ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Usama bin Laden may no longer have operational control of his terrorist network, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan said Monday.
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Ryan Crocker said bin Laden cannot communicate with his followers because he likely is hiding in a remote area, Pakistan's Geo Television and state-run PTV reported after the ambassador met with local journalists.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Peter Kovach, who was at the gathering, confirmed the substance of the reports. He said the comments were made at a lunch for senior Pakistani journalists.
Neither station broadcast a tape of the remarks, and Kovach said he had no recording, either.
According to Geo, Crocker also doubted suggestions that bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had effective control of Al Qaeda, saying the fact that he issues occasional video and audiotaped statements does not prove anything.
The Al Qaeda No. 2 was last heard from on a tape that surfaced Sunday, urging all Muslims to take up arms and saying a refusal to join the fight against Jews and Christians would lead to the defeat of militant Islam.
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He said the global Islamic community had "no hope for victory" until all Muslims signed on to the Al Qaeda-led jihad. His comments were contained in a 48-minute tape entitled "Impediments to Jihad."
The video portion of the tape was a still photo of a white-turbaned al-Zawahiri with English subtitles running under it. The audio appeared to be his voice speaking Arabic.
It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the tape.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are believed to be hiding in the mountainous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though there has been no hard evidence of their whereabouts for years.
Bin Laden has long been considered by intelligence officials and terrorism experts to be more of an inspirational figure and financial backer for Al Qaeda, with day-to-day operations falling to underlings, including al-Zawahiri.
Crocker's comments follow similar ones last week by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki bin al-Faisal.
Turki, a former director of the Saudi intelligence service, said he believes bin Laden is alive but there is some question about whether he still leads Al Qaeda. Bin Laden has not been heard from since an audiotape released in December 2004.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said last week he did not know whether bin Laden was dead or alive, and he would not speculate.
In October, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, retired Vice Adm. Scott Redd, said bin Laden cannot communicate with his followers the way he had in the past because "the more you communicate ... the more vulnerable you are."
Crocker also said he had no confirmation of the reported killing in northwestern Pakistan of Al Qaeda leader Hamza Rabia, though he added that he had no reason to doubt Musharraf's assurances that Rabia was dead.
Rabia reportedly died in a Dec. 1 explosion in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region along with two other alleged Syrian bodyguards. Pakistani officials said the blast was caused by bomb-making activities.
But local residents said Rabia died in a missile attack and parts of what appeared to be a missile were found at the site, but neither Pakistani nor American officials have confirmed that version.