The Taliban militia, which says it has been harboring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, has been demanding convincing evidence that bin Laden was responsible for the recent attacks on New York and Washington. Now, senior U.S. officials say they will produce just such evidence -- not to satisfy the Taliban but to convince its allies that a strike against bin Laden is justified.
Washington, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government is promising to release evidence that it says will convince the world the exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden is responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September.
The Taliban militia -- which controls most of Afghanistan and which says it is allowing bin Laden to stay in that country -- says it will not surrender bin Laden without such evidence.
Senior officials in the government of U.S. President George W. Bush say the evidence is not meant to satisfy the Taliban but to show the members of America's coalition allies in the campaign against international terrorism that they are justified in making bin Laden their first target.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did not say when or how the evidence would be released. But in an appearance yesterday on the American television news program "This Week," he said it would be convincing.
"We are putting all the information that we have together -- the intelligence information, the information being generated by the FBI [U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation] and other law enforcement agencies. And I think we will put before the world, the American people, a persuasive case that there will be no doubt, when that case is presented, that it is Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, who has been responsible for this terrible tragic situation."
There has been concern within some quarters of the Bush administration that an aggressive military assault on bin Laden -- a devout Muslim who claims to be acting in the interests of Islam -- could weaken the coalition that the U.S. is trying to build. Many states that Washington is trying to enlist have large groups of their populations who admire bin Laden's brand of strict Islam.
There have been news reports of a rift between two factions in the administration. One, led by Powell, espouses a measured response to the terror attacks that will not appear to some countries as retaliation that is as bloody and indiscriminate as the attacks on Washington. They also want to ensure that the U.S. response is not seen as a war on Islam, but a war on specific terrorists.
According to these accounts, the other faction is led by Vice President Richard Cheney -- who served as defense secretary under Bush's father, President George Bush -- and the current defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. This faction reportedly is less concerned with the sensibilities of some nations and more interested in taking the kind of decisive military action against terrorists -- and their supporters -- that the West has so far failed to take in the past.
Whichever faction eventually persuades Bush of the merits of its argument likely will control when, where, and how the U.S. will eventually mount its anti-terror campaign.
Powell and Rumsfeld played down these reports yesterday. Powell recalled Bush's speech on 20 September, in which the American president told nations that if they continue to support terrorist groups in any way, they will suffer consequences. Powell said these could be economic consequences or, as he put it, "other kinds of consequences."
An interviewer said Powell, who served under the elder Bush as the nation's highest-ranking general, did not sound as warlike as some other members of the current Bush administration. Powell replied that the only person with whom he tries to be consistent is Bush himself.
"All of his cabinet-level security advisers are in agreement with the policy direction he has given us, with the instructions he has given us, the decisions he has made. Mr. Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, myself, Dr. [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice, the secretary of the treasury, the [director of the] FBI, the attorney general, all working together, understand the instructions the president has given us."
Rumsfeld also sought to dismiss the reports. Speaking with reporters after a television appearance, the defense secretary portrayed the administration as unified.
"We [Colin Powell and I] do not have differences, we are close friends, and I have a great deal of respect for him. Human beings say things in different ways. There is no question but that he and the president and I are all in agreement that coalitions are enormously valuable."
At the same time, Rumsfeld acknowledged that there may be differences among members of the coalition. And he made light of these differences.
"No one agrees with everybody all the time on everything. Even my wife doesn't agree with me all the time."
But Rumsfeld also made it clear that the campaign against terrorism is more important to him than the coalition.
"The mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not be permitted to determine the mission. The president has stated the mission. It is clear: We are going to have different countries, and different people in different countries, supporting us with respect to these activities, and possibly not those."
In separate television appearances, Rumsfeld and Rice also were asked about the Taliban's claim earlier in the day that its envoys could not find bin Laden in Afghanistan. Bush has warned the militia that it must surrender the Saudi exile or face the same fate as bin Laden does. Subsequently, a conclave of Muslim clerics decided that the Taliban's best policy would be to invite bin Laden to leave of his own free will.
But yesterday, the Taliban's envoy to Pakistan reported that the militia could not find bin Laden to deliver the clerics' decision.
This announcement was greeted in Washington by incredulity and even derision. Asked about the statement, Rice said, "We don't simply believe it." Rumsfeld referred to the claim disparagingly while explaining to reporters how he believes certain factions within the Taliban can be expected to defect when they see that the U.S. is determined to punish bin Laden and those who harbor him.
"As they [Taliban dissidents] then incrementally move away and decide that they're not going to be supportive of that faction within Taliban -- the faction that is pretending they don't know where the Al-Qaeda organization is located, which is laughable -- some of the Taliban [will] say, 'Well, it could get uncomfortable supporting those people, so I think I'll shift sides.'"
The defense secretary also confirmed that the U.S. armed forces had lost contact with an unmanned reconnaissance plane during a flight over Afghanistan. But he said he could not confirm an assertion by the Taliban that the militia had shot it down. He also said he was not at liberty to give any further details about the aircraft.
And Powell was asked about reports that the U.S. government is bracing for new terrorist attacks in the coming weeks. Powell declined to discuss any specifics, but he added that this is a time when America must be especially vigilant.
Illustrating this heightened state of alert in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Commission, which regulates aircraft nationwide, forbade the use of "crop dusters" -- small planes that spray pesticides on fields of crops. The agency's aim was to prevent what it called a possible biological- or chemical-weapons attack.