U.S. moving to broaden terror battle

Military engagements outside Afghanistan appear to be likely

Al-Qaida is the priority

War On Terrorism

November 25, 2001|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - While the hunt for Osama bin Laden continues in Afghanistan's forbidding landscape, the United States is already looking farther afield in its anti-terror campaign.

Though hard-liners in the administration are pressing to make Iraq's Saddam Hussein the next target, the prevailing view in the government is that al-Qaida should remain the priority, even if bin Laden is caught.

The possibilities are strong for a future military action outside Afghanistan, officials say. But it might be limited to small raids in countries where bin Laden and his supporters have operated and whose governments cannot or will not cooperate with the United States in combating terrorism.

More important in the coming weeks and months will be the continuing diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence and financial efforts to disrupt al-Qaida. Cells of the terror group are thought to be located in up to 60 countries, from Spain to Malaysia and from Thailand to Ireland to South Africa.

The threat of military action might persuade reluctant governments to cooperate with the United States, administration officials say. Before bombing Afghanistan, they point out, President Bush gave the Taliban an ultimatum to turn over bin Laden and the al-Qaida leadership.

"It took us four weeks to begin military action against the Taliban," said Francis X. Taylor, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism. "That's gotten people's attention. People understand the United States is serious."

A sprawling network

Even as it presses its war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has begun to focus on fighting al-Qaida's sprawling international network by enlisting cooperative governments. Last week, Spain arrested eight men suspected of ties to al-Qaida. In Italy, anti-terrorist police raided the homes of Somali citizens linked to a financial network that allegedly helped bankroll bin Laden.

In some cases, the United States will avoid direct military involvement but will offer hardware and support to governments already taking action against groups associated with al-Qaida. In other instances, U.S. forces will wait for "targets of opportunity" to present themselves.

"We will address each presence [of al-Qaida] in terms that are most effective," a senior State Department official said.

One key site where the United States will support continuing military action is the Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf - a militant group with alleged ties to al-Qaida - is seeking to carve out an independent Islamic state. Last week, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo received pledges of counter-terror assistance from President Bush.

There is also the potential for stepped-up anti-terrorist activity in Yemen, whose president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, is to meet with Bush in Washington tomorrow.

In Yemen, the birthplace of bin Laden's father, U.S. officials are looking for ways to destroy al-Qaida elements hidden in the remote northwestern part of the country, where central government control is weak and strong tribal loyalties hold sway.

The U.S officer in charge of special operations in the region, Rear Adm. Albert M. Calland, met with Saleh two weeks ago, officials said. A military spokesman declined to confirm the meeting or comment on possible future operations.

Yemen's government has detained 10 people in connection with the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole, an American destroyer, in the port of Aden. Hundreds more have been detained because of suspected links with al-Qaida or pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Early next month, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, will visit Ethiopia for talks with the government on ways to destroy portions of the al-Qaida network in East Africa.

Pondering next strikes

In Washington, speculation about where the U.S. military might strike next against al-Qaida has focused heavily on the African nations of Somalia and Sudan.

Somalia, site of a 1993 ambush that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead, has emerged as a renewed area of concern in the fight against terrorism. One Somali militant group, al-Itihaad, has "hosted and facilitated" al-Qaida over the years, according to Ken Menkhaus, a former United Nations political adviser in Somalia who is a consultant to the State Department.

Al-Itihaad reportedly has a base of operations on Ras Kamboni Island in southern Somalia, which is used by al-Qaida for the transit of materials and personnel, according to J. Stephen Morrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But Africa specialists say the intelligence on the group is murky.

Somalia has refused to shut down financial operations linked to al-Qaida, according to U.S. officials. But given the murky intelligence on the country, officials and outside analysts question whether military action there would be effective.

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