WASHINGTON – The head of the FBI's counterterrorism effort thinks Usama bin Laden is dead.
The statement by Dale Watson marks the first time a senior U.S. law enforcement official publicly has given an opinion on the Al Qaeda leader's status.
Watson emphasized that he had no evidence that the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks was dead. But his comments, which came Wednesday at a conference of local law enforcement officials from across the country, suggest the FBI has no direct intelligence that proves bin Laden is alive.
"I personally think he is probably not with us anymore but I have no evidence to support that," Watson said.
Watson also said bin Laden's Al Qaeda network of terrorist training camps has been dismantled, but "there is no question in my mind ... we will be attacked again."
The terrorist "fleas" infesting the country "want to kill you," Watson said. "They could be in your neighborhood."
Watson, who rarely makes public appearances, is the top official for counterterrorism and counterintelligence in the FBI. He did not elaborate on his comments on bin Laden and rushed away from reporters after he spoke.
The Bush administration has avoided saying whether the government believes bin Laden is dead or alive. Last week, President Bush said "Usama bin Laden, he may be alive. If he is, we'll get him. If he's not alive, we got him ... but the issue is bigger than one person."
Some U.S. intelligence and Justice Department officials said they were surprised by Watson's comments. They said the Bush administration's position remains that bin Laden's whereabouts and status are unknown. FBI officials declined comment.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Catherine Abbott, said she was not aware of any new information on bin Laden's fate. She said Pentagon officials are operating on an assumption that he is alive, until they see evidence to the contrary.
Watson joined the FBI as a special agent in 1978. In June, 1996 he joined the CIA for several months, working as a deputy to the head of the intelligence agency's counterterrorism center. He returned to the FBI in January 1997 to take charge of international terrorism affairs and in 1999 he was named director of the agency's Counterterrorism Division.
Since December, reports of bin Laden's well-being have been sporadic and from different sources.
This month, a London-based Arabic newspaper said bin Laden was wounded in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan last year but was in good health.
There was no way to verify the report in London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. U.S. officials say they have no evidence bin Laden was wounded in the U.S. bombing of Al Qaeda hide-outs in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, late last year, but acknowledge it is a possibility.
The newspaper's editor said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that bin Laden had surgery to remove shrapnel from his left shoulder.
On Saturday, the head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service was quoted as saying bin Laden was alive and hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.