National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

Philip Smucker
Christian Science Monitor
March 4, 2002
 
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 November
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.



Bin Laden, with that speech, was laying his plans to stay a step ahead of the U.S. campaign. He would travel to his favored fortified redoubt in Tora Bora, as the U.S. 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 U.S.-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, U.S. 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 U.S. was dazzling, save for the fight for Tora Bora, which may have been this unconventional war's most crucial battle. For the U.S., 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 U.S. 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."

Bin Laden Rallies Followers

It was just two days before the fall of Kabul on November 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. Gul says he received about the equivalent of U.S. $300; other leaders of larger clans received up to $10,000.

Flight to Tora Bora

By the next day, U.S. 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. 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 of 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."

The Bombing Heats Up

On November 16, three days after Al Qaeda and Taliban forces headed into their trenches, caves, and dugouts, U.S. 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 Khan, the tribal chief of Garikhil, was one of more than 100 civilians killed. He had been playing stickball on November 16 or 17, when a cruise missile shattered the earth around his feet. "At first, we thought that the U.S. military was trying to frighten the Arabs out, since they were only bombing from one side," Khan says.

To continue on to Part II of the story click here

To read Part III of the story click here
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.