WASHINGTON – The White House is concerned that Usama bin Laden's fractured terror network could be regenerating in havens across the globe, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, President Bush's top foreign policy adviser said the United States continues to aggressively pursue bin Laden because "we assume he's alive," even as his Al Qaeda network operates without its former command structure.
"Cogs are being pulled out of this organization every day," Rice said. "They're on the run."
Even so, U.S. officials are at a loss to judge how dangerous the remnants of Al Qaeda could be. "It's a little hard to know what effect just breaking all that up is having," she said.
The 30-minute interview was conducted in Rice's office, located in a sunny northwest corner of the White House. Beside the "out" box on her orderly desk sat three bins labeled "intel,", "to read" and "immediate action" — all piled high with papers.
She discussed a number of foreign policy topics including:
— Iraq, which she said is the subject of an intense review of how best to control Saddam Hussein's quest for weapons of mass destruction and how to end his regime. "Military power is always an option, but it's not the only option," Rice said.
— Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who she said must "take some really large-scale and decisive steps against terrorist organizations." Dismissing calls to cut off ties with Arafat, she said: "We're not going to go around him."
— American journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped Jan. 23 in Pakistan. Rice said the Pakistan police have been "aggressive and active" in searching for Pearl but she does not know whether the journalist is alive or dead.
She said Abu Zubaydah, an elusive 30-year-old Palestinian, is a "very dangerous man" but Rice said she could not confirm reports that he is Al Qaeda's new chief of operations. That's because she and other U.S. officials need to know more about how the terrorist network has sought to recover from the U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan.
"The fact is I don't think we know how Al Qaeda has rearranged itself as it has lost various people," Rice said.
U.S. intelligence officials say many of the surviving rank-and-file Al Qaeda members from Afghanistan appear to have been left to their own devices, with some going into hiding, others regrouping to fight on, and still others scattering across the world.
A few dozen have fled to lawless Somalia. Others have slipped into Iran.
Many native Afghans and Pakistanis in Al Qaeda probably melted back into their own nations, officials say.
U.S. intelligence is tracking events in numerous other places where Al Qaeda members may try to go, including Yemen, Chechnya, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Palestinian territory and the Philippines.
"We've been very conscious about where they might try to go to regenerate themselves. And that's why the cooperation with Yemen is important. That's why the intelligence cooperation throughout the region is really important, because we don't want them to regenerate themselves," Rice said.
U.S. special forces will begin deploying over the weekend to an island in the southern Philippines, where they will train Filipino soldiers fighting a Muslim extremist group holding two American hostages.
The United States has learned much about Al Qaeda from interrogating detainees and from documents seized in Afghan, but there is still much unknown.
"It would be speculation for me to try to figure out how they're operating," Rice said. "Did they have a plan if this started to happen to them? I have no way of knowing. But what I do know is that with pieces of them being pulled out and increasingly showing up at Guantanamo Bay and in our custody in various places, obviously the network is not operating as it once did."
As for bin Laden, Rice said, "I have no way of knowing" whether he is dead or alive. "We assume he's alive because that's the best assumption if you're still hunting someone."
On Iraq, Rice was asked if Saddam could be deposed without military force. "Don't know," she replied. "But it's one of the things that we're looking at. Clearly, you can weaken a regime using a variety of methods."
She shrugged off Russia's objection to action against Iraq, saying President Vladimir Putin hasn't told her or Bush that he's unhappy.
The administration wants to help make the Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups more effective, she said.
Iraq's neighbors could be persuaded to apply pressure against Saddam, she said, suggesting that coalition-building might be part of Vice President Dick Cheney's mission when he travels to the region next month.
"Iraq will come up," Rice said, chuckling. "Iraq comes up in this office whenever somebody walks in."