WASHINGTON - Administration officials said yesterday that the bombing of Afghanistan by American warplanes had destroyed at least seven of the largest and most sophisticated training camps that Osama bin Laden's network had long operated.
Though Pentagon photographs showed only a bombed-out airfield in southwestern Afghanistan and the scorched earth that had been the Farouk camp, administration officials said many of the largest and best known camps of bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida, also had been demolished.
However, the Pentagon repeated what American intelligence analysts have been saying since the attacks Sept. 11 on the United States: the camps had been evacuated long ago and were undoubtedly empty when bombs struck.
The camps have been the lifeblood of al-Qaida, providing indoctrination and training for many of the estimated 5,000 foot soldiers, go-betweens, planners, document forgers, communications specialists, scouts, technicians, bombers and hijackers who passed through en route to terrorist attacks.
Though the term implies a complex filled with tents and temporary structures, the "camps" were often large and sophisticated installations.
They contain not only classrooms, prayer halls, bunkers, testing fields and firing ranges, but sometimes underground tunnels and concrete storage facilities for weapons and chemicals.
In a briefing at the Pentagon yesterday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the airstrikes had dealt a severe blow to bin Laden's infrastructure. Taking out the camps, he said, was like destroying Quantico, the vast U.S. Marine training complex in Virginia.
While acknowledging that the camps were empty, Myers said the infrastructure was important to terrorist training. Al-Qaida, he said, had been using the camps for many years, "and so we're going to deny them the opportunity to continue to use them."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld indicated that the terrorist camps could be rebuilt if the United States did not complete its mission in Afghanistan of "creating conditions necessary to conduct a sustained campaign to root out terrorists."
Intelligence officials say some 5,000 militant Muslims from more than 50 countries have passed through the camps, spending from two weeks to more than six months learning the general and specific skills that modern terrorism requires.
In addition to bin Laden's training camps, the Taliban and militant Muslim groups affiliated with al-Qaida have trained thousands more in similar facilities. Some estimates put the total veterans of these camps at more than 50,000.