What's Become Of Al-Qaeda?

The U.S. has killed or seized hundreds of bin Laden's fighters, but many are still on the loose. A progress report on the war on terror

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Is this an offer a terrorist can't refuse? The U.S. military wants to send hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives on an all-expense-paid, one-way trip from Kandahar to sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Before departing on a roomy Air Force cargo plane, prospective passengers spend time at the U.S. Marine base outside Kandahar, at the American-held airfield in Bagram or on board the U.S.S. Bataan in the Arabian Sea, joining one John Walker Lindh. There they are interrogated by FBI agents and military intelligence officials seeking clues to al-Qaeda terror plots and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants; the chattier "battlefield detainees" can expect their interviews to last for hours.

Last Thursday the first group of 20 al-Qaeda fighters--clean-shaven and manacled--boarded a C-17 cargo plane at the Kandahar airport for their journey to Cuba. Each received a complimentary orange jumpsuit to wear on board, as well as a personal escort of two U.S. soldiers for the duration of the 27-hr. flight. The Americans chained the prisoners to their seats and sedated at least one passenger, who they feared might get jumpy.

As the C-17 taxied on the runway, incandescent flares suddenly illuminated the darkness. With two Cobra attack helicopters providing close cover support, the cargo plane got off the ground. Eight minutes later, according to airport officials, a hail of AK-47 shots rattled the air. Three teams of anti-American bandits had slipped past defensive "strong points" set up outside the airport, advanced to within 300 yds. of the Marine base and peppered the foxholes on its perimeter. American soldiers responded with M-16, 240 Golf and M-249 machine-gun fire and 25-mm cannon shells. The firefight lasted 40 minutes. U.S. commanders at the base say the gunmen--who almost certainly belonged to al-Qaeda--weren't attempting a serious attack and probably didn't know about the secret transfer of prisoners. "I would call it a probe," says Captain Dan Greenwood, an operations officer at the base. "They didn't have a specific target; more testing our defenses." The Marines do not anticipate a full-scale military assault. "We see the most likely threat as an asymmetrical attack," says Lieut. James Jarvis, a Marine spokesman. That's another word for an act of terrorism, which is, after all, al-Qaeda's specialty.

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