Closing in on the elusive bin Laden

Reports say he is cave-hopping in the mountains near Jalalabad.


The hunt for Osama bin Laden may be narrowing to a network of caves near the village of Tora Bora, in Afghanistan's eastern White Mountains.

Mr. Bin Laden has been seen in the last four days, spending his days in caves and moving around on horseback by night, according to local intelligence reports.

Those who have spent time with bin Laden say he generally travels in a small group of not more than 20 handpicked men, although other members of the Al Qaeda organization may be traveling along with their wives and children.

As Taliban-controlled territory shrinks, bin Laden's ability to counterattack or conduct a propaganda war is becoming limited. Loss of ammo dumps, training camps, and safe houses is "significantly damaging - not only to the Taliban's ability to control the country, but also to bin Laden's ability to plan and launch terrorist acts," says Gary Samore at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London "He must focus on being on the run."

A former US Special Forces officer involved in manhunts in Vietnam, Panama, and Somalia agrees: "Bin Laden's in 'bunker syndrome.' He's in a cave, behaving like Hitler. He's still sending messages out, he's still half-directing things. But his ability to move and communicate is very, very limited."

But the White Mountains - with their snow-capped peaks, steep valleys, and fortified caves (some with their own coal-fired heating systems) are a formidable and familiar base for bin Laden.

They once served as an operations center for the 10-year campaign by Afghanistan's holy warriors, or mujahideen, against the Soviet invading troops who occupied the nearby city of Jalalabad and much of the country.

Local commanders say the area is nearly impregnable. They should know. Many of them are former mujahideen themselves.

"I lived up there as a mujahideen in the 1980s, and it's almost impossible to attack," says Hazrat Ali, an Afghan militia commander who took over Jalalabad after the Taliban government fell two weeks ago and now serves as internal security chief for Nangarhar Province, which includes Jalalabad.

But despite the challenge, Mr. Ali says his men are preparing to hunt down bin Laden. "We will give him to the international authorities [if we capture him]."

While bin Laden's precise location is not known at present, it's clear that the American military and their new Afghan allies now are focusing on the villages and outlying areas 35 miles south of Jalalabad.

In the past three days, there have been daily US bombing raids on nearby former Al Qaeda training camps and former homes of bin Laden, and leaflets with bin Laden's picture have been dropped over Jalalabad itself. Local checkpoints, manned by militia commanders who replaced the fleeing Taliban, are on high alert, and travelers and shopkeepers who come from the White Mountains report seeing Arabs operating in the southern part of the city.

"[The Arabs] are paying a lot of money for people to work for them, because they have no place to live at night," says Sohrab Qadri, intelligence chief for Nangarhar Province, who estimates that there are 1,000 to 2,000 members of bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, in the White Mountains. "We have spies among the villagers there, who come to Jalalabad to buy food for the Arabs, and they tell us what the Arabs are doing."

While bin Laden's trail may be no more than four days old, few of the top commanders here in Jalalabad are in any rush to go after him. Their top priority, they say, is creating a stable government in Afghanistan and keeping the peace in a city where armed men prowl the streets and looting is still a daily event.

"We have nothing, no weapons, to go up into the mountains and fight with, no food to eat, no place to sleep, so how can we go and fight?" asks Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, military chief for Nangarhar province, sitting in his military headquarters, surrounded by about a hundred well-armed men and visiting dignitaries. "We are trying our best to bring peace and tranquility to the province."

Just how much of Nangarhar Province is under military control is difficult to gauge. On Friday, a group of journalists drove 10 minutes south of town to visit the suburb of Farma Hadda, where bin Laden once had a home and where American bombs had been dropped the night before. Nervous militiamen at checkpoints warned that Arabs were still operating in the area, and only let the journalists pass after seeing a permission slip from the brother of Hazrat Ali.

Babrak Shah, owner of a guesthouse in Farma Hadda, says he distinctly remembers seeing bin Laden leaving his nearby home on the night of Nov. 13, when the Taliban abandoned Jalalabad.

"I saw him under a tree, holding the hands of Maulvi Abdul Kabir [the Taliban's governor of Nangarhar]," says Mr. Shah, who says he once worked as a guard at bin Laden's house at Farma Hadda from 1992-96. "He was standing there for more than a half hour, as a convoy of several hundred vehicles headed out of town to Tora Bora."

He says he remembers the time, 9:30 p.m., because he had just missed hearing the end of the Pashtu-language BBC news program.

What is clear is that someone left bin Laden's former house in an organized haste. In a mud-and-brick walled compound that stretches over at least an acre, all of the furniture is gone, but there are still piles of mortar shells and stacks of catalogs of military equipment left in many of the dozens of rooms. In one of a half-dozen kitchens, bulbs of garlic lie on the floor, with green shoots sprouting from the whitish skin.

There are no signs of the vials of sarin gas, which the late Spanish reporter Julio Fuentes wrote of seeing in bin Laden's house more than a week ago. Mr. Fuentes was one of four journalists killed by gunmen on the road to Kabul last Monday.

Philip Smucker contributed to this report.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.