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Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Analysis: Catching Bin Laden
black hawk helicopter
A helicopter-borne assault is an option
The possibility has been raised that the United States might attempt to capture its "prime suspect" in last week's attacks, Osama Bin Laden. BBC News Online's Gary Eason looks at how feasible that would be.

In Tom Clancy's bestseller Patriot Games - filmed with Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan - the American intelligence agency has access to remarkably high-resolution satellite images of a terrorist training camp - detailed enough to be able to identify individuals.

Later, heat-sensitive imaging allows the directors of a special forces operation to watch a night raid on the camp from their control room thousands of miles away.

The reality is rather different.

Finding Bin Laden

Western intelligence agencies do have access to satellite photos capable of resolving objects well under a metre in size.

Zhawar Kili satellite photo
Low-resolution Pentagon satellite image of Taleban base attacked in 1998
Different spectral bands, such as the infra red, can be used to tease out details even through camouflage.

Nevertheless, it would be impossible to distinguish one individual from another from such a distance.

If a target could be identified, satellite-derived data can be used to generate realistic "virtual reality" simulations for the training of personnel such as tank crews, pilots, and special forces.

Wary target

According to an analysis by the US Lawrence Livermore national security laboratory, it allows them to practise an attack, familiarising themselves with the terrain and throwing up any likely problems before they have to do it for real.

But you still have to know where to look - and the most sophisticated satellite is not going to find a man in a hole in a mountainside.

Osama Bin Laden knows he is a target: there are said to have been at least five attempts on his life.

He is presumed to be still in Afghanistan. But BBC Panorama reporter Jane Corbin says he is moving constantly - even his own people never know where he will spend the night.

He is said not to use a telephone or to have any electrical equipment near him, for fear of a hidden bomb or of electronic signals giving away his whereabouts.

Wider target

Nevertheless, the BBC has been told that signals intelligence satellites, designed to intercept radio and mobile phone traffic, have been "retasked" in the hunt for him.

In the realm of more conventional, human intelligence - the use of spies and informers - counter-terrorism and security analyst Colonel Mike Dewar says the capabilities of the American CIA in the Middle East are very limited. It will be dependent on input from allies.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus said an attack would be easier if it involved a larger number of targets - going after 30 people and getting 15 might rate as a success, where aiming for one and missing would not.

"If you are going after one, it really is a needle in a haystack."

Getting him

The Americans are said to have planned an operation aimed at capturing Osama Bin Laden last year, using Delta Force commandos operating out of neighbouring Tajikistan.

Following last week's attacks in the United States, Tajikistan has said it will not co-operate with any international operation against Afghanistan pending Moscow's approval.

But Jonathan Marcus says this might be for public consumption. In practice, who is going to know if elite forces are infiltrated through a remote airstrip on the border - some reports say they are there already, either in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan or Pakistan.

A former Pakistani diplomat has told the BBC that the US was planning military action against Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban even before last week's attacks.

Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, said he was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action would start by the middle of October, from bases in Tajikistan, where American advisers were already in place.

'Too many imponderables'

Former SAS man Ken Connor, author of a history of the elite British regiment, said the difficulty would be to get a suitable launch point for what would almost certainly be a helicopter-borne force.

"Helicopters have a limited range, and even with air-to-air refuelling, they don't go very fast. Also they make a lot of noise.

"There are too many imponderables for a mission of this kind. And if it goes wrong, it's a disaster."

The Americans' planned assault last year is said to have been abandoned at the last minute for fear there would be too many casualties.

The most recent similar scenario would be the successful operation by British paratroops a year ago to rescue seven hostages held by the West Side Boys militia in their jungle hideout in Sierra Leone.

Up to 150 troops and five helicopters took part in the two-pronged assault.

Israeli attacks

But this was against a rag-tag group which included women and children - Bin Laden controls a much more hardened fighting force.

Any force that attempted to seize Bin Laden would be likely to hit fierce resistance.

Bringing him out might not trouble the US president, who has referred to the old Western poster "Wanted: Dead or Alive".

Israel's attacks on Palestinian militants provide perhaps the closest parallel - which illustrates how very different things are in Afghanistan.

"The Israelis have extraordinary levels of intelligence - they seem to know the movements of senior people all the time and can pick them off," Jonathan Marcus said.

But they were operating in "a microcosm" in which their targets had very clearly defined organisational structures - and they were not afraid to do things which were highly controversial.

Ken Connor also said that a factor in any SAS planning would be that not only do you have to get in - you have to get out again.

"It's all got to be do-able," he said.

"And unless things change quite dramatically, I can't see it being do-able."

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See also:

18 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Spy satellites retasked
12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban tense as US seeks targets
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Bin Laden's command structure
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
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