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How bin Laden got away

A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerfulmilitary machine.

(Page 6 of 6)

Awol Gul was calm and relaxed as B-52s pummeled a mountain behind him and Al Qaeda sniper fire rang out in the distance. "They've been under quite a bit of pressure inside there," he said. "It is likely that they have made a tactical withdrawal farther south. They have good roads, safe passage, and Mr. bin Laden has plenty of friends.

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"We are not interested in killing the Arabs," Mr. Gul went on to say. "They are our Muslim brothers."

By Dec. 11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounded unsure about how effective Pakistan's military could be in blocking the border. He said: "It's a long border. It's a very complicated area to try to seal, and there's just simply no way you can put a perfect cork in the bottle."

On Dec. 16, Afghan warlords announced they had advanced into the last of the Tora Bora caves. One young commander fighting with 600 of his own troops alongside Ali and Ghamsharik, Haji Zahir, could not have been less pleased with the final prize. There were only 21 bedraggled Al Qaeda fighters who were taken prisoners. "No one told us to surround Tora Bora," Mr. Zahir complained. "The only ones left inside for us were the stupid ones, the foolish and the weak."


While the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants has become increasingly invisible, it continues nonetheless. The ongoing fighting in Paktia Province, as well as the deployment of US troops to nations as far-flung as Georgia, Yemen, and the Philippines ensures that US pressure will stay on Al Qaeda's many cells - and that eyes around the world will remain open for "the Sheikh" and the $25 million bounty the US has attached to his head.

And while the US has taken justifiable pride in its ousting of the Taliban and supporting Afghanistan's fledgling interim government, President Bush's aim of catching the world's most wanted terrorist "dead or alive" has not been accomplished.

"There appears to be a real disconnect between what the US military was engaged in trying to do during the battle for Tora Bora - which was to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban - and the earlier rhetoric of President Bush, which had focused on getting bin Laden," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "There are citizens all over the Middle East now saying that the US military couldn't do it - couldn't catch Osama - while ignoring the fact that the US military campaign, apart from not capturing Mr. bin Laden was, up the that point, staggeringly effective."

Who's who at Tora Bora

MAULVI Younus Khalis: A patriarchal leader of the Jalalabad area and senior member of the Eastern Shura, the self-proclaimed government in the region. In the 1980s, he was a key ally to the US - and was even invited to the Reagan White House - during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Khalis later cultivated ties with Osama bin Laden, hosting the Al Qaeda leader when he returned to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996.

Hazret Ali: One of the two most powerful warlords under Khalis, and one of the two US point men in the fight against Tora Bora. Ali, with his strong ties to the Karzai government in Kabul, became the Eastern Shura's security chief after the fall of Jalalabad.

Haji Zaman Ghamsharik: The other key US pointman in the battle for Tora Bora. He returned from exile in France to become the Eastern Shura's Jalalabad commander. Ghamsharik's Khugani tribesmen (a Pashtun subsect) live in and near the White Mountains. The Pashtun, whom he represented, have divided loyalties among Khalis, Ali, and Ghamsharik.

Awol Gul: Military commander for the Al Qaeda-linked patriarch of Jalalabad, Younus Khalis.

Ilyas Khel: He worked under commander Gul during the Taliban era. When Ali took control of Jalalabad, he began to work for him. He knew Ali from Soviet-occupation days.

Haji Hayat Ullah: A member of the Eastern Shura with Al Qaeda ties. A personal friend of Osama bin Laden, Ullah ran orphanages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Haji Zahir: Afghan commander, and the nephew of slain anti-Taliban fighter Abdul Haq. He is also the son of the new governor of Jalalabad, Haji Qadeer.

Malik Habib Gul: An Afghan tribal chief who attended bin Laden's last public speech on Nov. 10 and later helped hundreds of the Al Qaeda fighters escape.