War on terror beginning with a hunt in the mountains

Saturday, September 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It's being called a war on terrorism, but so far it's shaping up as a hunt, one where high-tech hounds search for a scent, the hunting grounds are the size of Texas, and the foxes shoot back.

And the search is already under way.

Bush administration officials acknowledge U.S. and British special forces have been in Afghanistan on scouting missions, though they aren't yet searching for Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The main weapons could be super-secret special forces, or Tomahawk cruise missiles, or jet bombers.

The task of finding bin Laden in his hiding places _ falls to a variety of intelligence-gathering people and platforms, from battle-ready commandos to U-2 spy planes to satellites in orbit.

The chase ``will require the best of intelligence'' and unconventional warfare, Bush said Friday. ``We're in hot pursuit.''

U.S. officials won't reveal how precise a fix they have on bin Laden, who has proved elusive for years, instead saying only that he is still in Afghanistan and moves frequently throughout the mountainous country.

The quarry is safest if it doesn't move and stays silent. If bin Laden changes location, or communicates, he runs a risk of being detected, said Michael Vickers, a former officer in both the Special Forces and the CIA. He's now Director of Strategic Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

On-the-ground intelligence is essential, Vickers and other experts say. For all the U.S. satellites and surveillance aircraft, nothing beats a human being seeing a target with his own eyes.

Best equipped for the mission are elite U.S. and British special forces, who can identify and follow targets, even designate them with lasers for bombs launched from high above.

The Army's Green Berets and Rangers and British Special Air Service units are good bets to conduct these missions. As the Green Berets did in the Gulf War, these soldiers can infiltrate an area undetected and keep watch on a particular place, calling in strikes when the time is right.

Navy SEALS and the Marine Corps' Force Recon are also trained for such missions, but they usually operate closer to shore, Vickers said. The CIA also has its own paramilitary unit, but Vickers said their specialty is covert action during peacetime.

The commandos may be dropped into dangerous territory by elite Army or Air Force pilots flying stealthy helicopters or C-130 planes that hug the ground to avoid detection.

But that doesn't mean ``human intelligence'' provided by the CIA isn't also a factor. The agency has had a difficult time penetrating terrorist groups, but if its officers have recruited supporters near bin Laden, they may provide his whereabouts to U.S. forces.

The search will also be conducted from the sky. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged the United States lost a drone over Afghanistan, probably a Predator or similar unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the military and CIA.

These drones can transmit video and intercept communications, providing tactical intelligence to U.S. forces with no risk to American personnel.

From high above, high-flying U-2s will take photographs and listen for bin Laden to make a phone call. Patrolling Afghanistan's borders will be modified 707s with big noses, called RC-135 ``Rivet Joints,'' tapping military and civilian communications from friendly airspace.

Back in the United States, analysts at the National Security Agency will translate any intercepted communications and poll them for useful information about bin Laden's whereabouts.

Imagery satellites aren't yet good enough to provide real-time tracking of bin Laden or Taliban forces, Vickers said. But they can photograph terrorist camps and Taliban troop concentrations. Other satellites can tap communications.

However, bin Laden's people are believed to be practiced at avoiding many of these efforts to track them, hiding in caves and using couriers, rather than phones, to communicate.

Diplomatic efforts to persuade Afghanistan's neighbors to close their borders and deny bin Laden avenues of escape can limit the scope of their search. They, as well as rebel groups opposed to the Taliban, can guide U.S. and British trackers to their quarry. Longshot efforts remain underway to persuade the Taliban to offer up bin Laden, as well.

If bin Laden is found, the U.S. forces may attack, with the goal of killing him or capturing him. Catching him alive would again be the province of U.S. Special Forces.

The commandos could also kill him in a raid, or call in air or missile strikes, summoning the heavy hitters of the Navy and Air Force that have been moved to the region recently. Several cruisers, destroyers and submarines in the region can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Arabian Sea. Both aircraft carriers and air bases in the region can launch fighters and bombers to conduct air strikes.