Oct 01, 2004

The Long Hunt for Osama, Part 1

The Long Hunt for Osama By Peter Bergen The Atlantic Monthly October 1, 2004 Where has he been? How did we ever let him get away? Our correspondent?one of the few Western journalists ever to have met Osama bin Laden?traces the al-Qaeda leader's footsteps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and describes the sometimes hapless American pursuit When you fly over the icy peaks of the Hindu Kush, which march in serried ranks toward the Himalayas, dividing Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, you get a sense of the scale of the problem: Osama bin Laden may be hiding somewhere out there. Wherever he is, bin Laden continues to give substantial ideological direction to jihadist movements around the globe?and so American forces are scouring the Hindu Kush to find him. The conventional wisdom now, of course, is that tracking bin Laden down won't make much of a difference to the larger war on terrorism anyway. At a March 2002 press conference President Bush referred to bin Laden as "a person who's now been marginalized." Although it is certainly the case that the global jihadist movement will carry on whatever bin Laden's fate, it would be dangerously wrong to assume that it doesn't really matter whether he is apprehended. Finding bin Laden remains of utmost importance for three reasons. First, there is the matter of justice for the 3,000 people who died in the 9/11 attacks, and for the hundreds of other victims of al-Qaeda attacks around the world. Second, every day that bin Laden remains at liberty is a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda. Third, although bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri don't exert day-to-day control over al-Qaeda, according to Roger Cressey, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official, they do continue to supply "broad strategic guidance" for the group's actions, and for those of its affiliates. Statements from bin Laden and, to some degree, al-Zawahiri have always been the most reliable guide to the future actions of jihadist movements around the world?and this has remained the case even while both men have been on the run. Shortly after bin Laden called for assaults against Western economic interests in October of 2002, an Indonesian disco was bombed, killing 200 Western tourists, and a suicide attack was launched at a French oil tanker steaming off the coast of Yemen. In December of 2003, after al-Zawahiri condemned Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf for supporting the campaign against al-Qaeda, Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts. Around the same time, bin Laden called for attacks against members of the coalition in Iraq; subsequently terrorists bombed a British consulate and a bank in Turkey, and commuters on their way to work in Madrid. According to U.S. intelligence officials, a plot to carry out a large-scale terror attack against the United States in the near future, possibly tied to the presidential election in November, is being directed personally by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. In the past year I traveled twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan to find out how the hunt for bin Laden was progressing. While in Kabul I stayed at a comfortable guesthouse owned by a British combat cameraman?a spacious villa that is reportedly the former residence of one of Osama bin Laden's four wives. After the fall of the Taliban the villa was converted to its present use. For a hundred dollars and change it's now possible to have the ambiguous pleasure of sleeping in what may once have been the marital chamber of the world's most wanted man; for me, it was an appropriate place to begin an investigation into what became of bin Laden after 9/11. My investigation included more than two dozen interviews with American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, and discussions with several people who have met with bin Laden over the years. Only three people outside al-Qaeda and the Taliban are known to have spent any time with bin Laden after 9/11. Two are journalists and the third is a doctor. One of the journalists, Taysir Alouni, of al-Jazeera television, interviewed bin Laden in late October of 2001. (Alouni was later indicted in Spain for allegedly providing money to al-Qaeda.) During the al-Jazeera interview bin Laden for the first time linked himself publicly to the 9/11 attacks, after Alouni asked him, "America claims that it has proof that you are behind what happened in New York and Washington. What's your answer?" Bin Laden said, "If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who are killing our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists." At one point he said, "We practice the good terrorism." Hamid Mir, a Pakistani who has spent several years writing a biography of bin Laden, was the other journalist. Two months after 9/11 Mir was taken to meet bin Laden somewhere in Afghanistan. "I was blindfolded," he told me, "and they gave me some pills, and I was unconscious after that. When I woke up, it was the morning of the eighth of November. I have some impression that the place where he gave the interview was not far away from Kabul. They took me into a mud house, and I was surrounded by armed Arabs. 'Welcome! Welcome!' they said as I entered." Eventually Mir was taken to see bin Laden, who was eating a hearty meal of meat and olives, and was in a jocular frame of mind. What bin Laden had to say during the interview, however, was anything but a laughing matter. When Mir asked him how he could justify the killing of so many civilians, bin Laden replied, "America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal ? The September eleven attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America's icons of military and economic power." In the interview bin Laden openly discussed his willingness to use nuclear weapons. At about the same time, in the first week of November 2001, Amer Aziz, a prominent Pakistani surgeon, was summoned to Kabul to treat Muhammad Atef, who was then the military commander of al-Qaeda. During his visit Aziz, a Taliban sympathizer who had treated bin Laden in 1999 for a back injury, also met with bin Laden. The meeting is significant because there have been widespread but erroneous reports that bin Laden suffers from some form of deadly kidney disease. Aziz later told the Associated Press, "When I saw him last, he was in excellent health. He was walking. He was healthy. I didn't see any evidence of kidney disease. I didn't see any evidence of dialysis." Khalid Khawaja, formerly an official in Pakistan's military-intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, has known bin Laden since 1987, when the two fought side by side against the Soviets in Afghanistan. I met with Khawaja, a heavily bearded man of fifty-three who speaks flawless English, at the offices of an Islamabad law firm, in a conference room lined with legal treatises. I asked him when he had last seen bin Laden, but he ducked the question. When I asked about the state of bin Laden's health, however, he said that he had received reliable reports since 9/11 that bin Laden was "riding horses"?a further indication that he isn't suffering from a serious illness. According to several U.S. officials who track al-Qaeda, bin Laden's medical condition is not life-threatening. One told me he believes that bin Laden may be afflicted with Marfan syndrome, a disease that attacks the connective tissues and is commonly found in very thin tall people. (Abraham Lincoln probably suffered from the syndrome.) Bin Laden does have a variety of ailments, including low blood pressure, diabetes, and a foot wound that he sustained while fighting in Afghanistan in the late 1980s; but although all these conditions are debilitating, none is likely to cause bin Laden's death anytime soon. Moreover, al-Zawahiri, who is likely to be with bin Laden most of the time, is a skilled doctor. A senior Afghan official told me that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri travel together "like a couple." On November 13, 2001, Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, and bin Laden decamped to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. He knew the city well, having first settled there in May of 1996, after being expelled from his previous base, in Sudan. During the late 1990s bin Laden maintained a compound in Hadda, a suburb of Jalalabad, that consisted of dozens of rooms spread out over more than an acre. The compound sustained several direct hits during the Afghan war and is now a shell. For some perspective on Jalalabad, I spoke with Dr. Muhammad Asif Qazizada, the deputy governor of Nangarhar, the province that contains Jalalabad. In his office, in a splendid blue-domed nineteenth-century building that was once the winter palace of Afghanistan's kings, Qazizada explained why Jalalabad and the nearby mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora were the perfect places for bin Laden to stage one of history's great disappearing acts. In his early twenties Qazizada worked as a medic in Tora Bora when it was an important base for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. At the time, he recalled, Tora Bora was a warren of caves and fortifications defended by machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries. Because it offered easy access by foot to Parachinar, a region of Pakistan that juts like a parrot's beak into Afghanistan, it was also an ideal place from which to mount hit-and-run operations against the Soviets. Indeed, bin Laden fought his first battle against the Soviets, in 1987, at Jaji, an Afghan village that abuts Parachinar. During the 1980s, Qazizada said, Tora Bora was the object of several Soviet offensives, one of them involving thousands of soldiers, dozens of helicopter gun ships, and several MiG fighter jets; so solid were the fortifications that the Soviet offensives were held off by a force of no more than 130 Afghans. For this reason, Qazizada believes, bin Laden chose the region as his hideout and escape route in November of 2001. When the two-week battle of Tora Bora took place shortly afterward, in December, it was fought largely by the forces of local Afghan commanders, supported by small numbers of U.S. Special Forces, who called in intense air strikes against al-Qaeda's positions. But Tora Bora's mountainous topography worked to bin Laden's advantage. "It was difficult for the Americans to attack," Qazizada says, "and there was a way to flee." From Jalalabad, Tora Bora is a two-hour drive up a narrow, potholed country road. Protected by a squad of ten Afghan government soldiers, I was led there by Muhammad Zahir, a thirty-year-old Afghan commander. As we drove into the foothills, we saw beneath us terraced fields of the deepest green, rising toward towering mountains that are flecked with snow even in summer. On one of Tora Bora's many rocky outcrops we visited four al-Qaeda graves - marked by flying pennants of pink, green, blue, and orange. "The villagers made the shrine," Zahir explained. "They are al-Qaeda sympathizers. They think al-Qaeda are holy warriors, fighting against the infidels." During lunch Zahir, who fought on the front lines throughout the 2001 battle of Tora Bora, explained how the conflict had unfolded. Al-Qaeda's bases had dotted the surrounding mountains, which were covered with snow during the battle. Zahir said that he had seen Arab, Pakistani, and Chechen members of al-Qaeda fighting with rockets, tanks, machine guns, and artillery?a formidable force that could be taken on only with the help of B-52 bombing raids on al-Qaeda's positions. A turning point came on December 12, when Haji Zaman, one of the Afghan commanders leading the attack against al-Qaeda, opened negotiations with members of the group for a surrender agreement. "They talked on the radio with Haji Zaman," Zahir told me, "saying they were ready to surrender at two p.m. Commander Zaman told the other commanders and the Americans about this. Then al-Qaeda said, 'We need to have a meeting with our guys. Will you wait until eight a.m. tomorrow?' So we agreed to this. Those al-Qaeda who were not ready to be killed escaped that night. At eight a.m. the following day no one surrendered, so we started attacking again. Those people who chose to stay were serious fighters." When I returned to Jalalabad, I spoke with Commander Muhammad Musa, who said he had led 600 Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora front lines; with grudging admiration he recalled the tenacity with which some of al-Qaeda's fighters resisted to the end. "They fought very hard with us. When we captured them, they committed suicide with grenades. I saw three of them do that myself. The very hardest fighters were the Chechens." Musa praised the U.S. Air Force but was dismissive of American forces on the ground. "They were not involved in the fighting," he said. "There were six American soldiers with us, U.S. Special Forces. They coordinated the air strikes. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, al-Qaeda would not have had a way to escape. The Americans were my guests here, but they didn't know about fighting." And therein lies the crux of the problem. With only a small number of American "boots on the ground," the U.S. military chose to rely on the services of local Afghan proxies of uncertain loyalty and competence?a blunder that allowed many members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, to slip away. The blunder meant that, as a senior U.S. military official told me, "we don't know for sure when bin Laden disappeared." I got help with this question from Lutfullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan's Ministry of the Interior. Mashal told me, based on information he gleaned from radio intercepts, that "the Sheikh," as bin Laden is called by his supporters, departed Tora Bora in the first week of the American bombing campaign in that region, at the beginning of December 2001. According to Mashal, this information has been confirmed by Abu Jaffar, a Saudi financier who traveled to Afghanistan shortly before 9/11 with $3 million in charitable donations for al-Qaeda. Abu Jaffar, a fat middle-aged man with an amputated leg who described himself as an old friend of bin Laden's, told Mashal that once bin Laden had reached Jalalabad, he arranged for safe passage out of Afghanistan with the help of local tribal leaders. Mashal told me that there were three routes out of Tora Bora. The young and the energetic took the difficult, snow-covered passes south toward Parachinar. Others took the road to the southeastern Afghan city of Gardez. Older fighters headed east into Pakistan. According to Mashal, bin Laden took the Parachinar route, aided by members of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe, who were paid handsomely in money and rifles for their efforts. And so was lost the last, best chance to capture al-Qaeda's leader, at a time when he was confined to an area of several dozen square miles. Bin Laden may now be somewhere in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province?and if so, the area involved is approximately 40,000 square miles, a largely mountainous tract the size of Virginia. Despite the importance of finding al-Qaeda's leaders, by early 2002 the United States was already shifting its attention and resources away from Afghanistan. (That shift began early: according to Bob Woodward, in late November of 2001 President Bush had asked the Pentagon to revamp its Iraq war plan, an 800-page document known as Op Plan 1003.) For more than a year and a half the search for bin Laden was given relatively low priority. On February 24, 2002, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I wouldn't call [getting bin Laden] a prime mission." Intelligence and military assets that might have been directed at bin Laden were directed largely at Iraq. Only after the capture of Saddam Hussein, in December of 2003, were those resources redirected to the search for al-Qaeda's leaders. And according to CNN, not until this past spring were U.S. satellites ordered to survey the Afghan-Pakistani border region twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Although bin Laden was able to give U.S. forces the slip at Tora Bora, he did not make it through the battle without some personal cost. The Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who spent two days interviewing bin Laden in 1996 and has proved a consistently reliable source of information about al-Qaeda, told me that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder during the Tora Bora battle. In late December of 2001 bin Laden released his last videotaped statement, which seems to confirm the existence of this injury. On the videotape bin Laden appears haggard, his beard streaked with white and the left side of his upper body immobilized, which is unusual; he tends to gesture with both hands when he is speaking. As if to underline his weakened physical state, bin Laden says on the videotape, "I am a poor slave of God. If I live or die the war will continue." Since the appearance of that videotape, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have released a dozen or so audiotapes?about one every three months since 9/11. Paul Eedle, an Arabic-speaking British journalist who closely monitors discussions on al-Qaeda Web sites, says the audiotapes are "enormously important," in that "they provide sustenance to discussions of al-Qaeda's planning." In a recent bin Laden tape, which surfaced in April, he vowed revenge for the assassination of Hamas's founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who had been killed by Israeli security forces three weeks earlier. Why is it so hard to find Osama bin Laden? First, there is his obsession with security, which began in earnest not after 9/11 but a decade ago. In 1994, while bin Laden was living in Sudan, he was the target of a serious assassination attempt, possibly mounted by the Saudis, when a group of gunmen raked his Khartoum residence with machine-gun fire. After that attack bin Laden took much greater care of his security?an effort that was coordinated by Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-American U.S. Army sergeant who during the late 1980s had worked as an instructor at U.S. Special Forces headquarters, at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. In 1997, when I was a producer for CNN, I met with bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan to film his first-ever television interview, and thus witnessed the extraordinary lengths to which members of al-Qaeda went to protect their leader. My colleagues and I were taken to bin Laden's hideout in the middle of the night; we were made to change vehicles while blindfolded; we were aggressively searched and electronically swept for tracking devices; and we had to pass through three successive groups of guards armed with submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.