its strength.
Durrani said he was concerned that next week's expected court ruling on the whether President Pervez Musharraf is eligible for re-election and the return of exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto could provide a focus for further attacks.
"She (Bhutto) will have to take extraordinary security measures," he said.