- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

The allied military strikes on Osama bin Laden are operating under the assumption that his al Qaeda terrorist network owns U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, a Pentagon official says.
The possible presence of the shoulder-fired weapon, used in Afghanistan with deadly accuracy against Soviet aircraft in the 1980s, makes the job of catching or killing bin Laden all the more difficult for helicopter-borne U.S. commandos.
"We are convinced there are a lot of Stingers out there that may still work," said the official, explaining that "out there" means both Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia and their ally bin Laden's well-armed al Qaeda terrorist organization.
"We think about it day in, day out," the official added. "You always, from a military perspective, prepare for the worst."
Bin Laden, whom President Bush wants "dead or alive" for masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, controls a personal army of more than 3,000 Arab warriors. The fierce foot soldiers are known to brandish anti-aircraft guns and grenade launchers, say Afghanistan rebel sources and American officials.
"They are armed to the teeth," said a second Pentagon official. "Of course in Afghanistan, nearly everyone is armed to the teeth."
Within bin Laden's cadre of combatants lies an inner layer of about 30 to 40 bodyguards. They are his best graduates from his terrorist camps, methodically screened for loyalty to bin Laden, who is said to control a fortune of over $300 million.
"He has many hiding places in the mountains," said Daoud Mir, Afghanistan's former ambassador to France who now represents the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Washington. "I don't think he has the possibility to move without the whole of his bodyguards."
Mr. Mir also said that for security reasons, "bin Laden doesn't allow any non-Arabs to approach him." Afghanistan's 29 million population is made up of various ethnic groups dominated by the Pashtuns (38 percent) and the Tajiks (25 percent). Bin Laden was disowned by his billionaire father and exiled by Saudi Arabia.
The Taliban militia, which controls about 75 percent of Afghanistan, including the capital of Kabul, maintains close ties to bin Laden's paramilitary cadre. The Taliban owns an undetermined number of anti-aircraft missiles that could shoot down U.S. helicopters.
Pentagon officials say there is evidence that the Taliban's arsenal includes deadly heat-seeking Stingers. The U.S. Army developed the weapon to knock down low-flying aircraft, such as helicopters and jets that swoop down to fire canon rounds or other munitions at troops and armor targets. The system launches five-foot, supersonic missiles with a range of 10,000 feet.
In one of the biggest national security decisions of his administration, President Reagan authorized the CIA to secretly transfer Stingers to the Afghan mujahideen forces that at the time were fighting an occupying Soviet army.
The gambit worked. The ragtag Muslim alliance effectively shot down scores of Soviet attack helicopters that had been targeting the rebels in the country's mountain encampments. The Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, a defeat that helped lead to the collapse of the communist empire.
But the CIA was never able to recover all of the Stingers. There are reports the weapons were used sporadically in the ensuing 12 years as tribal Afghans fought for control of the country.
The intelligence agency is believed to have handed out about 1,000 Stingers. The mujahideen forces fired about 400. The CIA collected some, but hundreds remained in Afghanistan, distributed among the various ethnic groups that still fight each other for control today.
Mr. Mir said the Northern Alliance did own "a few" Stingers, but turned them in several years ago. "I don't believe right now the Taliban or bin Laden have too many Stingers," he said.
The security wall wrapped around bin Laden will make the job of catching or killing him dangerous for American commandos now deployed in the region. Army teams typically enter a country on Black Hawk helicopters. The choppers are equipped with flares that can throw heat-seeking missiles such as the Stinger off course.
One administration official said there is a theory that after 12 years none of the Stingers left in Afghanistan work. Specially designed battery packs are, by now, nonfunctioning, and there are no reports that the Afghans were able to obtain spare parts, the official said.

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