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.
Two months after the U.S. and its Afghan allies crushed the Taliban, the military campaign has not extinguished the lethal ambition of bin Laden's followers. The harrowing threat still posed by al-Qaeda was highlighted last week in Singapore, a beacon of law and order, where authorities announced the arrest of a group of suspected terrorists, linked to bin Laden, for plotting to blow up U.S. Navy vessels, American airplanes, office buildings, houses and the embassies of the U.S., Israel, Britain and Australia. Since Sept. 11, law-enforcement authorities from Hamburg to Kampala to Jakarta have pooled intelligence to root out al-Qaeda sleepers, but the crackdown has slowed as suspects have gone further underground; so far authorities have apprehended only a small fraction of the global network's malefactors. In Afghanistan vestigial al-Qaeda forces appear determined to stage a calamitous attack on U.S. troops. In late December the Marines closed their Kandahar base to conduct background checks on journalists assigned there; American special forces had learned that al-Qaeda operatives were posing as journalists to enter the base and map the Marines' gun pits.
Even with a post-Taliban government in place and international peacekeepers patrolling the streets of Kabul, the 4,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are still on the prowl, searching for more al-Qaeda militants to dispatch to Guantanamo. But the trail of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan grows colder every day. Local warlords say that for each one of the 445 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the custody of U.S. troops, dozens more have slipped away--many south and east to the tribal lands of Pakistan; others west to Iran; a few, perhaps, to points beyond, such as Somalia or the Sudan.
The U.S. believes hundreds of al-Qaeda-trained terrorists still lurk in Afghanistan, but they are often impossible to detect. "We don't know how many people have changed their turbans and melted away to fight another day," says a U.S. counter-terrorism official. For the first time American military commanders admitted that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar may have escaped U.S. bombings--and, perhaps, flat out escaped--but the Administration doesn't want to talk about it. "We've been walking somewhat close to the edge of the ice in describing where somebody was, where we think somebody is or where they're not," said Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem. From now on, he said, "we will stop speculating openly" about where the quarry has gone.
As they confronted the idea that U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, for all its successes, has so far failed to deliver on its principal aims--capturing or killing bin Laden and shutting down his network--American officials last week tried to direct public attention away from the manhunt. Months of withering U.S. raids have leveled al-Qaeda's training camps and communications facilities and scattered its forces, and U.S. soldiers continue to seize potential intelligence troves like computer hard drives, videos and cell phones. "It's not just about Osama bin Laden," said Pentagon spokesman Torie Clarke. On the other side of the world in Kandahar, the Marines stuck to the same script. "We have had some opportunities to go to different spots where al-Qaeda might be," says Lieut. Jarvis. "Anytime we do an operation like this, we're going to find something."