How bin Laden got away
A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerfulmilitary machine.
TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN
All 1,000 of the regional tribal leaders rose to their feet and shouted "Zindibad, Osama!" ("Long Live Osama!").Skip to next paragraph
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The Al Qaeda chief placed his right hand over his heart, the ethnic Pashtun sign for being honored, while 15 of his elite guards flanked him.
In the last public speech given at the Jalalabad Islamic studies center on Nov. 10, Osama bin Laden painted the battle lines black and white. "The Americans had a plan to invade, but if we are united and believe in Allah, we'll teach them a lesson, the same one we taught the Russians," he said, according to two tribal leaders who attended the speech.
Mr. bin Laden, with that speech, was laying his plans to stay a step ahead of the US campaign. He would travel to his favored fortified redoubt in Tora Bora, as the US expected him to, but he would also pave a way out. After his rousing speech, he bestowed cash gifts on key people who could later help him escape.
The US-led war in Afghanistan was going exceedingly well up to that point. The Taliban regime had been pushed from the northern half of the country; the capital of Kabul and much of the rest of Afghanistan would fall within the next few days.
It was a war like no other. In an evolutionary leap powered by Information Age technology, US ground soldiers were mainly employed as observers, liaisons, and spotters for air power - not as direct combatants sent to occupy a foreign land. The success of the US was dazzling, save for the fight for Tora Bora, which may have been this unconventional war's most crucial battle. For the US, Tora Bora wasn't about capturing caverns or destroying fortifications - it was about taking the world's most wanted terrorist "dead or alive."
In retrospect, it becomes clear that the battle's underlying story is of how scant intelligence, poorly chosen allies, and dubious military tactics fumbled a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden as well as many senior Al Qaeda commanders.
Moreover, as the US military conducts new strikes with its Afghan allies in nearby Paktia Province, sends special forces into Southeast and Central Asia - and prepares for a possible military plunge into Iraq - planners will need to learn the lessons of Tora Bora: Know which local leaders to trust. Know when to work with allied forces on the ground. And know when to go it alone. "Maybe the only lesson that is applicable is: whenever you use local forces, they have local agendas," says one senior Western diplomat, now looking at options for invading Iraq. "You had better know what those are so that if it is not a reasonable match - at least it is not a contradiction."
It was just two days before the fall of Kabul on Nov. 12, that bin Laden rallied his forces five hours east by road in the city of Jalalabad - a long-time base of his operations. It was mid-afternoon, bombs were falling all over the city, and tribal leaders had just finished a sumptuous meal of lamb kebabs and rice.
After a rousing introduction by an Arab speaker with wavy black locks, bin Laden entered the Saudi-funded institute for Islamic studies, which had been hastily converted into a Taliban and Al Qaeda intelligence center only days after the World Trade Center bombing.
He was dressed in loose gray clothing and wearing his signature camouflage jacket. His commandos were garbed in green fatigues, and their shiny, new Kalashnikovs were specially rigged with grenade launchers. As bin Laden held forth, several Arabs shouted from the middle and back. "God is Great! Down with America! Down with Israel."
Blending his theological and martial message, bin Laden made one final appeal. "God is with us, and we will win the war. Your Arab brothers will lead the way. We have the weapons and the technology. What we need most is your moral support. And may God grant me the opportunity to see you and meet you again on the front lines."
With that, bin Laden stepped away from the podium. The 15 guards closed ranks and shuffled out the door behind him.