U.S. forces operating inside Afghanistan, if given the opportunity, will apparently attempt to capture suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden so he can face trial for murder and conspiracy.
Senior defense officials dispute any suggestion that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are focused solely on hunting Osama bin Laden. But VOA has learned special military planning is under way or has already been completed to deal with the suspected terrorist mastermind.
No details are known because Pentagon sources say all information dealing with Osama bin Laden is being restricted to the highest levels of the Bush Administration.
But a well-placed intelligence source tells VOA senior administration officials apparently fear that if the terrorist suspect is killed, his followers will portray him as a martyr, triggering an outbreak of reprisal attacks to avenge his death.
This source indicates U.S. forces, if given the opportunity, will therefore seek to capture the Saudi-born fugitive alive. He could then be brought to the United States to stand trial in connection with the September 11 suicide terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as well as other crimes.
Thousands of people were killed in last month's attacks, in which terrorists commandeered commercial airliners and flew them into the buildings in New York and Washington.
Since then, U.S. forces have massed around Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network are based. In the past week, U.S. forces have conducted air strikes against al-Qaida targets as well as targets associated with Afghanistan's ruling Taleban, which has given al-Qaida sanctuary in the country.
Pentagon officials say those raids have virtually destroyed Afghan air defenses, giving U.S. aircraft command of the skies.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has told reporters the groundwork has now been laid for what he terms a sustained campaign against terrorists in the country.
Military analysts say that could mean the insertion of U.S. ground forces. But other defense sources indicate there will be further air attacks first, including the use of so-called bunker-buster bombs, powerful devices designed to penetrate caves and other fortified hideouts.
The goal of the air attacks is to put terrorists and their supporters on the run, making them more vulnerable.