Tuesday, November 20, 2001

The U.S. military has come enticingly close to nabbing Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in two separate incidents and is now magnifying the search for bin Laden in southeast Afghanistan.
A combined CIA-commando operation, backed by informants and communications monitoring, has determined that bin Laden is in mountainous areas north of Kandahar, near the Pakistani border, a U.S. intelligence official said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday he hopes a $25 million reward for the capture of bin Laden and top figures in his al Qaeda terrorist group will spur the locals to find the world’s most wanted man.
“Our hope is that the incentive will incentivize a large number of people to begin crawling through those tunnels and caves, looking for the bad folks,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “There’s no question there are people out looking.”
Asked yesterday if the Pentagon had pinpointed their locations, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “To try and think that we have them contained in some sort of a small area, I think, would be a misunderstanding of the difficulty of the task.”
At the same time, the fugitive’s room to roam is shrinking as American warplanes bomb and seal cave entrances and as opposition forces capture territory once held by the bin Laden-friendly Taliban.
Officials said bin Laden is moving constantly, at times discarding his large security entourage for just a handful of bodyguards.
This official described an incident earlier in the air campaign in which the United States believes it was close to locating bin Laden and then mounting a mission against him. The source said intelligence revealed that a convoy containing bin Laden would cross a specific route. The location was monitored, but he never showed up. Military officials later surmised that he must have taken a different route.
“We anticipated it, and we knew after it didn’t occur there was only one other way to exit the area,” said the senior intelligence official.
Mr. Rumsfeld said recently: “You either have him or you don’t in life. And, you know, if you’re chasing a chicken around the barnyard, are you close or are you not close until you get him? Because it’s constantly moving and moving and moving.”
On the hunt for Mullah Omar, the intelligence official and a second senior administration official said the United States expected the supreme Taliban leader to be at a compound in Kandahar on Oct. 20, the night Delta Force commandos stormed the complex. This is in conflict with official Pentagon statements that the much-ballyhooed mission did not expect to find Mullah Omar, and was geared more toward gathering intelligence.
The sources said several intelligence reports placed the reclusive Mullah Omar at the compound that day. They said he must have moved hours before helicopter-borne Delta Force soldiers arrived.
“They thought they were gong to get Omar, no matter what they tell you,” said the intelligence official. “They thought he was going to be there.”
The source added: “He thought he had sneaked into the compound. He then sneaked out, and we didn’t see him leave. We know he went in.”
Capturing or killing the Taliban leader at the two-week point in the U.S. bombing campaign would have perhaps weakened the Taliban’s resolve. Led by Mullah Omar, the radical Islamic militia today is making what some officials describe as a “last stand” in the movement’s birthplace city of Kandahar.
There have been varied press accounts on the Oct. 20 raid, which was the first acknowledged ground combat by special-operations units since the 1993 failed Ranger attack in Somalia.
Some reports suggested the Delta team members were wounded by enemy fire during a counterattack by the Taliban from outside the compound.
Two sources told The Washington Times the Delta warriors encountered more opposition within the compound than intelligence briefings told them to expect. The soldiers killed everyone inside more than 20 and only suffered minor injuries themselves. Three AC-130 gunships supplied fire support overhead to blunt any Taliban reinforcements.
“Anybody that was on that, raid they will tell you the activity coming from the other direction was significantly greater than they were led to believe,” said one of the sources.
The issue of how the commandos suffered minor wounds is in dispute. The team’s after-action reports say the men used explosives to blow open doors. Some debris blew back at them, slightly wounding a small number.
The senior intelligence source, however, said some military commanders believe shrapnel from Taliban grenades inflicted the wounds.
“We don’t set off things when the trajectory comes back the same way,” he said. “We’re not stupid. That all wounds came from ‘friendly fire’ defies the laws of physics.”
Whichever version is true, all sources said the Delta unit left the compound with only a few minor wounds. “Everybody walked away in good shape,” said a Pentagon official.
A special forces officer, who was not connected to the mission, summed up the raid this way: “One thing is starting to emerge. The raid clearly did not accomplish its operational goals. This does not mean that it failed but the assumption can be made that no important prisoners were captured or intelligence gathered. It was important as a statement of operational capabilities, but that is about it.”
The Pentagon said yesterday there are “several hundred” American special-operations troops operating inside Afghanistan.
Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, have been working with opposition groups in fighting the Taliban and bin Laden’s al Qaeda army of Arab soldiers. The Green Berets, and Delta commandos, are also finding key enemy targets and relaying the information so jet fighters and heavy bombers can destroy them. And the elite Delta soldiers are hunting and killing hard-core Arab fighters within the Afghan Taliban militia.
Administration sources say it was opposition Northern Alliance informants and U.S. commandos who found the command center that was bombed last week, killing Muhammad Atef, bin Laden’s top aide.

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