A self-described chef for Osama bin Laden, who has been captured by tribesmen here, says that his boss - after leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan - has since traveled into Iran.
In three separate interviews here in Ghazni, Haji Mohamad Akram, a waif of a man suffering from the results of regular torture sessions by his captors, provided detailed accounts of the battle at Tora Bora, of Mr. bin Laden's movements in November and December last year - and of his favorite dishes.
It is not possible to independently corroborate the Saudi chef's story, nor to know his motives for speaking. He may prefer American prisons to those of his captors here. But the detailed picture he offers of bin Laden's last days in Tora Bora, and his possible escape to Iran, correspond with accounts from previous Monitor interviews with other bin Laden associates. It also fits recent US concerns that Iran is harboring Al Qaeda refugees.
"There isn't any doubt in my mind but that the porous border between Iran and Afghanistan has been used for Al Qaeda and Taliban to move into Iran," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told "ABC This Week" on Sunday. "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of Al Qaeda."
To be sure, the haggard-looking Saudi chef wants relief from his Afghan captors.
For the interviews, Hazara leader Ali Akbar Qasmi escorted Mr. Akram out of a back room of his house into his small, dark living room. Sitting in shackles near a pot-belly stove, his bloodied nostrils plugged with cotton, he begged to be handed over to US investigators - even sent "to Cuba" if necessary - and promised to disclose important information to US officials.
In fact, Mr. Qasmi had placed a call to the US Embassy in Kabul earlier this week. He says a US official there told him that they were terribly busy and it would help if he could hold them a "week or two."
But yesterday, he placed a satellite phone call to a secret US intelligence base in Afghanistan. Qasmi says the US officials expressed great interest in taking the Saudi chef, along with another Saudi financier and a Kurdish member of Al Qaeda into custody. "Keep them right there," Qasmi says the US official told him. "We'll give you far more than anyone else is offering you for these people." (The last time Qasmi helped US officials capture two senior Taliban officials, he received two new trucks.)
The other two captives have refused to divulge information about Al Qaeda, have repeatedly threatened suicide, and have attacked their captors on two occasions, Qasmi says.
But the Saudi chef says he was betrayed by his associates and now says he is willing to provide investigators with leads as to the whereabouts of top Al Qaeda leaders.
Wrapped in a bare thin blanket and shaking from the cold, Akram recounted his stay inside Tora Bora at the height of US bombing.
He says he has spent the past 13 years in Afghanistan, and that in addition to being a teacher of the Koran in a training school and performing usual security duties, he was one of bin Laden's favorite chefs.
"Osama's favorite meal is fowl - anything with wings," says the Saudi national. "He likes quails, and if he can't get his hands on one, he will settle for a chicken. Most of the quails he ate, we hunted. Others were brought in by road from Iran. Osama often made special requests for the mutton and yogurt Mogul dish that I do best."
He goes on to say that bin Laden is a very stern man. "When Osama says yes, no one around him says no," Akram says. "He is very loyal to his closest friends. He had some very good Pakistani friends, including those working in the field of atomic energy."
In mid-November, as US airstrikes were intensifying on Taliban frontline positions, bin Laden was still in Jalalabad, Akram says. "Three days before we left Jalalabad for Tora Bora, bin Laden and his top aides met Pashtun tribal leaders, many of them from Pakistan," Akram says. "The meeting was on Osama's invitation. I was out at the gate when the tribal chiefs arrived, and the sheikh [bin Laden] gave them money."
"On the third night, we all left the city and traveled to Tora Bora. I was in the third to last car, and there was a storm of dust in front of us. All of the important leaders were in that convoy, including bin Laden and the Egyptian doctor, [Ayman] Al Zawahiri."
"The plan had been to defend Tora Bora to our deaths. We had thousands of men there. The sheikh himself divided us into the caves and said, 'This is your position, and that is your's.' Then he went to his own big cave. He spoke on satellite phone to his friends in the first few days."
Sometime near the end of November or the beginning of December, Akram says he was cooking in his cave when a huge bomb exploded at the base and blew him some 30 feet back into the cave. Two of his comrades were killed in the blast. After that, he says, he decided to flee with two other survivors.
"Osama had three offers of escape," he says. "One from Iraq, one from Iran, and another from some mafia types.... We received a lot of Iranian currency, and the commanders distributed it to the soldiers," he says, adding that he received 700,000 rials ($1,400) for his own personal use."
The Saudi chef says he believes that bin Laden planned to go through Iran and then eventually end up in Azerbaijan or possibly Chechnya.
A State Department official, contacted yesterday, says: "I haven't seen any evidence that [Osama bin Laden] is in Iran. I can't corroborate that."
Akram says bin Laden left about the same time he did, and that several other Al Qaeda leaders said they were heading to Iran.
"Our own Chechens were killing people who tried to leave, so we left at night and traveled into Paktia near to Gardez and onto Zarmat," he says. "Everybody said it was best to head to Iran, but I was not very keen on the idea.
"I got into an argument here around Ghazni," he says. "My comrades wanted to go to Iran, but I was in favor of hiding here. One day when I was praying, they drove off in the pickup truck and left me behind."
Last week, Akram was picked up near the main highway, walking in the direction of Kandahar. He was holding a short Kalashnikov, but did not resist his heavily armed Hazara captors.
"I may be a criminal, but I'm also a human being, and I have rights," he says, waving his hands and moving closer to an interpreter so he could whisper. "I say kill me or cut my legs off, but don't tie me up every night and beat me. I'm ready to go to Cuba, or wherever."
Akram, unlike many Al Qaeda captives who stick to the network's code of silence, blasts bin Laden for betraying the cause of the "jihad," or holy war. He also expresses remorse at what he had been doing, insisting that he was misled from the beginning.
"I have visited a lot of countries, including Egypt," Akram says. "I wanted to study there.... But when I got to school, some bad types misled me and said go for the jihad."
He goes on to criticize bin Laden - although he mentions that bin Laden once sent him to Detroit, Mich., for medical treatment - and expresses hope that the US will do better by Afghanistan than bin Laden did. "One mistake that Osama made is that he only bought pickup trucks for the Taliban, and provided some rupees for their front lines. He was never seriously interested in the welfare of the Afghan people. Now that Al Qaeda is gone, the US should help the Afghans, the poor have suffered too much."