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!").
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.
Malik Habib Gul, who sat in the second row in the basement of the Taliban's intelligence headquarters that night, did not soon forget the evening; a lavish one by Pashtun standards. Like the other tribal elders in attendance, the chief received a white envelope full of Pakistani rupees, the thickness proportional to the 30 extended families under his jurisdiction in Upper Pachir, which lies against the Pakistani border. His "spending money," he says now, did not run out until last week. Mr. Gul says he received about the equivalent of $300; other leaders of larger clans received up to $10,000.
By the next day, US aerial bombing became much heavier, and the mood was dismal in the streets of Jalalabad. The ancient trading center, situated on the old Silk Road, has long been a meeting place for Pashtun tribesmen who come from hours away - and from across the border in Pakistan - to barter weapons, purchase mules, and negotiate political loyalties.
"We saw Osama while standing here in front of our guesthouse at 9 p.m. on that Tuesday," says Babrak Khan, a Jalalabad resident who once worked as a guard at a nearby base for Islamic militants. Mr. Babrak says he's sure of the time, because he listened to part of the BBC Pashto language news broadcast that begins at 9:30 p.m. in Afghanistan.
As Babrak and three other city residents describe it, bin Laden rapidly exited the sixth or seventh car, a custom-designed white Toyota Corolla with an elongated, hatchback, in a convoy of several hundred cars. Bin Laden cradled a Kalakov machinegun, a shortened version of a Kalashnikov, as he barked orders to his man.
A little later, he stood beside a mosque under a tree, surrounded by about 60 armed guards, but quite visibly nervous. Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the Taliban governor of Jalalabad, was holding his hand, as is customary for Muslim men who are spiritually close. The two men were speaking briskly with the son of Younus Khalis, the city's aging patriarch with links to both bin Laden and the Taliban.
Not long after this rare sighting of bin Laden, the convoy, mostly four-wheel drive trucks but followed up with six armored vehicles in the rear, hastily left town. The fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban members snaked their way down a bumpy dirt road that runs through ancient battlefields and tattered villages and into the Al Qaeda base.
In the foothills of Tora Bora, about 30 miles southeast of Jalalabad, the convoy split up. One group went to the village of Mileva and the other group to the village of Garikhil as they prepared to take up their positions in the nearby cave complex.
"They were scornful and in a hurry, and sat there on a stoop, dividing up the fighters and assigning them to different caves," says Malik Osman Khan, chief the village of Garikhil. "Our people were terrified, because we thought the planes would hit the Arabs as they stopped in our village. We sent the women and children into another village for their own safety."
On Nov. 16, three days after Al Qaeda and Taliban forces headed into their trenches, caves, and dugouts, US bombing of the base, which had been ongoing since October, intensified.
In fact, this was when reports of civilian casualties in the region began circulating. Wahid Ullah, the 16-year-old son of Mr. Khan, the tribal chief of Garikhil, was one of more than 100 civilians killed. He had been playing stickball on Nov. 16 or 17, when a cruise missile shattered the earth around his feet. "At first, we thought that the US military was trying to frighten the Arabs out, since they were only bombing from one side," Khan says.
As the US intensified its airstrikes on Tora Bora, US and Afghan helicopters started to arrive with supplies for the Afghans. Also - as was its pattern elsewhere in Afghanistan - the US began enlisting local warlords. Two - Hazret Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharik - would become notorious in the battle for Tora Bora.
Both Mr. Ali and Mr. Ghamsharik say they were first approached by plain-clothed US officers in the middle of November and asked to take part in an attack on the Tora Bora base.
"We looked at the entire spectrum of options that we had available to us and decided that the use of small liaison elements were the most appropriate," says Army Col. Rick Thomas in a phone interview from US Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
"We chose to fight using the Afghans who were fighting to regain their own country," Colonel Thomas says. "Our aims of eliminating Al Qaeda were similar."
Ali is a short, cocky fighter who won control over most of Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated on Nov. 13. He then became security chief for the Eastern Shura, the self-proclaimed government here. With only a fourth-grade education, he can sign documents, but he has trouble reading them. As an anti-Taliban fighter allied to former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated just before Sept. 11, Ali and his band of hillbilly fighters fought against the Taliban in the north for six years. Local Pashtuns in Jalalabad complain that Ali's men went on a looting spree during their first days in town.
As a counterbalance to Ali, the US chose another powerful regional warlord, Ghamsharik, whom they had lured back from exile in Dijon, France, in late September. Known to many as a ruthless player in the regional smuggling business, Ghamsharik was given a rousing party on his return, including a 1,000-gun salute. He became the Jalalabad commander of the Eastern Shura. But he still didn't have the support of his own Afghan tribesmen (Khugani). Many of them, in fact, were proud to admit that they worked for Al Qaeda inside the Tora Bora base as well as in several nearby bases.
From the start, Ghamsharik was clearly uncomfortable with the power-sharing arrangement. Ali's men were Pashay - no relation to Ghamsharik's own Pashtun followers. He called his rival Ali "a peasant," and said he could not be trusted.
The rift between the two men would seriously hinder US efforts to capture Al Qaeda's leadership. Although backed by the United States, the Jalalabad warlords would have to determine by themselves - while sometimes arguing fiercely - how best to go after Tora Bora's defenders.
Moreover, in the early stages of the Eastern Shura discussions about Tora Bora, these leaders talked about "asking the Arabs to leave," not about attacking them outright. A key powerbroker, Maulvi Younus Khalis, a Jalalabad patriarch who supported bin Laden, had stacked the Shura with his own sympathizers. "The Americans can bomb all they want, they'll never catch Osama," he quipped to the Monitor on Nov. 25.
While ceding some power to the two competing warlords - Ali and Ghamsharik - Khalis, who had been temporarily handed the key to Jalalabad when the Taliban vacated, made sure that his personal military commander, Awol Gul, retained the heavy fighting equipment. Mr. Gul and another Khalis man, Mohammed Amin, traveled into Tora Bora on several occasions beginning Nov. 13, according to Ghamsharik.
The Afghan warlords estimated that Tora Bora held between 1,500 and 1,600 of the best Arab and Chechen fighters in bin Laden's terror network.
Ghamsharik said on Nov. 18 that the fight would be a tough one: "[Al Qaeda fighters] told us through our envoys that 'We will fight until we are martyred.' "
They also suspected that bin Laden himself would be directing the battle. After all, it was the place from which he had most successfully fought the Soviets in the 1980s.
And on Nov 29, Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC's "Primetime Live" that, according to the reports that were coming in, bin Laden was in Tora Bora."I think he was equipped to go to ground there," Mr. Cheney said. "He's got what he believes to be a fairly secure facility. He's got caves underground; it's an area he's familiar with."
Meanwhile, in the weeks following bin Laden's arrival at the Tora Bora caves, morale slipped under the constant air assault. One group of Yemeni fighters, squirreled away in a cave they had been assigned to by the Al Qaeda chief, had not seen bin Laden since entering on Nov. 13.
But they say bin Laden joined them on Nov. 26, the 11th day of Ramadan, a warm glass of green tea in his hand. Instead of inspiring the elite fighters, he was now reduced, they say, to repeating the same "holy war" diatribe.
Around him that day sat three of his most loyal fighters, including Abu Baker, a square-faced man with a rough-hewn scruff on his chin."[Bin Laden] said, 'hold your positions firm and be ready for martyrdom,' " Baker told Afghan intelligence officers when he was captured in mid-December. "He said, 'I'll be visiting you again, very soon.' " Then, as quickly as he had come, Baker says, bin Laden vanished into the pine forests.
Between two and four days later, somewhere between Nov. 28 to Nov. 30 - according to detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan afterward - the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most-powerful military machine, walking - with four of his loyalists - in the direction of Pakistan.
On Dec. 11, in the village of Upper Pachir - located a few miles northeast of the main complex of caves where Al Qaeda fighters were holed up - a Saudi financier and Al Qaeda operative, Abu Jaffar, was interviewed by the Monitor. Fleeing the Tora Bora redoubt, Mr. Jaffar said that bin Laden had left the cave complexes roughly 10 days earlier, heading for the Parachinar area of Pakistan.
Jaffar, whose foot was blown off by a cluster bomb, was traveling with his Egyptian wife. He stayed in Upper Pachir one night, before fleeing north, then east toward the famed Khyber Pass.
Bin Laden, according to several fighters and the Saudi financier, later phoned back to the enclave, urging his followers to keep fighting. He also reportedly told them he was sending his own son, Salah Uddin, to replace him. Bin Laden's talk with his followers in Tora Bora just a few days after his departure may explain why US intelligence officials said that they thought they heard his voice on Dec. 10, probably on a short-wave transmission.
The slow but growing exodus from Tora Bora now became a mad rush. Mohammed Akram, who had occasionally cooked for bin Laden, says he was fixing dinner in a cave at the end of November, when a huge bomb exploded at the base and blew him some 30 feet back into the mouth of the grotto. Two of his colleagues were killed, and he, along with another Saudi and a Kurdish fighter, decided to flee.
His flight, he stated in February, began about the same day at end of November as bin Laden escaped. "We received a lot of Iranian currency, and the commanders distributed it to the soldiers," he said, adding that he had received 700,000 ($1,400) rials for his own personal use. "Our own Chechens were killing people who tried to leave so we left at night and traveled into Paktia [the province to the south] near to Gardez and onto Zarmat."
As panic overtook the fighters inside the enclave, local villagers who had been regularly paid off by bin Laden's men were available to help.
Malik Habib Gul, who had attended bin Laden's Nov. 10 speech in Jalalabad, says he was happy to arrange mule trains. He says the Al Qaeda fighters paid between 5,000 and 50,000 Pakistani rupees for mules and Afghan guides, which moved stealthily along the base of the White Mountains, over a major highway, and into the remote tribal areas of Pakistan.
"This was a golden opportunity for our village," he said in Jalalabad last week. "The only problem for the Arabs was the first 5 to 10 kilometers northeast from Tora Bora to our village of Upper Pachir. The bombing was very heavy. But after arriving in our village, there were no problems. You could ride a mule or drive a car into Pakistan."
He and other villagers say that from about Nov. 28 to Dec. 12, they probably escorted some 600 people out, including entire families. "Our main responsibility was getting people across the Kabul River at Lalpur. To do this, we had to cross the main road, but there was no one guarding it. To the south [in the direction of Parachinar, Pakistan], only walkers, mostly young fight- ers crossed. The snow was deep and the climb was difficult."
Pir Baksh Bardiwal, the intelligence chief for the Eastern Shura, which controls eastern Afghanistan, says he was astounded that Pentagon planners didn't consider the most obvious exit routes and put down light US infantry to block them.
"The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair with a short list of the Al Qaeda fighters who were later taken prisoner. "And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters, had the Americans acted decisively. Al Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet."
The intelligence chief contends that several thousand Pakistani troops who had been placed along the border about Dec. 10 never did their job, nor could they have been expected to, given that the exit routes were not being blocked inside Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, back in Jalalabad, the Afghan warlords enlisted by the US to attack Tora Bora were also cutting deals to help the Al Qaeda fighters escape.
In the shoddy lobby of the Spin Ghar Hotel in downtown Jalalabad on Dec. 3, Haji Hayat Ullah - a member of the Eastern Shura who, according to both Afghan and Pakistani sources had long ties to bin Laden - asked for the "safe passage" for three of his Arab friends.
After a 20-minute discussion with Commander Ali, which was overheard by the Monitor in the empty hotel lobby, a deal was struck for the safe passage of the three Al Qaeda members.
About the same day as the 10-day offensive was launched - on Dec. 5 - nearly three-dozen US special forces, their faces wrapped in black and white bandanas, watched the fighting unfold from behind boulders on mountainsides, their trusted laser target designators in hand. They were "painting" the mouths of caves and bunkers inside the complex. The US bombing became markedly more accurate - almost overnight, according to Afghan civilians and local commanders.
The battle was joined, but anything approaching a "siege" of Tora Bora never materialized. Ghamsharik says today that he offered the US military the use his forces in a "siege of Tora Bora," but that the US opted in favor of his rival, Hazret Ali.
Indeed, Mr. Ali paid a lieutenant named Ilyas Khel to block the main escape routes into Pakistan. Mr. Khel had come to him three weeks earlier from the ranks of Taliban commander Awol Gul.
"I paid him 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000] and gave him a satellite phone to keep us informed," says Mohammed Musa, an Ali deputy, who says Ali had firmly "trusted" Khel.
"Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more, and so Ilyas Khel just showed the Arabs the way out of the country into Pakistan," Mr. Musa adds.
Afghan fighters from villages on the border confirmed in interviews last week in Jalalabad that they had later been engaged in firefights with Khel's fighters, who they said were "firing cover for escaping Al Qaeda."
As a Russian-made tank commandeered by US-backed Afghans blasted the valleys dividing snow-capped peaks, American B-52s rained down bombs from above, sending giant mushroom clouds that hovered over the pine forests.
The remaining Arab fighters - now reduced to a few hundred from the original 1,500 to 2,000 - continued to hold out, and could be overheard speaking on their radio handsets on Dec. 6. "OK. You can come out shooting," said one Al Qaeda fighter, speaking to another. "The US planes have flown out of the area again."
"The Sheikh [bin Laden] says keep your children in the caves and fight for Allah. Give guns to your wives as necessary to fight against the infidel aggressors."
But talk of surrender came quickly and unexpectedly on Dec. 11, amid heavy gunbattles in the bombed-out pine forests here. Arab fighters used an Afghan translator earlier in the day to convey their wishes: "Our guest brothers want to find safe passage out of your province."
Ghamsharik responded: "Our blood is your blood, your wives our sisters, and your children our children. But under the circumstances, I am compelled to tell you that you must either leave or surrender."
When Ali, whose men had paid Khel to guard the rear nearly two weeks earlier, complained that no deals should be cut, Ghamsharik shot back: "If you want to hold this ridge, send your own men up here. You are down there with the press and the pretty ladies, and I'm stuck up here." Both men chuckled.
On Dec. 13, Al Qaeda-backer Younus Khalis sent his own man into the fray - this time on the US side of the battle.
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.
"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."
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.