The Times account comes as new reports surfaced that two al-Qaida leaders and dozens of followers are hiding in eastern Iran.
Times reporters traveling with U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan said commanders believe bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are probably alive and hiding somewhere along a 250-mile stretch of the border with Pakistan.
Military officials told the Times they believe al-Qaida militants were moving in packs through the mountains, traveling by horseback on cloudy nights to elude detection.
Lt. Col. Roger King, a spokesman for the American command, said Special Forces troops continue to sweep the area to keep al-Qaida remnants on the move.
“I’d say it’s a reasonable conclusion that we feel that if bin Laden is alive, we’re providing enough pressure to make sure he keeps moving,” King told the Times. “It’s easier to spot a moving target.”
Meanwhile, reports have surfaced saying two al-Qaida leaders — Saif al-Adel, a militant on the FBI’s most wanted list, and Mahfouz Ould Walid, a spiritual counselor also known as Abu Hafs the Mauritanian — are among dozens of al-Qaida followers holed up in a cluster of Iranian hotels.
Citing Arab intelligence sources, the Washington Post on Wednesday reported Walid — whom U.S. forces said had been killed near the Afghan city of Khost in January — and al-Adel have assumed control of al-Qaida’s military committee, which plans attacks, and its religious committee, which issues statements to justify them.
The Post said Iran has become a way station for al-Qaida operatives fleeing neighboring Afghanistan for other destinations.
The U.S. has reportedly received unverified reports indicating the two men are in Iran, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The AP quoted a U.S. defense official as saying the U.S. is unaware to what degree Iran is sanctioning the militants’ presence.
For their part, Iranian officials have maintained there is no al-Qaida presence in their country.
“Iran’s policy is not to shelter al-Qaida members and to prevent such people from entering the country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Reuters. “We have been fighting against terrorism from the start and are still pursuing this policy.”
Asefi also said circulating such “repetitious and baseless charges in Iran” has become “a bad habit of some American circles.”
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal confirmed earlier this month that Iran had turned over 16 alleged Saudi-born al-Qaida members to Saudi officials. Iran said it has arrested and deported some 150 people allegedly tied to al-Qaida and Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban government, Reuters reported.