U.S. and allied military forces are stepping up aerial-reconnaissance flights over Somalia in preparation for raids against al Qaeda terrorist bases in the north African nation, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Intelligence reports also disclosed that some 100 al Qaeda terrorists were identified recently in Somalia. The terrorists were spotted as part of the Islamic rebel group there known as Al-Ittihad Al-Islam, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Mogadishu-based group, known as AIAI, is linked to Somali warlord Hussein Mohammed Aideed and has close ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist group in Afghanistan.
“Somalia will likely be next,” said one defense official familiar with defense planning.
Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, said U.S. forces are “on the hunt” for ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is believed to be hiding in an area northwest of Kandahar.
U.S. and allied forces also continued to search for bin Laden, the terrorist leader behind the September 11 attacks, whose last known location was the mountains south of Jalalabad.
The reconnaissance flights over Somalia include aerial surveillance by U.S. EP-3, British Nimrod and French Atlantique aircraft, the officials said. The number of flights increased sharply last week, they said.
The aircraft are helping identify targets for future bombing raids, such as terrorist training camps in the southern and northern parts of Somalia and port facilities, the official said.
U.S. intelligence reports over the last several months have stated that weapons from terrorists in Afghanistan have been transported to Somalia on the Horn of Africa.
The head of U.S. special operations commandos yesterday said bin Laden is not likely to be found alive in Tora Bora caves.
“I don’t think he’s up there. What we’ve brought up there [to search] was pretty significant,” Col. John Mulholland said at a Special Forces base outside Afghanistan. “I do think he’s either dead, buried under some tonnage of rock, or he’s out of there.”
In Kandahar, Afghan officials said they are negotiating for the surrender of Mullah Omar without fighting.
“We are still in contact with the people there to find a way to end this issue peacefully,” an official working for intelligence chief Haji Gulalai told Reuters.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the negotiations were not specifically directed at Mullah Omar.
“But I think it’s a leap of faith if we believe that that is on the benefit or on the behalf of Mullah Omar himself,” Adm. Stufflebeem said. “These are Taliban forces that are looking to negotiate themselves out of a predicament with anti-Taliban forces.”
Mullah Omar used a lull in fighting around Kandahar last month, ostensibly for negotiations with anti-Taliban forces, to escape the city that had been surrounded.
Mr. Gulalai is leading efforts to find Mullah Omar, who has been pinpointed to a location near Baghran, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. About 1,500 Taliban fighters are said to be protecting the militia leader.
U.S. Special Forces troops are involved in a military operation to catch Mullah Omar, according to news agency reports from Afghanistan. Marines also are taking part.
In Kabul, foreign military forces began arriving to participate in an international peacekeeping force. “Today marks the arrival of the multinational [reconnaissance] party from all the troop-contributing nations that intend to place forces into the International Security Assistance Force,” British Col. Richard Barrons said.
Meanwhile, U.S. defense and intelligence officials said the military believes that a bombing raid last week killed Taliban intelligence chief Qari Ahmadullah.
Marines in southern Afghanistan searched a former Taliban and al Qaeda compound in the region Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command said.
The intelligence-gathering mission with some 200 Marines was one of several operations during the past several weeks, according to Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the command in Tampa, Fla.
Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, said the United States expects the anti-Taliban forces to turn over Mullah Omar if he is captured.
“It’s been made very clear that we expect to have control of him,” she said. “We’ve made it very, very clear consistently what we expect the disposition of these people should be, particularly the leadership.”
In a related development, 11 more al Qaeda prisoners were turned over to the United States and taken to a detention center on a U.S. base near Kandahar, the Pentagon said. The additional prisoners bring the total number in custody to 221.
Adm. Stufflebeem said U.S. forces are seeking information that will assist in shutting down and finding al Qaeda terrorists. “We are casting a relatively wide net to build intelligence,” he said, referring to the work of 200 Marines north of Kandahar.
Meanwhile, several hundred members of the Army’s front-line 101st Airborne Division have arrived at a military base in Kandahar in transports during the past several days.
The last time bombs were dropped was Friday near Gardez, when a compound occupied by Taliban forces was hit, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Adm. Stufflebeem also said U.S. special-operations forces are searching caves near Tora Bora for evidence and terrorist leaders.