Hunting Osama

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Every morning military brass in a nondescript office called the intelligence fusion cell at General Tommy Franks' U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., look up at wall charts for any changes on the lists. These are what the war in Afghanistan is all about: the scorecard of America's most wanted, the bad guys responsible for the global terror jihad, the men whom the Bush Administration has vowed to bring to justice--dead or alive. One list runs down roughly 40 senior Taliban leaders, coded by color as someone defects or is killed or negotiates to surrender. The other names the 20 or so top al-Qaeda terrorists Washington wants, starting with Osama bin Laden. Most of the names accompany color photographs of varying quality. When good news comes in, a fresh version is printed with a bold INJ or KIA (injured or killed) printed across the picture. "If there's nothing there," says a Pentagon official, "it means he's a work in progress."

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The rosters have been culled from CIA and Defense intelligence briefs, battlefield reports, local newspapers, spies, rumors. Every day the intelligence bloodhounds search for fresh clues on where these leaders might be and vacuum up electronic and human after-battle reports to see if they can cross another name off. But so far, the scorecard is all too blank. Pentagon list keepers say only three of the 20 men on the al-Qaeda list are thought to be dead; perhaps 12 of those on the Taliban list have been killed or wounded or have defected. On Saturday came word that the Taliban governor of Kandahar and a dozen of his commanders could be marked KIA, after a U.S. bomb took them out in a village outside the city.

Revving up the manhunt should get a bit easier. Opposition forces closed in on the Taliban's last stronghold at Kandahar last week. U.S. Marines were deployed on Afghan soil to seal off avenues of retreat. The fall of Kandahar--whether by surrender or defeat--will peel away the terrorists' last major base of support. But it still won't be enough to put an X through all the names on Tommy Franks' lists.

The biggest name stricken so far is Mohammed Atef, the al-Qaeda military-operations chief suspected of planning the Sept. 11 attacks, who was killed in a mid-November air strike. Two other high-ranking al-Qaeda lieutenants, Egyptians Fahmi Nasr (a.k.a. Mohammed Salah) and Tariq Anwar, senior leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, have also been marked KIA. The top commander of an al-Qaeda ally, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has reportedly been eliminated as well. But in some ways, Pentagon officials are even more eager to interrogate those taken alive. Defense Department officers have heard that Taliban intelligence chief Qari Ahmadullah is either in Northern Alliance custody or negotiating to surrender to rebel forces in Kandahar. Taliban sources claim he has gone home to Ghazni. He would be a potential gold mine if captured.

When Kabul fell, the Northern Alliance nabbed Ahmed Abdel Rahman, 28, the son of Omar Abdel Rahman, now jailed for life in a U.S. prison for plotting to blow up New York landmarks in 1993. Young Ahmed and his brother Mohammed, 29, still on the run, were sent to Afghanistan in 1988 as teen recruits in the Islamic holy war. Some U.S. officials think Ahmed could spill a trove of useful information, since he spent years at bin Laden's side. But so far, Ahmed has refused to cooperate with his captors, and U.S. officials say they have not yet had access to question him.

It's not easy to sort out the most wanted from the thousands of POWs in Northern Alliance hands. Interrogating prisoners can be deadly dangerous; it was in just such circumstances that CIA agent Johnny Micheal Spann died two Sundays ago. "They are people who don't walk up and volunteer their names and identification numbers with a sample of DNA," noted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "They blend into the other prisoners. It's a messy business."

American operatives have been able to listen in on--and suggest questions to--Northern Alliance interrogators. They are scavenging for any tidbit that could help locate the most wanted. While Washington is content to leave most prisoners in the hands of Afghan custodians, Rumsfeld made it plain that that did not apply to the men on Franks' lists. If those men are found, U.S. forces will take them into custody. But first someone has to catch the prey. The Pentagon is leery of crossing "the Mogadishu line," named for the deadly fiasco in 1993 in which 18 soldiers died trying to apprehend a Somali warlord. So the generals have not sent any Marines into Kandahar to knock on doors. The plan, rather, is to squeeze the holdout Taliban leaders inside a ring of air strikes and advancing opposition forces until they are killed, surrender or flee into the arms of their Afghan enemies.

Mullah Mohammed Omar is calling on his fighters "to achieve martyrdom" defending Kandahar to the last drop of blood. But bin Laden is evidently more interested in laying low and living to fight another day. (Notice we have not heard a word from him since his Taliban guardians started losing control of Afghanistan three weeks ago.) His range of motion has been seriously whittled away. Some warn that he may have already fled the country, though the Pentagon believes he has gone to ground in the most formidable hideout he can find.

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