Washington U.S. forces in Afghanistan have captured the first high-level members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and the prisoners might be flown to a U.S. air base for interrogation, senior administration officials said Wednesday.
Two senior officials, who requested anonymity, said the captives include Sayef Abdel-Rahman, son of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 as the ringleader of a plot to bomb the United Nations, the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York City.
In other major developments, the CIA confirmed that an employee Johnny "Mike" Spann, 32, of Winfield, Ala., died in a prison riot in Afghanistan, and reports suggested that a Tuesday strike in southern Afghanistan missed the primary target: Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.
The younger Abdel-Rahman, believed to be in his late 20s, is considered a close associate of bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center, destroyed four jetliners, damaged the Pentagon and killed nearly 4,000 people.
Details of the capture were not known, but one senior official said Abdel-Rahman and a number of other al-Qaida members could be flown to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to be interrogated by CIA and military intelligence officers.
That official said the younger Abdel-Rahman recruited terrorists and ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan for bin Laden.
Another official said the United States expects the captives to provide at least "moderate" value in helping Marines and other American forces capture or kill bin Laden, a major target in the first phase of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
At the Pentagon, Adm. John Stufflebeem said he had not heard any reports about the capture, but "I don't know if I would have access to that information."
The elder Abdel-Rahman, 63, a blind Muslim cleric from Egypt, was convicted along with nine others of plotting to explode five bombs in 10 minutes in New York City.
Several followers and associates were convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, an act that killed six people and injured many others.
He is currently serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Rochester, Minn., where security was intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks.
His name has served as a rallying cry for many militant Muslims, and bin Laden has called him "a hostage in an American prison."
The reported capture of the younger Abdel-Rahman is the latest element of the Bush administration's strategy to decapitate al-Qaida. On Nov. 14, a U.S. airstrike killed Mohammed Atef, one of bin Laden's top two advisers and another key planner of the Sept. 11 attack.
At least six senior leaders of al-Qaida are believed to have been killed in recent weeks, but thousands of fighters remain at large in cells around the world.
"There will always be pockets that are going to fight to the death," Stufflebeem said. "But getting the leadership and breaking the chain of command is going to render much of that ineffective."
Death at the CIA
Also in Washington, CIA officials confirmed Wednesday that rioting prisoners killed CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He was the first American killed in action inside the country since U.S. bombing began more than seven weeks ago.
Officials recovered his body from the prison compound Wednesday, only after northern alliance rebels backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces quelled an uprising by Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners.
Spann, at the compound to interrogate prisoners, was caught inside when the riot began and had been missing since Sunday. The CIA provided few details of the circumstances of his death.
Spann had been in Afghanistan for about six weeks, said his father, Johnny Spann, during an afternoon news conference in the family's hometown of Winfield, Ala.
The father said his son, upon joining the CIA, told his family: "Someone has got to do the things no one else wants to do."
"That is exactly what he was doing in Afghanistan," his father said.
Surviving a strike
In southern Afghanistan, signs emerged that Omar, the Taliban leader, survived Tuesday's strike on the leadership compound near Kandahar, where he was making his last stand.
Taliban fighters said Omar radioed his troops in Spinboldak, a town on the border with Pakistan, and ordered them to terminate surrender negotiations with anti-Taliban Pashtun tribal leaders and arrest the anti-Taliban negotiators.
"Our commanders told us that Mullah Omar personally gave orders on the wireless to end all negotiations and be ready for battle," said Hafez Ghula Mohammed, 21, a Taliban fighter who crossed into the Pakistani border town of Chaman.
At the Pentagon, officials said Tuesday's attack on the Taliban leadership compound included about 10 bombs dropped by a B-1 bomber. They would not say whether their intelligence reports specifically indicated that Omar would be there.
"We were confident that it was Taliban leadership," said Stufflebeem, the Pentagon spokesman.
With Taliban and al-Qaida leaders on the run, U.S. efforts are aimed at reducing the territory in which they can hide. "Then they make the decision if they're going to surrender or fight to the death," Stufflebeem said.