KABUL, Afghanistan – A Libyan Al Qaeda commander was likely behind the suicide bombing that killed 23 people outside the main U.S. base in Afghanistan during a February visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, a U.S. military official told The Associated Press.
Abu Laith al-Libi, who was featured in an Al Qaeda video last week, is believed to have trained bombers at terror camps, including one busted by U.S. forces in the eastern province of Khost in 2005, said Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Cheney was deep inside the sprawling Bagram base at the time of the attack and was not hurt, but the bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
"Our information suggests that Abu Laith al-Libi was the terrorist who planned the Feb. 27 suicide bomb attack at Bagram Airfield," Belcher said.
"We have information that the planning of this attack was falsely attributed to Usama bin Laden by (Taliban commander) Mullah Dadullah, in order to boost the morale of bin Laden's followers worldwide, in an attempt to reassure those followers that bin Laden is not ill or dead," he said.
Dadullah, the Taliban's feared and most prominent military commander, made the claim in an interview late last month with Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera.
Bin Laden, at large since soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, is generally assumed to be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The last audio message attributed to the Al Qaeda leader was released in June 2006, and he has not been seen on video since October 2004. Counterterrorism officials say bin Laden's apparent isolation would make it difficult for him to have operational control of such a terrorist attack.
U.S. officials have previously said it was unclear if the attack at Bagram during Cheney's visit was a coincidence or if militants knew he was on the base on Feb. 27. It lies 30 miles north of the capital Kabul.
Cheney arrived in Afghanistan on Feb. 26, and had planned to leave the same day, but unexpectedly stayed the night because bad weather forced him to postpone a meeting with Karzai. The meeting was held in Kabul after the attack. Cheney then left the country.
Belcher maintained it was "extremely unlikely" that al-Libi knew the vice president was still on the base as only a "handful" of people knew his location and travel plans. He reiterated that Cheney was never at risk, given the heavy security and the distance between his location and where the suicide bomber struck at an entrance to the base.
Soon after the attack, a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, claimed the militia was responsible for the bombing. He said the bomber was an Afghan named Mullah Abdul Rahim and Cheney was the target.
Belcher declined to provide details about the bomber, "in order to protect our information-gathering methods."
Pakistani counterterrorism officials say al-Libi — "the Libyan" in Arabic language — has served as an Al Qaeda spokesman and commander in eastern Afghanistan. They say they have no information on his current whereabouts.
Last week, Al Qaeda's media wing, al-Sahab, released a video interview with a bearded man identified as al-Libi. In it, the militant accused Shiite Muslims of fighting alongside American forces in Iraq, and claimed that mujahedeen would crush foreign troops in Afghanistan. Al-Libi made no reference to the Feb. 27 attack at Bagram.
Belcher said al-Libi was a guerrilla fighter "knowledgeable about how to conduct suicide bombing missions and how to inflict the most civilian casualties." He had probably directed "one or more terror training camps."
In a tacit admission that terror camps have continued to operate on Afghan soil since the Taliban regime's ouster more than five years ago, Belcher said al-Libi had been the subject of "especially close focus" by U.S. intelligence since 2005, when U.S. forces destroyed a militant training camp believed set up by al-Libi in the eastern province of Khost.
But he described al-Libi as "transient," moving where the Libyan thinks he can count on support.
"Terrorists like al-Libi use the rugged terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to conceal themselves while they plan violent insurgent activities. Our sources indicate that Abu Laith al-Libi favors tribal regions, including North Waziristan," Belcher said.
North Waziristan is a lawless enclave in neighboring Pakistan where last year the Pakistani government reached a peace deal with pro-Taliban militants. U.S. officials have since expressed concern that Al Qaeda could be regrouping in Pakistan's border zone.
Last week, the Pentagon announced the capture last fall and incarceration at Guantanamo Bay of Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, believed responsible for plotting cross-border attacks from Pakistan on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Officials in Washington did not disclose where he was caught but said al-Iraqi had been on his way to Iraq, where he may have been sent by top terror leaders in Pakistan to take a senior position in Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Asked if al-Libi is traveling to Iraq, Belcher said he could not provide any information about his activities outside of the Afghanistan area of operations.
Since 2006, Taliban-led militants have stepped up attacks in Afghanistan, increasingly adopting Iraq-style tactics such as suicide attacks that have destabilized the country and exposed the failure of Western forces and Karzai's weak administration to bring security.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the number of suicide attacks shot up from 21 in 2005, to at least 136 in 2006. There have already been about 40 during 2007, amid strong signs that violence is set to escalate again this year.
The governor of Khost province, where the terror camp allegedly run by al-Libi was busted in 2005, said he had no information about the Al Qaeda commander.
However, Gov. Arsalah Jamal claimed Al Qaeda militants, including Arabs and Pakistanis, were moving in and out of Khost from neighboring North Waziristan — despite Pakistani assertions it does all it can to police the border.