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Pentagon Says Airstrikes Hit Taliban Leadership Compound when Mullah Mohammad Omar May Have Been There

Aired November 28, 2001 - 07:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Is the Taliban supreme leader dead or alive? U.S. warplanes strike a compound where he was thought to be staying. We're going to have the latest live from Afghanistan to the Pentagon.

Good morning. Thank you very much for joining us this morning. Good to have you with us. It is Wednesday, November 28. From New York, I'm Paula Zahn.

Here are some of the major questions we're going to be looking at at this hour. Is Mullah Omar dead? U.S. warplanes hit a site where he and other Taliban leaders may have been. Also, terrorists in America -- how has the U.S. avoided other major terrorist attacks? Are the attorney general's strict new measures getting the job done?

And in New York at ground zero, is the air hazardous?

First, the latest headlines. For that, we turn to Bill Hemmer, who's standing by in Atlanta with our war alert -- good morning, Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, good morning to you.

Here's what's happening. The Taliban saying an area bombed yesterday by U.S. warplanes was not a leadership compound. They say Taliban leader Mohammad Omar was not there and that Omar is safe and unharmed.

U.S. planes were acting on intelligence reports that Taliban and al Qaeda leaders might be in the compound southeast of Kandahar. Precision guided bombs were dropped and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld followed that action from central command headquarters in Florida.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There has been an attack on, from the air, on a leadership compound southeast of Kandahar and I suspect they may very well end up showing some pictures of that tomorrow.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Any word if any notables were hit there? RUMSFELD: It's, again, we're not physically in the compound and whoever was there is going to wish they weren't.


HEMMER: Regarding al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Taliban spokesman said earlier today, "We do not know his whereabouts. He is not in our territory."

A search is on in the Indian Ocean for a crew member of a navy warship, the USS Russell about 740 miles southwest of India when a morning roll call revealed that Petty Officer Second Class Randy Glenn Witaker (ph) of Texas was missing. A search of the ship turned up no sign of Witaker. The ocean waters are now being searched.

The federal government detaining nearly 600 people in the investigation that began after the attacks of 9-11. Most are accused of violating immigration rules and the attorney general, John Ashcroft, said that about 100 are charged with federal crimes.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives. We're removing suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets to prevent further terrorist attack. We believe we have al Qaeda membership in custody and we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up.


HEMMER: About half of those who are charged with federal crimes are now free on bond.

Two aid workers recently airlifted out of Afghanistan say they were well treated by the Taliban during months of detention. Heather Mercer and Danya Curry among eight aid workers left in a jail south of Kabul, freed by local people and then taken out of Afghanistan by U.S. helicopter. The Taliban charged them with preaching Christianity. They talked last night with CNN's Larry King.


DANYA CURRY: They really did treat us well, and even some of us, told us we were like their sisters and treated us exceptionally well considering. I mean I was angry at how I saw the Afghan women being treated, but I've fully forgiven them in my heart because I don't think they fully understand what they were doing.

HEATHER MERCER: My heart is in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are some of the most amazing people I've ever met and it's going to be a process. There's a lot to talk through, a lot of decisions to make, like Danya said. But I do hope to be a part of seeing this nation rebuilt, for sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HEMMER: President Bush, you may remember, on Monday welcomed Mercer and Curry home during a White House meeting. The two women are said to have then gone shopping. Not a bad place to go to get back to normal.

Also in Washington, Senate Republicans say they want to give working Americans and their companies a holiday from Social Security taxes. Senator Pete Domenici proposing the payroll tax be suspended for the month of December as part of an economic stimulus package. The 12.4 percent tax, split evenly between the worker and the company in that plan. The tax holiday would cost about $38 billion. A lot more on this throughout the days and weeks ahead. Now back to New York -- and Paula, see you again in about, oh, 25 minutes time.

ZAHN: All right, look forward to it. Thanks, Bill.

As you just heard, the Pentagon says airstrikes hit a Taliban leadership compound at a time when Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar may have been there.

CNN Pentagon's Bob Franken traveled with the secretary of defense yesterday -- Bob, good morning. What more can you tell us now?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, while he was there and while he wasn't appearing in front of cameras during his tour of the central command, which is headquartered near Tampa, he slipped into a room and watched live televised images of the compound that was about to be hit. Now, according to Rumsfeld, that they don't know who they got, if anybody was in there. You heard just a moment ago when he was talking to reporters on the plane as we flew back.

But various sources at the Pentagon say that intelligence on the ground had suggested that Omar would be there. They don't know if he was. A spokesman for Omar, as you know, has said that he is safe and unharmed, that it wasn't a leadership compound.

What happens in these cases is that it sometimes takes a day or two for the intelligence sources to go back and sort out just who was there. Recently, one of the top Taliban -- al Qaeda leaders was found to have been killed in one of those bombing raids on a leadership compound and so there's some expectation here. But absolutely no new evidence yet -- Paula.

ZAHN: I'm sorry, Bob. I was getting a little interference in my ear. I didn't realize you had wrapped it up there. Thanks so much. Check back in with you a little bit later on this morning.

We we've reported, the Taliban is denying its leader is dead or injured.

Let's go back to Afghanistan, where CNN's Christiane Amanpour joins us now from Kabul -- Christiane, what's the latest from there?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest is really from Pakistan on this particular issue that you're reporting, and it's the Pakistan, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan who's been saying, again, that Mullah Omar has not been hurt, that he is "safe" and that this attack by the United States, they are claiming, was not on a leadership target.

Of course, we have absolutely no way of confirming the claim. We also have no way of confirming what the U.S. hit there because, as you know, Western journalists are banned from Kandahar under the Taliban and there are almost no journalists able to see what the U.S. military is doing.

So this is extremely difficult to pinpoint this very important matter that obviously everybody is very interested in, including, of course, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Now, it's very unclear where he is, of course. U.S. forces looking for him, trying to tighten the noose against him. The Taliban representative again saying today that Osama bin Laden is not in areas under Taliban control. This contrasts with what both Northern Alliance officials here in Kabul feel. They feel that Osama bin Laden is probably somewhere in the Kandahar region or, indeed, in Jalalabad, and according to what the public statements coming from the U.S. are, that's what the U.S. thinks, as well.

So we're still waiting and watching to see what was the result of that hit last night -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Christiane, thanks so much for that update.

So, with the fate of the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, still in question, we ask Larry Johnson, formerly a member of the State Department's Office of Counter-Terrorism how Omar's death might impact the future of the Taliban. Larry Johnson joins us now from Washington. Welcome back. Good to see you this morning.


ZAHN: You know -- hi. You, no doubt, have heard what Bob Franken just reported out of the Pentagon, that intelligence sources there are saying that Omar was on the ground at the time of this attack. If he was killed, what next? What does that mean?

JOHNSON: Well, if he's killed, this is, again, further taking apart the leadership that has allowed al Qaeda to be a force in the world. And I think we have to draw the parallel with what happened in Nazi Germany when we saw their key leaders, Hitler die, when Goehring was taken into custody and others. Once that leadership falls apart, it is very difficult for those, you know, the troops to go forward.

So this is going to be important.

It sends another important message. During the Gulf War, the United States, by sticking to the agreement we made with the international community and leaving Saddam Hussein alive, it was perceived in that part of the world as weakness on our part. I think the question of U.S. weakness is going to be done away with now. They recognize that once you stir us up, once you kill our people, we're going to come after you and we're going to eliminate you. And Mullah Omar can bargain all he wants, but his days are numbered.

ZAHN: Have you gotten any special insights this morning from any of your contacts about the effectiveness of that bombing?

JOHNSON: Just the folks I was hearing from last night were quite ebullient in their reaction to what was coming out, pretty happy. They thought if they didn't get Mullah Omar, they got some other key lieutenants and when you take apart leadership, it's not like these folks are a football team with four starters sitting on the bench ready to spring into action. When you take out the upper crust, you're really causing them some damage.

ZAHN: We also know at the same time that General Tommy Franks has talked about U.S. forces concentrating or paying very special attention to two specific areas in Afghanistan, the area of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and then, of course, that area around Kandahar.


ZAHN: By his isolating those two areas, does that indicate to you that you think U.S. forces are any closer to closing in on Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members?

JOHNSON: Yes, they're closer just by definition. As the Northern Alliance has spread its control around the country, as the Taliban has collapsed, naturally you're not going to go out and try to hide out in an area that you don't control because it makes it much easier to catch you. So that it's just, they're following the log -- they're using a combination of things, the logic of the situation as well as an enormous intelligence effort.

I think we need to understand that the combination of human and technical sources that are being applied, when you know where the target areas are and you can bring those to bear, these folks don't realize what they're up against right now. They have grossly underestimated the United States and they're going to, I won't say live to rue the day, because I think they're going to die before they get to rue the day.

ZAHN: Larry Johnson, as always, good to have your perspective on the air. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Now, for his analysis, let's quickly turn to CNN military analyst Major General Don Shepperd, who joins us from Washington this morning. As we just maintained -- good morning, General -- the U.S. military focusing, of course, in on that Kandahar area for bin Laden and the Jalalabad area. What do you make of that effort?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Paula, we've heard this term tightening the noose and it's been over used. But that's exactly what's happening. We are focusing our sensors and our intelligence on smaller and smaller areas. The northern portion of the country is in Northern Alliance and opposition hands. Now we're working on the southern part. And what you're seeing is the combination of human intelligence, the combination of military, the combination of other agencies, read that the CIA, saying this is where people are, this is where he is and going after them.

It's, you can't move on the face of the earth without leaving a trail right now and that trail is leading to more and more key individuals.

ZAHN: What information do you have this morning specifically on the question of whether Mullah Omar is dead or alive after this strong bombing campaign?

SHEPPERD: Pretty much the same as Larry Johnson. It's going to take a while to sort this out. One of the dangers there, of course, is you get into the Elvis syndrome. You do this bombing, you blow people and things apart and you never know for sure. That's one of the dangers of this. But it definitely, because of where it is and who we're dealing with and the secrecy that they want around and the mystery they want around their high leaders, we may not know for some time whether we've got him or not. But if we didn't get him this time, we'll get him next time.

ZAHN: And if we ultimately get him, what kind of retaliation might the United States expect for his killing?

SHEPPERD: Paula, for sure we've been threatened with retaliation, but more important than that, we've already been hit. You can always find a reason to do nothing because you're afraid of what retaliation might take place. If we took that kind of view, we wouldn't even have a country. We'd still be under British rule.

We are going after these people, as the president and secretary of defense have said, in a wide net. It's going to be a long, deep and wide war and we're seeing evidence of this now. Wherever these people gather, whether it's the people themselves or people that finance or train or house them, your next visitor may be the U.S. and coalition military or a 2,000 pound bomb.

ZAHN: Another concern that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now has expressed is his concern about what he described as mounting lawlessness in Afghanistan and he said the U.S. military faces a long and difficult fight even in towns and cities already seized by the Northern Alliance. How concerned are you about that?

SHEPPERD: I'm concerned, as is everyone concerned about that. The stabilization or the control of areas such as the northern part of the country is always in doubt. A lot of people have escaped. A lot of people have changed sides. They still have access to weapons. They may have weapons hidden. You can find them over a period of time attacking each other, as has happened before, or attacking other forces in the area. It's going to be a dangerous place for a long time.

The important thing is to establish a government and establish the rule of law in Afghanistan and get on with the future of the country, hand it back to the Afghan people. It will be a long and difficult military, diplomatic and political journey. Hopefully it'll end in the right way.

ZAHN: I think everybody is keeping their fingers crossed out there.

General Shepperd, as always, good to spend some time with you this morning. Appreciate it.

SHEPPERD: Thank you.

ZAHN: Still to come, the price of freedom -- is the attorney general doing a good job to protect against more terrorism? Also ahead, the World Trade Center cough and why some are now uttering the term lawsuit in a very clear voice. A little bit later on, the American flag and messages for Osama bin Laden. Those stories and more when we come back.




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