Captured remnants of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda army of terrorists and the Taliban militia began a 24-hour journey yesterday from their once-hospitable base in Afghanistan to a makeshift U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
TV network cameras recorded the dead-of-night transfer of the first 20 al Qaeda and Taliban members shipped to U.S.-controlled territory the naval base on Cuba’s southeastern shore.
Restrained and under heavy armed guard, the prisoners boarded an Air Force C-17 at Kandahar’s U.S.-run airport. The captives were to stop at an undisclosed U.S. base as the cargo jet refuels, then arrive at Guantanamo sometime today for induction into a prison called Camp X-Ray.
“These are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives at the expense of ours,” said Marine Corps Capt. Riccoh Player, a Pentagon spokesman. “Is it unreasonable to handcuff and shackle these folks? I don’t think so.”
After the C-17 went airborne, Marines exchanged gunfire with forces outside the airport. “It was a pocket of resistance probing the lines there,” a military official said.
The brief exchange, in which no Marine was wounded, underscored that al Qaeda allies remain active in Afghanistan three weeks after a multiethnic, interim government replaced the Taliban in Kabul.
The Caribbean’s balmy year-round climate will allow the military to keep the detainees in outside cells.
But Cuba will be no vacation. The Taliban and the al Qaeda, who ran bin Laden’s terrorist training camps and helped keep the radical Taliban in power, will find minimal living conditions as the United States continues interrogations begun in Kandahar. The United States blames bin Laden and his al Qaeda network for the September 11 attacks on America.
President Bush has vowed to stamp out the global terror network, and officials view these first detainees as windows into how the group works.
The military is taking extraordinary security precautions, mindful that bin Laden’s warriors are much like the terrorists he sends overseas: murderous and suicidal. Each prisoner is shackled and secured to his seat while guarded by detachments of Army or Air Force military police.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon that he insisted the military study the Taliban-al Qaeda uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif and other incidents to learn how best to secure this extremely explosive prison population.
“They’re fully aware that these are dangerous individuals,” he said.
The Bush administration is evaluating each detainee’s role in al Qaeda, whether to charge them criminally and whether to try them in a civilian court or in a more restrictive military tribunal.
The detainees already have been photographed, fingerprinted, identified and questioned while in Afghanistan. In Cuba, they will be grilled again as new intelligence surfaces.
“The truth is that at some point you get what you think you can get from a given individual,” the defense secretary said, “but you know in the back of your mind that you may discover some intelligence material or a laptop or an address book in a house in Kabul that would connect this person. So you know that after you’ve gone through the first interrogation, it’s best to wait a bit and see what other kinds of information comes up from other people, from computers, from various other types of intelligence gathering.”
At “Gitmo,” as sailors affectionately call the base at Fidel Castro’s back door, the detainees will be held in fenced compounds fortified by razor wire and patrolled by military police and Marines. Spotlights will continuously highlight their small chain-link cells. The camp can now hold 100 prisoners. A more permanent facility now under construction will increase capacity to 2,000.
With the 20 en route to Cuba, 331 detainees are now being held in Kandahar and one, American Taliban member John Walker, at sea on an amphibious ship that carries Marines.
U.S. Central Command, which is running the campaign in Afghanistan, has not decided how many of the 331 will go to Cuba. Walker’s fate is being decided by the U.S. Justice Department and likely President Bush himself.
Anti-Taliban forces are thought to hold thousands of Taliban militia members.
The United States does not hold any top-level al Qaeda or Taliban members. Apparently, the highest bin Laden associate in custody is one of his terror camp directors turned over by Pakistan last week. On Sunday, American commandos captured two al Qaeda fighters of interest to interrogators and turned them over to authorities in Kandahar.
The Pentagon to date has declined to identify any of the detainees or describe their functions. Spokesmen have said information gathered from them and physical evidence such as computer hard drives and cell phones have allowed them to foil planned terror attacks. The intelligence gathering alone could go on for more than a year in Afghanistan.
“You don’t hurry through this,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “When you’re talking about defending against terrorist actions against this country and our friends and allies around the world, you take your time and you try to do it right. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Pentagon officials dismissed assertions made yesterday by the new governor of Kandahar that his forces accepted the surrenders of former Taliban Cabinet members and then released them back into Afghan society.
Mr. Rumsfeld has made it clear it wants the interim rulers to turn over to the United States any significant Taliban or al Qaeda members. The Pentagon fear is that remaining Taliban fighters will attempt to regroup and challenge the eventual elected rulers and that al Qaeda members will flee to another country to set up terror cells.