Bin Laden: The Great Escape?

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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

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