Somewhere in Afghanistan, Taliban prisoners and defectors are being questioned: “Where is Osama bin Laden?” “Did you see him?” “Where does he hide?”
Senior Taliban military officials now in rebel hands are the latest of the growing list of sources for U.S. intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden and the other leaders of the al Qaeda network.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday the prisoners would be questioned.
These new sources are adding to the existing military and CIA reconnaissance efforts throughout the country, military and other U.S. officials said. Since the Taliban’s rapid retreat from most of northern Afghanistan, U.S. troops and intelligence operatives are able to shine a brighter light across vast regions of the country, taking advantage of the chaos to find targets for military strikes.
It’s already paying off.
This week, information obtained by U.S. intelligence quickly led to at least three airstrikes on al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, killing several, U.S. officials said. The highest ranking so far has been Muhammad Atef, bin Laden’s terrorist-operations chief and possible successor, who is believed to have been killed by U.S. bombs outside of Kabul.
The strikes are a product of what’s called “actionable” intelligence information so up-to-date and credible that bombers or commandos can be dispatched to a target.
“We’ve been using various intelligence assets trying to locate folks, looking for large movements of people as they’re flushed out, going after caves and tunnels, going after activities and businesses and movements,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday.
Officials declined to specify how they learned of the senior officials’ whereabouts for last week’s strikes, but said the rout of the Taliban has created an environment thick with opportunities.
U.S. special forces can safely enter many communities in Afghanistan once closed to all but covert operatives.
Eavesdropping aircraft and satellites may gain more new information from a breakdown in communications discipline among enemy leaders, who use tapped satellite phones to call for help.