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All Things Considered November 21, 2001

Searching for Osama bin Laden in caves and bunkers

NOAH ADAMS, host: If Osama bin Laden is indeed still in Afghanistan, it's likely he is hiding underground in one of the country's many caves and bunkers. But as NPR's John McChesney reports, American Special Forces have technology that can help them find and destroy these underground sanctuaries.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting: Jack Shroder is a geologist at the University of Nebraska. Back in the 1970s, he was preparing an atlas of Afghanistan in cooperation with the government at that time. Recently, he's been telling American intelligence agencies what he knows about the landscape there. He says there are three kinds of underground hiding places in Afghanistan--natural limestone caves, old irrigation tunnels, some of which date back hundreds of years, and modern bunkers and tunnels. Shroder says the natural caves are the least likely place for al-Qaeda fighters to seek refuge. Mr. JACK SHRODER (University of Nebraska): Most of the natural ones in limestones are up in the central part of the country, which has been taken over by Northern Alliance. There may be some of those in limestones around Kandahar and most of those would have no exit.

McCHESNEY: Until recently, Shroder had displayed a lot of information about Afghan caves on his Web site. Now he's being more circumspect.

Mr. SHRODER: I was asked to take it down by the FBI. I'm only talking about it in general terms.

McCHESNEY: But Shroder says that has not stopped people from communicating with him over the Internet about subterranean Afghanistan.

Mr. SHRODER: People have been sending me stuff over e-mail which checks out and I think it's probably Afghans with photographs who are looking for bin Laden and/or his associates by sending photographs, ground pictures in to me.

McCHESNEY: Some, he suspects, are bounty hunters looking to cash in on a $25 million reward offered for bin Laden by the US government. Others, he thinks, are just trying to be helpful to the American government. Shroder says he knows the exact latitude and longitude of two tunnel networks, but he won't say more. John Pike, a military analyst with the consultancy Global Security, believes that bin Laden, the son of a construction tycoon, may decide to hole up underground in a bunker he built himself during the struggle against the Soviet Union.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Global Security): One of Osama bin Laden's big specialty back in the '80s was bringing in his heavy construction equipment to help build these tunnels.

McCHESNEY: Some of these bunkers are equipped with blast doors, underground water supplies and waste disposal facilities. And John Pike says that in addition to what Jack Shroder can tell them, US intelligence agents have other ways of finding these installations.

Mr. PIKE: Well, most of the military tunnels that were built back in the 1980s are fairly readily visible in satellite imagery. Additionally, you could assume that Russian intelligence, Pakistani intelligence would provide information about these tunnels. Certainly any of the local warlords that have been cooperating with the US military or Central Intelligence Agency would be providing information.

McCHESNEY: Besides satellites, there are other technologies that can help the US find bunkers that might have been more recently built. Infrared sensors can detect heat that might be emitted from entrances, heat produced by human bodies or by fires used for heat in cooking. Other sensors can detect carbon dioxide emissions produced by breathing or combustion. Entrances could be observed by remote control aircraft to detect any movement in and out. Once it's decided to take out the cave, there are a variety of smart bombs and guided missiles that could collapse an entrance. But says John Pike, if there are exits, other weapons may be used.

Mr. PIKE: You look at the mountainsides and you can see all kinds of tunnels going into the mountain, not clear whether you're looking at one big piece of Swiss cheese. So you would need to have a coordinated approach sealing off most of the tunnel entrances, possibly using an area-blast munition like the daisy cutter to put blast overpressure into the entire complex to kill or stun everybody inside.

McCHESNEY: At the Pentagon this afternoon, a reporter asked if the United States had Special Forces capable of going into the caves of Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda forces. Marine General Peter Pace gave this brief answer.

Gen. PACE: Our specialized approach to caves and tunnels is to put 500-pound bombs in the entrance.

McCHESNEY: John McChesney, NPR News, Washington.


Copyright 2001 National Public Radio (R).