U.S. bombs al-Qaida complex

Pentagon thinks bin Laden may have been at scene; allies prepare attack on group in Somalia

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Jan. 4 — A U.S. attack on a Taliban leadership compound in Afghanistan was based on intelligence that Osama bin Laden may have been spotted there, NBC News has learned. U.S. officials said they were certain that leaders of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network were killed, but that they would not know whether bin Laden was among them until special forces could inspect the site.

THE STRIKES, which were reportedly very heavy and continued into Friday, were a sharp return to use of air power in the U.S. campaign against bin Laden's organization, which is believed to have carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The attack came as the United States and other Western nations prepared for possible strikes in Somalia on a radical group with ties to bin Laden and al-Qaida, U.S. officials told NBC News.

In what officials described as a ferocious attack, four Navy FA-18s and four B-1 bombers pounded the al-Qaida base outside Khost, the area of caves and tunnels in Tora Bora that it had used as a hiding place.

The planes dropped as many as 100 2,000-pound bombs before an AC-130 gunship moved in to wipe out survivors at the terrorist compound near the Pakistani border, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported from the Pentagon.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed at the daily Pentagon news briefing that the complex had been attacked at 8 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. ET) Thursday, but he said only that “there was activity that wanted to be hit” at the site.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported that the airstrikes continued into Friday and at least two people were wounded.

U.S. officials told NBC later on condition of anonymity that within the prior 24 hours, an unmanned Air Force Predator drone surveillance plane had spotted a convoy at the complex accompanied by the same kind of security that usually surrounds bin Laden. Although bin Laden himself was not seen, additional intelligence reports put him at the scene, said the officials, who said they acknowledged that the conclusion could be wishful thinking.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that he thought U.S. forces might have hit the compound at Khost earlier last year. He did not elaborate, but the Army’s Central Command, which is overseeing the war in Afghanistan, has acknowledged that an errant U.S. bomb hit a mosque near the compound in Khost in November.

The compound, an elaborate and well-appointed complex of buildings known as Zhawar Kili Al-Badr, is the same installation that the United States attacked with cruise missiles in August 1998 in retaliation for the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


Rumsfeld said the attack illustrated that even if bin Laden and the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, were captured, “our job would still be far from over. ... We continue to get additional intelligence information, which reinforces our conviction as to the breadth and depth of that terrorist network.”

“It is a terrorist network,” he said at the Pentagon briefing. “And they do have training camps around the world.”

Rumsfeld would not talk in specifics about what action U.S. forces might take in other countries, but other U.S. officials confirmed a report in Thursday’s Washington Times that preparations were under way for a possible attack on a Somali organization linked to al-Qaida.

The organization, al-Ittihad al-Islami, or AIAI, is believed to have been involved in the 1993 killings of 18 U.S. Army rangers in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Formed in the early 1990s to set up a hard-line Islamist state in Somalia, it is one of the groups on the U.S. list of organizations believed to support terrorist activities.

Walter Kansteiner, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said last month in a speech in South Africa that U.S. officials had “reason to believe that there have been flows of people and money through al-Qaida-AIAI connections, and we are looking for ways to close off that connection and capability.”

He did not say what action U.S. officials might take, but U.S. officials told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on condition of anonymity that U.S., British and French spy planes were increasing their surveillance flights over Somalia in preparation for possible attacks on AIAI bases.

The officials said the group, which was believed to have about 1,000 hard-core members and several thousand more followers, got weapons and money from bin Laden and was harboring al-Qaida members.

Vice President Dick Cheney said last month that Somalia posed a serious threat to U.S. security, and Somalia’s opposition Rahanwein Resistance Army said its leaders met recently with U.S. military officers.


Meanwhile, negotiations for the surrender of as many as 2,000 Taliban holdouts in Afghanistan’s Helmand province continued Thursday. The Associated Press, quoting an Afghan intelligence official, reported that the negotiations had reached a “crucial stage” and that a resolution was expected soon.

The Taliban forces are thought to have fled to the Baghran mountains, and it was expected that most would be allowed to return to their homes once they surrendered their weapons and vehicles.

Anti-Taliban officials in Kandahar told the AP on condition of anonymity that local tribal leaders conducting the negotiations had been given “a clear message” to give up Omar or face airstrikes from U.S.-led forces. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon briefing that the United States was not involved in the negotiations and would accept only Omar’s unconditional surrender.

NBC News’ Chip Reid reported from Kabul that U.S. defense officials were skeptical that Omar was involved in any way. Many Afghan officials agreed, telling Reid that neither Omar nor bin Laden was likely to be captured any time in the near future.