Estimate lowered of terrorists trained in Afghanistan

100,000 would include efforts against Soviets

The State Of The Union

January 30, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-The White House scaled back yesterday an estimate of the number of terrorist "killers" trained in Afghanistan after U.S. officials said they could not substantiate the figure used earlier on national television by a top presidential aide.

Providing highlights yesterday morning of President Bush's State of the Union message, adviser Karen Hughes told the CBS Early Show, "We now believe as many as 100,000 terrorist killers were trained in Afghanistan, and I think that illustrates the scope of the problem." She used the same number on NBC's Today show.

Later, another White House aide said he believed the figure was included in a late draft of the president's speech in an effort to make Americans aware of the continuing threat.

But the figure puzzled some analysts. Other U.S. officials said 15,000 to 20,000 fighters had been trained in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network since 1996. That was the year when the Taliban took over the country and provided sanctuary to bin Laden and his training camps.

When Bush delivered the speech last night, he used the term "tens of thousands" to describe the terrorists threatening the nation and the world.

"We certainly believe that they are in the thousands, possibly tens of thousands," a senior administration official told reporters at a pre-speech briefing. "Every day we are surprised at the scope and scale of this network."

Asked about the figure cited earlier by Hughes, the official said, "There is a universe of about 100,000 people who were trained in Afghanistan camps." The phrase "tens of thousands" fits the number trained since "the time of al-Qaida."

The total "universe" apparently also includes the many fighters from throughout the Muslim world who fought alongside the Afghan Mujahedeen in a decade-long battle backed by the United States to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

David Isby, a defense policy analyst and author of three books on Afghanistan, said, "If every foreigner who came through over 20 years is counted, you might get the 100,000 figure."

But many of these could not be described as hardened terrorists or even al-Qaida sympathizers, he said. Some barely did more than make a show of their solidarity with the Mujahedeen: "Most of them were `tourists' who got their picture taken and came home - especially prior to 1987."

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