- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

Bush administration officials are expressing a private consensus they want Osama bin Laden dead, not alive, in the event he is found in Afghanistan and there is a chance to capture him, senior U.S. officials said.

They said the consensus means the administration may avoid a direct confrontation between bin Laden and U.S. ground troops. Instead, the Pentagon will continue to try to kill the terrorist from the air once he is located, as he was last spring by a spy drone.

The Pentagon already has tried to kill him with a "lucky shot," bombing several cave complexes that serve as command centers. The ruling Taliban militia, however, claims that the head of the al Qaeda terrorist network continues to live.

The officials said the possibility of bin Laden being captured alive would present unprecedented security problems for the United States during a murder trial and while in custody. They also fear he would find ways to inflame his extremist Islamic followers.

The officials said there has been no official decision by President Bush who wants bin Laden "dead or alive" on whether to attempt a capture if the terrorist's location is determined. But they said the consensus in meetings among Pentagon, White House and State Department officials is that the United States would come out of the war on terrorism in better shape if bin Laden did not survive.

The most-favorable scenario, officials said, is to spot bin Laden from the air and kill him with a direct hit or entomb him in a cave with a 5,000-pound earth-penetrating bomb.

An even-better fate, they said, is for a country or group other than America to pull the deadly trigger, so as not to further ignite anti-U.S. passions among Islamic fundamentalists.

Bin Laden's own followers may grant the United States' wish. One administration official said a loyal cadre of well-armed bodyguards are sworn to kill bin Laden rather than see him fall into the hands of American special-operations forces or rebels opposed to theTaliban militia.

"That would make life easier on everyone," said the official. "We don't have to put him in handcuffs. Presumably, he gave them permission to kill him."

Added another official: "It's certainly in the realm of possibility because he very much wants to become a martyr."

Mr. Bush has said he wants bin Laden "dead or alive" for masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 5,000, most of them civilians.

Behind the public pronouncements, a debate has raged inside the administration over which fate for bin Laden is better for the United States. Officials said the majority sentiment today is: death to bin Laden.

They said that if bin Laden is captured and held in custody, it would present a host of problems providing security for the world's most-wanted fugitive. At trial, the Justice Department might be forced to disclose intelligence "sources and methods" to prove bin Laden's guilt. It would also be impossible to find an impartial jury in New York, Virginia, or any other state, the officials said.

Pentagon officials say constant satellite coverage and communications monitoring have yet to spot bin Laden's hiding place amid Afghanistan's hundreds of deep, limestone caves. He has turned some cave hide-outs into residences and command centers.

The senior official said the United States knows of three bin Laden hideouts, but there have been no signs of his presence at any of them since the Sept. 11 attacks.

He is protected by about 40 bodyguards. The entourage moves in convoys defended by mounted anti-aircraft guns, shoulder-fired missiles and grenade launchers.

The United States has tried to kill bin Laden at least three times.

In 1998, after the Clinton administration linked bin Laden to deadly terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Navy fired scores of Tomahawk missiles into one of his camps. Before Sept. 11, a CIA-operated Predator spy drone found bin Laden. But before the agency could arm the plane for an attack, he disappeared.

Since the air campaign began Oct. 7, the United States has bombed camps and caves where he may have been hiding so far failing to kill the fugitive millionaire.

Asked on ABC television if U.S. commandos are under orders to kill or capture bin Laden if they find him, Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said, "U.S. forces operate under the international laws of conflict. And, obviously, one of the targets there is the command and control and the leadership. But as you know, the U.S. armed forces are also humane. It depends on the circumstances. If it's a defensive situation, then, you know, bullets will fly. But if we can capture somebody, then we'll do that."

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