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Ex­cerpts from Cathy Scot­tClark and Adrian Levy’s book on Osama bin Laden in flight

AL QAEDA SUPREMO OSAMA BIN LADEN MAY HAVE be­lieved an un­seen force was pro­tect­ing him. He sur­vived close calls fight­ing the Soviet troops in Afghanistan but was never in as much peril as when shel­ter­ing in the caves of Tora Bora with the core of Al Qaeda lead­er­ship, three months after 9/11. By De­cem­ber 2001, the Tal­iban’s Is­lamic Emi­rate in Afghanistan lay in tat­ters, at­tacked by venge­ful B-52 bombers from the air and the North­ern Al­liance and US spe­cial forces on the ground. Bin Laden was caught be­tween the ham­mer of US spe­cial forces and their Afghan al­lies fight­ing their way up to­wards his moun­tain cave re­doubt and the anvil of Pak­istani fron­tier troops block­ing his es­cape. When it seemed like all was lost for the ter­ror­ist chief, prov­i­dence once again came to his as­sis­tance in the form of an­other sen­sa­tional ter­ror at­tack. This one, car­ried out by Pak­istani ter­ror­ists against In­dia’s Par­lia­ment in New Delhi on De­cem­ber 11, 2001. The at­tack saw In­dia de­ploy its army along the bor­der threat­en­ing Pak­istan with war. The Pak­istani anvil dis­ap­peared. An es­cape route opened up for the ter­ror­ist chief and his fol­low­ers who would live to fight an­other day. The at­tack on In­dia’s Par­lia­ment, it seems, was no co­in­ci­dence. Ex­cerpts from The Ex­ile:

Novem­ber 25, 2001, Tora Bora

Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi and his fight­ers reached Osama high up in the White Moun­tains, ex­hausted from the climb and carrying the ex­tra bag­gage of dis­tress­ing news. The bin Laden fam­ily con­voy had been am­bushed at the bor­der. Like so many other Arabs, their driver had been hog-tied with elec­tri­cal wire and turned over to the Amer­i­cans for a $5,000 bounty, while their chap­er­one, Osama’s autis­tic son Saad, and his brother-in-law, the Saudi hus­band of Osama’s daugh­ter Fa­tima, were “miss­ing, pre­sumed dead”.

Hor­ri­fied, Osama sent a courier back down to Kan­da­har as he set Zar­qawi and his men to work for­ti­fy­ing bunkers. The Jor­da­nian hard man was still far from full strength. Now, he lay on his side in a cot in­side the lip of a cave, di­rect­ing his deputies, Iyad al-Toubasi and Khalid al-Aruri, and cor­ralling the fight­ers, who took up po­si­tion high in the cliff faces, hefted sand­bags, shored up cave walls, and stock­piled mu­ni­tions and weapons for the com­ing show­down.

In­side one of the last Al Qaeda safe­houses, 9/11 ar­chi­tect Mokhtar, plan­ner Abu Zubay­dah, mil­i­tary com­man­der Saif al-Adel, and the Mau­ri­ta­nian cleric Sheikh Mah­foud Ibn El Waleed (aka The Mau­ri­ta­nian) made a de­ci­sion to try and send all re­main­ing Arab fam­i­lies to Pak­istan. Those who made it across would be guided by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the ISI-backed ‘Army of the Pure’, deep in­side Pak­istan. This group and many oth­ers like it rep­re­sented one of Pak­istan’s most en­dur-


ing con­tra­dic­tions—a state-spon­sored Is­lamist ter­ror net­work that shared a pub­lic plat­form with se­nior gen­er­als and in­tel­li­gence chiefs who made vo­cif­er­ous de­nials of any con­nec­tions be­tween them ....

Novem­ber 29, 2001, Jalal­abad

In re­cent days, as it be­came ob­vi­ous to ev­ery­one in the Bush White House that Tora Bora was to be the scene of the fi­nal show­down, Jalal­abad had filled up with re­porters, CIA op­er­a­tives, hulk­ing Army Rangers, and Delta Force op­er­a­tives, their com­man­ders bed­ding in and seek­ing al­liances with Afghan war­lords still loyal to the Tal­iban’s main en­emy, the North­ern Al­liance. When the time came to at­tack, the plan was for the Afghans to lead the way so as to have as few Amer­i­can boots on the ground as pos­si­ble.

On a map, it was lit­tle more than a mile from the foothills of the White Moun­tains to the first tier of Al Qaeda caves, but the snow was thick, the slopes were steep, and, for even the fittest Afghan fight­ers, it was an icy three-hour climb. De­spite th­ese dis­ad­van­tages, Bush and his mil­i­tary com­man­der, Gen­eral Tommy Franks, were con­fi­dent that spend­ing $70 mil­lion on ground sup­port backed up by US air­power would win them one of the big­gest “bar­gains in his­tory”.

From his van­tage point in Is­lam­abad, the CIA sta­tion chief Robert Grenier hoped they were right, but all of his years in a greasy busi­ness that—like rally driv­ing—saw trac­tion come and go told him not to bank on it.

Over­heads, ra­dio in­ter­cepts, and in­ter­ro­ga­tions all pointed to a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of je­hadis dug in on ragged peaks that topped fif­teen thou­sand feet and ran along an east-west axis, defin­ing a por­tion of the Du­rand Line that the Bri­tish had de­mar­cated in 1893.

Grenier knew this area in­cor­po­rated some of the most in­hos­pitable ter­rain in the world, es­pe­cially around Tora Bora where Osama pre­sum­ably had su­pe­rior knowl­edge. The CIA maps showed that over the years the area had been mod­i­fied by tun­nel rats who had hacked into the quartz and feldspar.

Some cav­erns were sup­pos­edly 350 feet deep and fit­ted with ven­ti­la­tion ex­hausts, se­cret ex­its, and booby-trapped en­trances—and even a hy­dro­elec­tric power plant. Locked in­side the CIA sta­tion, Grenier stud­ied large-scale Amer­i­can flight charts that had been drawn up at the height of the Cold War. He had given some to ISI an­a­lytic chief Gen­eral Javed Alam Khan in the days when they had been liv­ing in each other’s laps, as the ISI’s own maps pre­dated the 1947 par­ti­tion of In­dia and Pak­istan. With­out con­sis­tent satel­lite time, other than what was se­cretly lent them by the Chi­nese, the ISI, the Pak­istan army, and the Fron­tier Corps, a para­mil­i­tary force staffed by tribal re­cruits, were reliant on Pash­tun guides and Colonial-era gazetteers to hunt and kill along the bor­der. “The blind lead­ing the blind.”

Study­ing the maps now, Grenier could see some­thing dis­turb­ing. As US forces con­verged on Jalal­abad, if Osama’s fight­ers were pressed they were likely to spill across the snow line and van­ish into Pak­istan’s Tribal Ar­eas. He knew that this deeply con­ser­va­tive re­gion was not gov­erned by Is­lam­abad but through tribal cus­toms that de­manded res­i­dents lend pro­tec­tion to any guests ir­re­spec­tive of the sit­u­a­tion. Here an en­tire army could ar­rive and van­ish un­der the silk hand­ker­chief called Pash­tun­wali.

They had to act. He called on Gen­eral Khan. Of­fi­cially, homegrown para­mil­i­tary units raised from Pash­tun vil­lages main­tained se­cu­rity in the tribal belt, Khan ex­plained. They were led on and off by reg­u­lar of­fi­cers from the army and the Fron­tier Corps. They were dis­ci­plined and could be counted on to stand and fight, un­less “a for­tu­itous war with In­dia” forced the com­mand to re­as­sign all of the armed forces, he joked.

De­cem­ber 3, 2001, Tora Bora

Caves meant many things to Osama. Key among them, aside from the thick, bomb-re­sis­tant walls and the cool shade in scorch­ing sum­mer, was their sym­bolic value. The Prophet had first en­coun­tered the an­gel Gabriel in a cave in Mecca, and Osama once as­ton­ished the Mau-

ri­ta­nian by telling him that his—Osama’s—pres­ence in Tora Bora gave cre­dence to the oft re­peated story that he was the Mahdi (Is­lam’s mes­siah). “A cave is the last pure place on this earth,” Osama had said to the Mau­ri­ta­nian, some­where to re­treat from so­ci­ety.

Now, as mu­jahideen scram­bled up the slopes and into grave-like trenches, Osama took out his Yaesu VHF ra­dio set, re­mind­ing any­one lis­ten­ing of the great vic­tory at Jaji. “The trench is your gate­way to heaven,” he de­clared, or­der­ing fight­ers to ob­serve the Ramzan fast even in the heat of bat­tle. At his side were sons Oth­man and Mo­hammed; his deputy Dr Al-Zawahiri; and his ac­ci­den­tal spokesman, Su­laiman Abu Ghaith, who had still not man­aged to break away. Zar­qawi’s men were bed­ded in all around the peaks. Tough it out, the Jor­da­nian or­dered. The Amer­i­cans were too weak and feck­less to ever reach the sum­mit.

Over the bor­der in Pak­istan, Grenier, who was by now back in his of­fice at the US em­bassy, heard that the US side had caught a break. Lo­cal men Osama had em­ployed to build the moun­tain com­plex had been bought up by the CIA to act as guides, lead­ing tar­get­ing and re­con­nais­sance spe­cial­ists to­ward a ridge­line from which they could look di­rectly into the Melawa Val­ley and Al Qaeda’s for­ward op­er­at­ing base.

As­ton­ished, Grenier lis­tened to field re­ports that de­scribed Osama’s com­mand posts, ve­hi­cles, and stone out­build­ings. Dozens of Al Qaeda fight­ers were spot­ted in ma­chine-gun nests and anti-air­craft po­si­tions that had been built into the ver­tig­i­nous cliffs. The re­con­nais­sance and tar­get­ing mis­sion flashed co­or­di­nates back to CENTCOM, and the first mis­siles screeched in. Grenier fol­lowed ca­bles about the build-up anx­iously, and by the af­ter­noon he could see from the re­ports that bombers and jets criss­crossed the cloud­less sky above Tora Bora, fill­ing the val­ley with vapours and smoke. Above them, in­side his sub­ter­ranean op­er­a­tions cen­tre, Osama called on his men to be pa­tient, while he sipped tea and ate dates.

On the Pak­istan side, six Pak­istan Army bat­tal­ions, freshly kit­ted out with US ma­teriel, were climb­ing into po­si­tion high above Parachi­nar un­der the com­mand of Lt Gen­eral Ali Jan Au­rakzai, the re­cal­ci­trant com­man­der of IX Corps. A Pash­tun from the Orakzai tribal agency, the gen­eral had over­all re­spon­si­bil­ity for the en­tire north­west of Pak­istan. His six thou­sand men as­cended, hand over fist, to­ward Al Qaeda po­si­tions.

De­cem­ber 4, 2001, Melawa Val­ley, Afghanistan

Be­liev­ing that a re­treat into Pak­istan was now im­mi­nent, Grenier, who was watch­ing events un­fold from Is­lam­abad, con­sulted his charts and sent a for­mal re­quest for a bat­tal­ion of US Rangers to be dropped into po­si­tion be­hind Al Qaeda lines, just to make sure the block­ing job was done right.

Gen­eral Tommy Franks re­fused. They were not go­ing to make the same mis­take as the Sovi­ets, he said, de­ploy­ing huge num­bers of US forces that could be drawn into a moun­tain­top trap. The Pak­ista­nis would do the job for them, act­ing as the catcher on the high slopes and a beater down in the val­ley of Parachi­nar. Lt Gen­eral Au­rakzai had their back. Osama was sur­rounded.

Grenier doubted any­one could se­cure the passes out of the White Moun­tains and was frus­trated that the US mil­i­tary and Bush of­fi­cials did not press home their dis­tinct ad­van­tage. After he rec­om­mended that the CIA team on the ground ad­vance, Afghan vil­lagers were dis­patched up to­ward Al Qaeda’s po­si­tion with GPS de­vices con­cealed in­side food parcels.

One ex­cited man re­turned, adamant that he had seen Osama bin Laden, a teenage boy who could be one of his sons, and Dr. al-Zawahiri in a cave at four­teen thou­sand feet. The co­or­di­nates were passed back to CENTCOM with a re­quest to send in a BLU-82 Daisy Cut­ter. The fif­teen thou­sand­pound bomb was de­signed to ex­plode with in­tim­i­dat­ing power above the ground, scyth­ing a land­ing strip in­side a for­est in a split sec­ond. When it det­o­nated in the air on De­cem­ber 9, it shook the moun­tains for miles around. Ev­ery­thing was melt­ing and burn­ing or crum­bling. One plain­tive voice caught a sig­nals op­er­a­tor’s at­ten­tion: “Fa­ther is try­ing to break through the siege line.” Was this code, or had one of Osama’s sons ra­dioed through sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion on an open line? Work­ing to lock down the sig­nal, the CIA be­lieved it had pin­pointed Osama’s lo­ca­tion to within thirty feet—the clos­est Amer­i­can forces had ever come to Al Qaeda’s leader.

On the night of De­cem­ber 10, Osama reached for his ra­dio set. “What should we do?” he asked the air­waves plain­tively. On the morn­ing of De­cem­ber 12, Ibn Sheikh made ra­dio con­tact with a US-al­lied Afghan war­lord and of­fered a cease­fire so that


bin Laden could ne­go­ti­ate his sur­ren­der. They agreed to talk again at 4 pm shortly be­fore the cease­fire ex­pired. Ibn Sheikh called through, ask­ing for an ex­ten­sion un­til 8 am the next morn­ing, ex­plain­ing: “We need to have a meet­ing with our guys.” The US side was not sold on the idea but Gen­eral Franks agreed, over­rul­ing the doubters, even though Delta op­er­a­tives were strain­ing to en­ter the Tora Bora caves. “Why take your foot off?” an in­can­des­cent Grenier fumed in Is­lam­abad.

On the morn­ing of De­cem­ber 13, the 8 am dead­line passed with­out any fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Later that af­ter­noon in Is­lam­abad, un­sched­uled troop ac­tiv­i­ties on the Pak­istan side sud­denly grabbed the CIA sta­tion chief ’s at­ten­tion. With­out any ex­pla­na­tion, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Au­rakzai ap­peared to be mov­ing his sol­diers off the White Moun­tains. Grenier ra­dioed to check. It was ab­so­lutely hap­pen­ing. The troops had been re­as­signed to Pak­istan’s eastern bor­ders, with in­struc­tions, in­ter­cepted by the CIA, to com­plete the ma­noeu­vre “within three hours.” When he tried to get through to Au­rakzai and to Gen­eral Khan, there was no re­sponse.

De­cem­ber 13, 2001, 11:45 am, New Delhi, In­dia

Shortly be­fore noon In­dia Stan­dard Time, mil­i­tants from Jaish-e-Mo­hammed, the Pak­istani je­had out­fit run by Ma­sood Azhar and nur­tured by the ISI, at­tacked the main Par­lia­ment build­ing in New Delhi, a brazen as­sault that left 12 men dead and both na­tions eye­balling each other. Al­most im­me­di­ately, In­dia started de­ploy­ing sol­diers on its bor­der with Pak­istan, prompt­ing Ma­jor Gen­eral [Pervez] Mushar­raf to is­sue or­ders to meet them head-on, rerout­ing Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Au­rakzai’s forces to face them down. “Two ac­tive bor­ders are some­thing one would never wish,” said Ma­jor Gen­eral Rashid Qureshi, Mushar­raf ’s spokesman.

Only a war could come be­tween Au­rakzai and the White Moun­tains, Gen­eral Khan had warned. And now Ma­sood Azhar’s mu­jahideen had launched a hu­mil­i­at­ing as­sault that brought In­dia and Pak­istan closer to fight­ing—with nu­clear weapons—than at any other time since 1999.

Could Jaish have at­tacked the In­dian Par­lia­ment with­out their spon­sors in the ISI know­ing about it? Grenier fumed. Was the tim­ing some kind of ter­ri­ble co­in­ci­dence? It was dif­fi­cult not to see this as a de­lib­er­ate ruse to al­low Osama bin Laden to es­cape from Tora Bora into Pak­istan. When Wendy Cham­ber­lin, the US am­bas­sador to Pak­istan, fi­nally got to speak to Mushar­raf about the is­sue, all he would say was that in­tel­li­gence was a “dirty busi­ness”. The mil­i­tary com­bine in Pak­istan was like magma, a molten caul­dron of min­er­als and im­pu­ri­ties that oc­ca­sion­ally formed a crust and was li­able to leak out of un­seen vents when the pres­sure be­came ir­re­sistible.

De­cem­ber 14, 2001, Tora Bora

A ra­dio op­er­a­tor caught a snatch of an all-too-fa­mil­iar voice speak­ing Ara­bic. “The time is now!” Osama de­clared. “Arm your women and chil­dren.” The mes­sages that fol­lowed threw light on the un­fold­ing scene on the moun­tain­top. Al Qaeda was ral­ly­ing, send­ing out small scout­ing teams to test the trails to their rear. Quickly, they re­turned and re­ported “no re­sis­tance”. Next came an apol­ogy “to all of his fight­ers”, Osama send­ing ad­mi­ra­tion and re­grets “for get­ting them trapped and pounded by Amer­i­can airstrikes”. Af­ter­ward, the thrum of col­lec­tive prayer filled the air­waves.

In his mind’s eye, Grenier imag­ined the rugged hills above Parachi­nar. Now in­stead of a trip wire of forces paid for by the United States, the back door out of Tora Bora was flap­ping wide open, and through it would stride an ex­ile.


The Ex­ile Cathy Scott Clark and Adrian Levy

Se­cu­rity forces dur­ing the fire­fight, De­cem­ber 13, 2001



Clock­wise from above: Bin Laden with al-Zawahiri in a TV bite from Oct 7, 2001; CIA sta­tion chief Robert Grenier with Pak army of­fi­cers at the Pei­war Ko­tal Pass on the Pak-Afghan bor­der, Nov 28, 2001; Al­liance fight­ers in­side a cap­tured cave

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