KABUL, Afghanistan - A Libyan al-Qaeda commander was probably behind the suicide bombing that killed 23 people outside the main U.S. base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Cheney, a U.S. military official told the Associated Press.
Abu Laith al-Libi, featured in an al-Qaeda video last week, is believed to have trained bombers at terror camps in Afghanistan, including one raided by U.S. troops in eastern Khost province in 2005, said Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
Cheney was deep inside the sprawling Bagram base at the time of the February 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 fighters.
"Our information suggests that Abu Laith al-Libi was the terrorist who planned the Feb. 27 suicide bomb attack at Bagram Airfield," Belcher said this week in an e-mail response to AP questions.
"We have information that the planning of this attack was falsely attributed to Osama bin Laden by [Taliban commander] Mullah Dadullah in order to boost the morale of bin Laden's followers worldwide." Dadullah, the Taliban's most prominent military commander, made the claim in an interview last month with the Arab broadcast network Al-Jazeera.
Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader at large since soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, is assumed to be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The most recent audio message attributed to him was released in June, and he has not been seen on video since October 2004.
U.S. counterterrorism officials had said that bin Laden's apparent isolation would make it difficult for him to have operational control of an attack like the bombing during Cheney's visit.
U.S. officials also have said it was unclear if the attack at the base 30 miles north of Kabul was a coincidence or if extremists knew Cheney was there.
Pakistani officials say Libi - "the Libyan" in Arabic - has been an al-Qaeda spokesman and commander in eastern Afghanistan. They say they have no information on his whereabouts.
Last week, al-Qaeda's media wing released a video interview with a bearded man identified as Libi. In it, he accused Shiite Muslims of fighting alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and claimed Islamic fighters would defeat foreign troops in Afghanistan. He made no reference to the bombing at Bagram.
Belcher described Libi as a guerrilla fighter "knowledgeable about how to conduct suicide bombing missions and how to inflict the most civilian casualties" and said 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's ouster more than five years ago, Belcher said Libi had been the subject of "especially close focus" by U.S. intelligence sources since 2005.
Pakistan plans to repatriate by 2009 all two million Afghan refugees who have fled violence back home, though most say they do not want to return.
The government said the move to return refugees was largely in response to international criticism over cross-border attacks by Taliban fighters the government believes hole up in refugee camps.
The escalating conflict in Afghanistan, where about 1,300 people have died in insurgent violence this year, and the lack of land and services for returnees, has raised doubts about the plan's feasibility.
Three-quarters of the registered refugees arrived in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. About 90 percent say they have no land there.
About 2.1 million refugees joined the 15-week registration process, which entitles them to stay in Pakistan until December 2009. Of the 300,000
who did not sign up, 200,000 have since returned to Afghanistan. Those remaining face deportation.