Bin Laden’s Escape
“What’s this?” a Northern Alliance commander asked me, in early 2002, as we walked through the rubble of what had been bin Laden’s hideout in Kabul. A U.S. fighter plane had flown overhead and dropped thousands of leaflets, a few of which settled on the ground near us.
I picked one up. “It’s a note offering twenty-five million dollars for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden,” I said. The sum was written out as a numeral, with its impressive string of zeros.
“That won’t work,” he said, shaking his head. “You won’t get any information.”
“Well, for a start, most people in this area can’t read. But beyond that, they don’t believe that amount of money exists in the world. They are simple folks. If you would write, say, a hundred rupees, that would be more believable, and you’d probably get more responses.”
After the Taliban refused an ultimatum from the U.S. government to stop harboring al-Qaeda, on October 7, 2001, the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom and attacked Afghanistan. Primary strikes were launched at the capital, Kabul, at the country’s main airport, at Kandahar, where Mullah Omar was based, and at Jalalabab—all cities considered central to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Supported by U.S. air cover and Special Operations Forces, the Northern Alliance pressed forward against Taliban positions.
Once the U.S. attack began, the leaders of different terrorist groups came together for a meeting. Among those present were representatives of al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Independent operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby, of Khaldan, also participated. They all agreed to put their personal and ideological differences behind them and unite to fight the invading U.S. forces.
Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of al-Qaeda’s military commanders, was appointed commander of all the Arabs. He was assisted by Abdel al-Wakeel al-Masri, one of the 1998 East African embassy bombing co-conspirators. Abdel Wakeel toured al-Qaeda bases and instructed fighters to dig trenches around their bases. He told several al-Qaeda operatives, “The United States will only attack by air and drop bombs. They won’t put troops on the ground.” Al-Qaeda’s military preparations were premised on this assumption.
When U.S. forces appeared in Afghanistan, it was a surprise to most al-Qaeda members, including Salim Hamdan. For years he had sat through speeches by bin Laden in which the al-Qaeda leader had told those gathered that the United States was a weak country that retreated when attacked. It was a shock, therefore, to see the United States responding to the attacks in New York and Washington by invading Afghanistan, and to see al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the run.
Once the invasion began, bin Laden and his entourage kept constantly on the move, traveling between Kabul and Jalalabad, areas bin Laden was very familiar with, having lived and traveled in the region since the beginning of the Soviet jihad. At one stop, in a small village, Hamdan timidly approached the al-Qaeda leader and asked for a brief leave. His wife was pregnant and ill. He promised to return.
Bin Laden granted permission. With his personal driver and confidant gone, he decided to change his entourage. He realized that his life would now be that of a fugitive. While before he had been a guest of the ruling Taliban, he now needed operatives with different skills around him. The new group he picked included three of his most trusted advisers and operatives: his son Uthman; Hamza al-Ghamdi, the leader of the Northern Group; and Khallad. Among the others were Khalid al-Habib, an Egyptian; Yousef al-Qanas (“the sniper”), a Kuwaiti; Abdulrahman al-Taezi, a Yemeni; and Abu Saeed, a Saudi.
Where the Taliban could no longer hold their lines, the foreign fighters took over security for the cities. Saif al-Adel, one of al Qaeda’s chief military operatives, was sent by bin Laden to Khandahar to help organize the defense of the city. Realizing the situation was getting increasingly dangerous, bin Laden gave the order for al-Qaeda fighters to take their families out of Afghanistan. The one leader who hadn’t fled from al-Qaeda’s main camp was Abu Hafs, al-Qaeda’s main military commander, who was unable to travel because of his back problems. In mid-November a U.S. airstrike leveled the house he was staying in, killing him and seven other al-Qaeda members. One of the seven was Zachariah al-Tunisi, who (one of his friends confided in Abu Zubaydah) was involved in the 1993 battle against U.S. forces in Somalia. He had in fact fired the RPG that took down the U.S. helicopter in the episode that became known as Black Hawk Down. Also killed was Moaz bin Attash, the youngest member of the bin Attash family, at the time assigned to take care of al-Qaeda’s main guesthouse in Kandahar. After the strike killing Abu Hafs, surviving al-Qaeda members ran to the site, removed the rubble by hand, and buried the bodies nearby. The death of Abu Hafs was a great loss for al-Qaeda, and bin Laden personally delivered a taped eulogy from his hiding place.
In late 2001, as Taliban-controlled cities began falling to the Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Operations Forces started hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, bin Laden gave the order for fighters to head to Tora Bora, a mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan. Located in the White Mountains, near the border with Pakistan, Tora Bora’s interconnected caves were well known to bin Laden and other operatives from the Soviet jihad days. The treacherous terrain and well-hidden bunkers all but prevented easy penetration by invading forces, and the mountain range offered escape routes into Pakistan.
Bin Laden knew, however, that it was just a matter of time before U.S. Special Operations Forces, guided by Afghani allies, successfully breached the cave network, so after al-Qaeda regrouped, he ordered operatives to head into Pakistan and the lawless tribal regions. These were places into which it would be difficult for U.S. Special Operations Forces and Northern Alliance fighters to follow them. To avoid attracting attention, bin Laden traveled with only Hamza al-Ghamdi and Qanas. Other operatives watched as bin Laden and the two walked off and disappeared into the mountains. Bin Laden’s circle had just gotten smaller. (When we learned about bin Laden’s new entourage a few months later in Gitmo from detainees, it was clear that the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader lay with those two men. These details were shared across the U.S. government.)
The head of bin Laden’s bodyguard staff, Tabarak, went off with a group of thirty operatives, taking bin Laden’s satellite phone with him. Among this group was the entire bin Laden security detachment, including Bahlul, bin Laden’s secretary, who had disbursed to each operative leaving Tora Bora one hundred dollars for expenses. Every so often Tabarak would switch on the satellite phone to put U.S. intelligence teams monitoring it on his tail rather than bin Laden’s. The thirty were picked up by the Northern Alliance as they tried to cross the border.
By mid-December the mountain range had been overrun by U.S. Special Operations Forces and their Afghani allies, but the al-Qaeda leadership was long gone.
Bermel, a town in Paktika province, on the Afghan-Pakistan border, became a main transit point for the escaping Arabs. Al-Qaeda operated a safe house in town, where many al-Qaeda members stayed, including Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, the commander of all Arab fighters in Afghanistan; his deputy, Abdul Wakeel; and senior commander Abu Mohammed al-Masri, alias al-Zayat. Some operatives camped in the local school. Within the group, there were debates about whether to stay in the area or head into Pakistan proper. Abu Mohammed al-Masri was against leaving and decided to stay on the Afghani side of the border. Others, like Saif al-Adel, crossed into the tribal areas on the Pakistani side.
Those who chose to leave were evacuated by Afghani sympathizers to Bannu, Pakistan. From there, operatives from the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) smuggled them to Lahore, Karachi, and Faisalabad. In guesthouses in Pakistan, operatives waited for instructions. Some were told to leave Pakistan to plan operations abroad, and others were told to wait for a plan to be developed for them to return to Afghanistan. While waiting, they met with Riyadh al-Jaza’eri, al-Qaeda’s travel facilitator, who made the smuggling arrangements.
In the guesthouse where Abu Zubaydah was staying were two operatives, with American and British passports, who told him that they wanted to launch a major operation against the United States—and with their passports they had the ability to travel. He referred them to KSM, who, following the death of Abu Hafs, had been appointed by bin Laden as head of the group’s global military operations.
Al-Qaeda’s nature was rapidly changing. Before 9/11, the network had acted like a state in many ways: it had a highly centralized command and control structure and a defined territorial sanctuary. After the United States responded to 9/11 decisively, and effectively dismantled what was then considered al-Qaeda’s “center of gravity,” the terrorist network adapted. Instead of the centralized command and control that had been its trademark, it became less “Chief Operator” than “Chief Motivator,” a move that helped spur Internet recruitment and domestic terrorism—a great problem faced today by the governments of the United States and other countries fighting terrorism.
The terror network’s focus turned to manipulating regional, local, tribal, and sectarian conflicts in order to promote its interests. It also “franchised” the al-Qaeda name and encouraged other terrorist groups in places such as North Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East (later, notably, Iraq) to operate under the al-Qaeda banner.
Bin Laden ordered top operatives like KSM, Khallad, and Nashiri to spread their fighters around the world and launch plots—with the aim of ensuring that America would never have peace: “I pledge to he who raised the skies [God] that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad, peace be upon him.” Many al-Qaeda operatives later referred to this October 2001 statement by bin Laden as an oath from their leader: it was his pledge to continue the fight.
When Hamdan was arrested crossing back into Afghanistan, in his car was a note from KSM directed to Abu Obadiah, the alias of Ramzi Binalshibh, the 9/11 plotter who had worked as the liaison between KSM and head hijacker Mohammad Atta. The note instructed Abu Obadiah to send to the United States and England all available operatives with the ability to travel there.
KSM was planning operations in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and he also was reactivating the network in Southeast Asia that he had worked with during the foiled 1995 Bojinka plot. Among the operatives instructed to launch attacks in the United States was Richard Reid, a British-born al-Qaeda operative, who, on December 22, 2001, attempted to use a shoe bomb to blow up a plane traveling from Paris to Miami.
Another place KSM targeted was Tunisia, where he instructed a twenty-four-year-old named Nizar Nawar (Saif al-Islam al-Tunisi) to plan an attack. On April 11, 2002, Nawar detonated a natural gas truck rigged with explosives at the ancient El-Ghriba Synagogue, killing twenty-one people—fourteen German tourists, two French citizens, and five Tunisians—and injuring more than thirty others.
As KSM focused on these areas, Nashiri was organizing attacks in the Arabian Gulf. Following the success of the bombing of the USS Cole, he had been appointed commander of al-Qaeda’s naval operations. With Ahmed al-Darbi, he had set up base in Dubai and was organizing the smuggling of al-Qaeda operatives into the Gulf region using a small ship they had purchased. From there they planned to launch operations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Nashiri was also interested in attacking ships in the Strait of Gibraltar, and he sent to Morocco two Saudis who had married Moroccan women—unions arranged by Abu Assim al-Maghrebi.
In January 2002 Nashiri was on a boat off the coast of Dubai with four other Yemenis, all of whom had at one point been members of bin Laden’s bodyguard detachment. Now they were under Nashiri’s command in his dual position as head of operations in the Arabian Peninsula and head of naval operations. The four were Omar Hasan Saeed Jarralla, alias Ibn Hafeez; Fawzi Yahya Qasim al-Hababi, alias Abu al-Shahid al-Sannani; Fawzi Muhammad Abed al-Qawi al-Wajih, alias Abu Mu’ab al-Taezi; and Bashir al-Safari, alias Salman al-Taezi.
Nashiri outlined to them his plans to conduct a series of attacks in Yemen, one of which would be a naval attack, similar to the bombing of the USS Cole. This time, however, Nashiri wanted to target an oil tanker off the coast of al-Mukalla in South Yemen. Before the Cole attack Nashiri had considered an attack on an oil tanker, and had done casing for the operation, so he knew exactly what was needed.
After 9/11 Abu Ali al-Harithi had been chosen by bin Laden to be al-Qaeda’s main representative in Yemen. He was a veteran mujahid with a strong Yemeni tribal background, which enabled him to operate with tribal protection. His cell would assist Nashiri’s men in whatever way was required.
Nashiri told his operatives to get explosives for the oil tanker operation from Abu Ali, and told them what else he wanted: a small boat, a villa to prepare the boat, a Dyna pickup truck to move the boat, fraudulent documents to purchase the boat and truck, and a place to store the explosives.