Bush Puts New Focus On Bin Laden, Al-Qaida

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NPR has learned that the Bush administration is pushing for increased military action along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The plan is part of an effort to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders by the time the president leaves office.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We have an exclusive report now on the Pentagon's efforts to go after al-Qaida and the Taliban in the mountains of Northwest Pakistan. NPR has learned that last week's raid by U.S. special operations forces into Pakistan from Afghanistan is part of a new intensified effort to go after terrorists between now and Election Day. NPR's Tom Bowman is here with the story. Tom, what have you learned?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Melissa, government sources tell my colleague Tom Gjelten in May that this is the first phase of three phases offer, a three-paced operation. It's an intensified effort to go after Bin Laden and the likes of him and others in the tribal areas of Pakistan as well as Taliban leaders. And another source says that the CIA's armed (unintelligible) military units as well as analysts are being pulled from other parts of the world to focus just on this area.

BLOCK: Are members of Congress in the loop?

BOWMAN: They were informed about this in the past week just before the New York Times broke the story on the raid itself, the raid that took part - that took place last week. And our sources say that - some sources say they got warned of this effort as early as last July, that they knew this was coming. And there's a concern, I think, in the political impact of this in Pakistan, um, raid across the border into Pakistan could destabilize the new government, for example.

It could also make the Pakistanis reluctant to allow, you know, their logistic lines form Pakistan into Afghanistan are key getting many materials into Afghanistan for the fight in Afghanistan. So, there's a lot of worry about the political fallout of this as well.

BLOCK: And the authority for this coming from?

BOWMAN: The (unintelligible) comes from the president himself. And he already gave authority for the intelligence community to do this. There'd been some step up efforts to use predator drones, which can fire missiles. And we've seen a number of more missiles fired over the past. What's new here is giving the military authority to do this.

We're also told that this Navy SEAL team on stand by in Afghanistan, ready to mount these missions. And we expect more in the coming weeks and months.

BLOCK: And Tom, we've referred to the timing of all of this. Talk about that.

BOWMAN: Well, some of our sources are raising questions about why now. Seven years after the fall of the Taliban, why is there an intense effort here? Some are pointing to political reasons, saying that (unintelligible) has a few months left, they want to have a pelt on the wall, maybe Bin Laden or other, because there's legacy building time. But that's, again, just speculation. But a lot of people are raising that question.

BLOCK: September surprise or October surprise?

BOWMAN: Could be October surprise.

BLOCK: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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Pakistan Raid Start Of Concerted Bid To Hit Al-Qaida

NPR has learned that the raid by helicopter-borne U.S. Special Operations forces in Pakistan last week was not an isolated incident but part of a three-phase plan, approved by President Bush, to strike at Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida leadership.

The plan calls for a much more aggressive military campaign, said one source, familiar with the presidential order, which gives the green light for the military to take part in the operations. The plan represents an 11th-hour effort to hammer al-Qaida until the Bush administration leaves office, two government officials told NPR.

"Definitely, the gloves have come off," said a source who has been briefed on the plan. "This was only Phase 1 of three phases."

Pentagon and White House officials have declined to discuss the new plan.

The intelligence community already had approval from the president to carry out operations inside Pakistan, which included attacks by Predator drones, which can carry 100-pound Hellfire missiles.

Additional authority came from the president just recently that allowed incursions by U.S. Special Operations forces, the source said.

A second source said that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were briefed on the new plan shortly before The New York Times broke the story this week about the Special Operations raid from Afghanistan into Pakistan. The source also said that CIA personnel from around the world were being pulled into the Afghan-Pakistan border area, an intelligence-community "surge" to go after bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures.

There was concern by some lawmakers about the political ramifications in Pakistan. The Pakistan government is offering some cooperation in halting the cross-border attacks by Islamist fighters from the tribal areas into Afghanistan. And Pakistan is a key logistics route for U.S. equipment heading into Afghanistan.

Should the U.S. raids continue on Pakistani soil, there is fear that the Pakistani government may halt — or at least curtail — its cooperation with American counterterrorist efforts in the border area. A military source says that the Pakistani government side is given little prior notice of the American military activity.

There have been some complaints within the military that the Pakistanis, even before last week's raid, were not doing enough to stop the cross-border attacks. And the nation's leaders are balking at allowing more Special Operations forces inside Pakistan to train the country's security forces. Currently, the Pentagon does some limited training of short duration, defense sources say.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this week that he is drafting a new military strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he mentioned that he continues to press Pakistani military and government leaders to do more to curtail the activities of Islamist extremists in the tribal lands.

The raid last week by an elite U.S. Navy SEAL team was a planned operation that took place miles inside Pakistan and led to the deaths of at least nine and as many as 20 individuals — some of them civilians. Sources say the raid was part of a "snatch and grab" operation aimed at Taliban or al-Qaida figures.

A powerful AC-130 gunship, essentially a flying battleship, was used in the operation. The SEAL team members were flown out of Pakistan by helicopter into Afghanistan. A western military source says a SEAL team remains on standby for similar missions on short notice.

"They were definitely after al-Qaida forces," said one of the sources. "But the bleedover between those two," he added, referring to the Taliban, "is significant."

Both sources say those in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill are raising questions about the political intent of this new aggressive stance.

"The question is," said one of the sources, "Why wasn't this done a year ago?"

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