Part II of Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

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Ghamsharik said on November 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 November 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," 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."

An Exodus Begins

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 November 13.

But they say bin Laden joined them on November 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 November 28 to November 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 December 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 Christian Science Monitor. Fleeing the Tora Bora redoubt, 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.

The Escape Accelerates

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 U.S. intelligence officials said that they thought they heard his voice on December 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 the 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 rials (U.S. $1,400) 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 November 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 November 28 to December 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 fighters crossed. The snow was deep and the climb was difficult."

To continue to Part III of the story click here

To return to Part I of the story click here

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