There was no moonlight in Afghanistan on Wednesday night. The new moon, marking the beginning of Ramadan, had yet to appear. Invisible under the stars, an unmanned American spy plane circled inaudibly over a stretch of dark landscape, transmitting grainy images back to the United States.
Its night-vision camera was focused on a pinpoint of light in the distance, a three-story hotel building, where it detected a great deal of movement. Turbaned men talked agitatedly outside among parked pick-up trucks and military vehicles. Others moved in and out of the building. The drone's controllers, thousands of miles away in a bunker on the eastern seaboard of America, knew who they were.
For two days since being roused from their beds in Kabul, these ragged figures had been fleeing south, trying to stay ahead of enemy forces and anxious to avoid satellites and surveillance planes.
Moving furtively in small groups across the parched plains, they had spread out on side tracks and dirt roads, avoiding the main highway. Progress was slow. They were still less than 100 miles from the capital when they reached the end of the second day of flight.
Many thousands of men had fled in the Taliban withdrawal from Kabul. But amid all the chaos of the retreat, this small convoy was given special attention. It was believed by American intelligence to consist of fighters from Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.
Predator spy planes, capable of staying aloft for 24 hours on station, and JSTARS surveillance planes, equipped with radar that can monitor ground movements across a vast area, tracked them from the moment they left Kabul — despite their elaborate efforts to avoid detection.
The Predators — known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — come from the CIA's squadron of remote-control drones. At their cruising speed of 80 knots, they are inaudible from the ground and can identify targets five miles away.
Armed with two Hellfire anti-tank missiles, a Predator could have been ordered to strike the convoy at any time. But the controllers chose to go on shadowing it.
"This may have been a case of 'follow me to our leader,'" said one American source. If so, the patience paid off with a remarkable prize.
It was just before 1 a.m. local time on Thursday when the Americans went in for the kill. The convoy had stopped at a small town. Men in other vehicles were there, too. Some sort of gathering was taking place in the hotel. The single Predator, now overhead, gave a clear picture of the hotel's crowded car park and of the fighters — apparently pacing nervously as they waited for their commanders to finish their meeting.
Through encrypted satellite communications, the Predator was providing a live battlefield television picture back to control rooms at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., from where Gen. Tommy Franks has been running the war in Afghanistan.
From Tampa, the Predator picture was relayed through the American secure communications network to the CIA in Langley, Va., and to the battle-scarred Pentagon itself. With the local clock showing 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the operation was providing post-lunch viewing for senior leaders.
"When this kind of excitement is going on, everyone big wants to take a look. This is modern warfare at work," said one U.S. intelligence source. President Bush was absent, however. He was entertaining President Vladimir Putin of Russia on his Texan ranch.
As American officials watched with mounting excitement, three U.S. Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle planes, America's premier attack fighters, were moved into position. Deployed from bases in the Gulf, the aircraft had been "loitering" in the Kabul area, kept aloft by in-flight refueling, awaiting the right moment to move in.
Nobody knew precisely who they would kill if the order to attack the hotel was given, but intelligence analysts felt certain that senior Al Qaeda officials were meeting in the hotel to consider their next moves as the Taliban regime was collapsing all over the country. Finally, the order was given in Florida for the target to be engaged.
Locking the crosshairs of their weapon guidance systems on the hotel below, each of the three F-15s let loose a single GBU-15 "smart bomb." Weighing 2,500 pounds each, these bombs are guided on to their targets by infrared cameras in their noses.
As the bombs slammed into the side of the hotel, the Predator completed the mission, launching its two Hellfire missiles at the vehicles in the car park. Almost everyone at the scene was incinerated, with close to 100 people killed.
It was many hours before American officials could know just how much they had achieved. Then, in panic and pandemonium, an Al Qaeda operative breached the organization's strict security rules and revealed that a large number of the movement's senior figures had been killed — including Mohammed Atef, the 57-year-old deputy to bin Laden and the terrorist group's senior military commander.
According to one British official, a satellite phone call from an extremist group in Afghanistan to a foreign country was, like all satellite phone calls from the country, intercepted by British and American listening centers.
Translated and transcribed at the National Security Agency in Maryland, the phone call revealed an operative who was heatedly reeling out a list of casualties, and he made a distinct and definite reference to the death of Mohammed Atef. This information was confirmed by a further human intelligence source, said another British official.
"They said, 'What a shame he is dead,'" said the senior official, paraphrasing the overheard conversations.
By Friday, nobody had identified any bodies at the devastated hotel or could be 100 percent certain who had died. But Pentagon officials began to be increasingly confident that they had killed Atef in the onslaught. Yesterday, the Taliban initially confirmed but then denied he was dead.
Other air raids have taken place on Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in the past few days, but the intelligence officials believe Atef died at the hotel. Its exact location has not been confirmed, but one source suggested it was in Gardez, an ethnic Pushtun stronghold on the road up from Kabul into the Taliban mountain province of Paktia.
The death of Atef, say security officials, has wiped out one of the western world's most formidable opponents. With a daughter married to one of bin Laden's sons, he was considered by many to be a potential successor to head Al Qaeda if bin Laden was killed.
British and American intelligence agencies had identified Atef as an important planner of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. He was the key link man, they believe, between bin Laden and the hijackers.
Telephone calls intercepted by spy agencies are believed to have revealed specific details of how Atef controlled and approved the suicide hijackings.
It is believed by security agencies that Mohammed Atta, the German-based ringleader of the hijackers and a fellow Egyptian, had visited Afghanistan to get Atef's specific go-ahead for the Sept. 11 attacks.
In May 1998, at a press conference in Afghanistan, bin Laden introduced Atef as his "right-hand man," according to Pakistani newspaper reports. The Al Qaeda leader then repeated his declaration of war on Americans. Atef was already plotting the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, which occurred three months later.
Atef not only sat on the shura (consultation council) of Al Qaeda, but also headed the group's military council. He was responsible for the training of Al Qaeda terrorists, including suicide bombers. While Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's other top figure, provided bin Laden with the reasoned religious justification for mass murder, Atef provided him with the means of delivering it.
Like al-Zawahiri, he was an Egyptian who was trained as a terrorist by the extremist Islamic Jihad organization. His relationship with bin Laden dates back to the 1980s, when he left Egypt to fight in Afghanistan. When bin Laden left Afghanistan for Sudan in 1991, Atef traveled with him, in charge of his security.
About two years later, he was dispatched to Somalia to determine "how best to cause violence to the United States and United Nations military forces stationed there," according to the court indictment over the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Africa.
Atef also provided training to Somali tribes opposed to the U.N. intervention in Somalia. American authorities believe fighters who attacked and killed 18 American soldiers in Somalia were trained by Al Qaeda.