The great escape
“So let me be a martyr.
Dwelling in a high mountain pass
Among a band of knights who,
United in devotion to God,
Descend to face armies.
– poem by Osama Bin Laden “
Abdallah Tabarak, Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard, says that during the month of Ramadan, which began on 17th November 2001, Bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made their way from Jalalabad 30 miles south to the mountains of Tora Bora, hard up on the border with Pakistan. Around the same time, Hazarat Ali, a local Afghan commander, told a New York Times reporter that the Al-Qaeda leader had been recently spotted in Tora Bora.
Bin Laden’s retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad and then on to the easily defended craggy ridges and cave complexes of Tora Bora was being closely monitored by the CIA. The Agency’s top official on the ground was Gary Berntsen. Berntsen had arrived in Kabul on 12th November, the same day that the Taliban had fled the capital, and within two days was receiving a stream of intelligence reports from the Northern Alliance that the Al-Qaeda leader was in Jalalabad, giving pep talks to an ever-growing caravan of fighters. Berntsen decided to push a four-man CIA team into Jalalabad. To provide them with local guides he made contact with the Afghan commander Hazarat Ali, a longtime opponent of the Taliban, who sent three teenage fighters to escort the American team into Jalalabad, an area that was now crawling with fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Berntsen’s team arrived uneventfully in Jalalabad on 21st November and several days later they moved into a schoolhouse in the foothills of Tora Bora, which they used as a base. Berntsen says he was now receiving “multiple hits” from his sources on the ground that Bin Laden was in Tora Bora.
“For 56 hours straight, the team called in airstrikes from all the bombers available in theatre”
Khalid al-Hubayshi, a Saudi bomb-making expert, was in the Tora Bora trenches as the Al-Qaeda chief prepared for his showdown with the United States. Bin Laden, Hubayshi says, “was convinced” that US soldiers would land in the mountains by helicopter. “We spent five weeks manning our positions in case the Americans landed,” he recalls.
As Bin Laden set about preparing for an American landing that never came, Berntsen’s team remained just one step behind him. At the end of November, the team, which had by now grown to eight, decided to split into two groups of four, one of which would head further into the mountains with ten Afghan fighters as guides. The team’s members included an air force combat controller who specialised in calling in airstrikes, and they took with them a laser capable of “painting” targets with a signal that American bombers could then lock on to. The expedition was delayed when a poorly packed set of grenades carried on a mule blew up, killing two of the Afghan guides. But as dusk was falling the group reached a mountaintop from which it could see several hundred of Bin Laden’s men arrayed below. For the following 56 hours straight, the team called in airstrikes from all the bombers available in theatre.
Berntsen had not asked anyone for permission to begin the battle of Tora Bora. About 24 hours after the airstrikes had begun, Berntsen’s boss, Hank Crumpton, the head of Afghan operations at the CIA, called him and asked, “Are you conducting a battle in Tora Bora?” Not quite knowing what his boss’s reaction might be, Berntsen simply said, “Yes.” Crumpton replied, “Congratulations! Good job!”
In the end, 1,110 precision-guided smart bombs were dropped on Tora Bora, many of them guided in by a team of Delta Force operators and signals intelligence “collectors” led by Dalton Fury (a pseudonym), a 37-year-old major in the elite Delta Force commandos and aided by Adam Khan (also a pseudonym) – an Afghan-American who had served in the Marines and who spoke Pashto and Dari, the two main Afghan languages.
By early December Crumpton was “one hundred per cent” certain that Bin Laden was bottled up in the Tora Bora mountains, so he called General Tommy Franks, who had overall control of the Tora Bora operation, to request additional soldiers. Crumpton recalls that Franks pushed back because of two issues: the small American “footprint” approach had already worked so well at overthrowing the Taliban, and the time it would take to get more US soldiers on the ground into Tora Bora. Crumpton countered that taking on the Al-Qaeda hardcore hiding out in Tora Bora was not the same as defeating the Taliban: “This was different, this was a high mountain stronghold heavily defended… And I maintained that we could not wait for weeks, even many days, because of my concern that Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden in particular, would escape to Pakistan.”
General Franks explained by email his reasoning about why he did not send more US soldiers to strike at the heart of Al-Qaeda: “My decision not to add American troops to the Tora Bora region was influenced, as Hank [Crumpton] reports, by several factors: The comparative light footprint of coalition troops in theatre, and the fact that these troops were committed to operations ongoing across Afghanistan; the amount of time it would take to deploy additional troops would likely create a ‘tactical pause’ which would run the risk of losing the momentum our forces were enjoying across Afghanistan [and] uncertainty as to whether Bin Laden was in fact in Tora Bora. Intelligence suggested that he was, but conflicting intelligence also reported that he was in Kashmir; at a recreational lake NW of Kandahar [and] at a stronghold on the Iranian border.”
Franks also said that part of his calculation about not sending more American soldiers was his belief that the United States could rely on the Pakistanis to cut off fleeing members of Al-Qaeda. This was wishful thinking. Like Crumpton, the Special Forces ground commander Dalton Fury had identified the central weakness in the plan at Tora Bora: there was no one to guard the
back door into Pakistan. Fury recommended that his own team be dropped in from the mountainous Pakistani side of Tora Bora, an area where Al-Qaeda would not expect an attack. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily clarified, that request was turned down somewhere in the Pentagon chain of command. Instead, as Fury later wrote, “For this most important mission to date in the global war on terror our nation was relying on a fractious bunch of AK‑47-toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs, not bound by any recognised rules of warfare.”
The ground forces at Tora Bora were overwhelmingly provided by a motley crew of Afghan commanders: Haji Zaman Gamsharik, an Afghan who had been living in exile in the comfortable environs of Dijon, France, before he returned to Afghanistan as the Taliban fell; Hazarat Ali, a nose-picking semi-literate from a local tribe who spoke the obscure Pashai language; and Hajji Zahir, the 27-year-old son of a Jalalabad warlord. This team of rivals assembled some 2,000 Afghans, who launched attacks on 3rd December into Tora Bora. The Afghan commanders certainly disliked each other more than they did Al-Qaeda, and their subcommanders were more than happy to take bribes from Arabs trying to break out of
On 7th December, the Delta team set up camp in the schoolhouse near Tora Bora from which they tried to press further toward the Al-Qaeda front lines and get “eyes on target.” Then they would direct laser beams on the targets so that accurate airstrikes could be called in. According to the official US Special Forces history of the battle, by now “the latest intelligence placed senior AQ [Al-Qaeda] leaders and UBL [Usama Bin Laden] squarely in ToraBora.”
But locals were reluctant to give the Delta team much in the way of useful information about Al-Qaeda because civilians in the area had been killed in American bombing raids and Bin Laden had been a generous guest over the several years that he had been their on‑and-off neighbour. Many of the villagers also believed that the Al-Qaeda men truly were holy warriors fighting infidels. Years after the battle, on one of Tora Bora’s many rocky outcrops, several Al-Qaeda graves became a well-maintained shrine marked by flying pennants of pink, green, blue, and orange.
As the fighting got under way, Bin Laden sought to project an easy confidence to his men. Abu Bakr, a Kuwaiti who was at Tora Bora, said that early in the battle he saw Bin Laden at the checkpoint he was manning. The Al-Qaeda leader sat with some of his foot soldiers for half an hour, drinking a cup of tea and telling them, “Don’t lose your morale. Don’t worry. I’m here always asking about you guys.” To the ultrafundamentalists of Al-Qaeda, the fact that they were fighting the Americans during the holy month of Ramadan would have had additional resonance, since it was at the battle of Badr during Ramadan that the Prophet Mohammed had led a small group of Muslims to victory fourteen centuries earlier against a much larger army of infidels.
But by the first week of December, things were growing desperate. Rising up to fourteen thousand feet, Tora Bora’s mountains are a tough environment at any time of year — and, in the middle of December, temperatures drop to well below zero at night. As the battle raged in the mountains, snow was falling steadily. Meanwhile, American bombs rained down on the snow-covered peaks ceaselessly, preventing sleep. In one four-day period alone, between 4th and 7th December, USA bombers dropped 700,000 pounds of ordnance on the mountains. The militant Abu Jaafar al-Kuwaiti recalled that, together with Bin Laden and a larger group, he took up a position in trenches at 9,000 feet that they had built to protect them “from the insane American strikes.”
“Locals were reluctant to give the Delta team useful information about Al-Qaeda… Bin Laden had been a generous guest”
Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor who was treating the Al-Qaeda wounded, paints a scene of desperation. “I was out of medicine and I had a lot of casualties,” Batarfi later recalled. “I did a hand amputation by a knife, and I did a finger amputation with scissors.” Batarfi said he personally told Bin Laden that, if they did not leave Tora Bora soon, “no one would stay alive” under the American bombardment. But the Al-Qaeda leader seemed mainly preoccupied with his own escape. “He did not prepare himself for Tora Bora,” Batarfi said, “and to be frank he didn’t care about anyone but himself.”
Bin Laden recalled that “day and night, American forces were bombing us by smart bombs that weigh thousands of pounds and bombs that penetrate caves.” On 9th December, a US bomber dropped an immense BLU-82 bomb on Al-Qaeda’s positions. Known as a daisy cutter, the 15,000-pound bomb was used in the Gulf War to clear minefields. Berntsen remembers that the daisy cutter was followed by a wave of additional American airstrikes. “We came right in behind it with B‑52s,” he says. “Each of them has 2,500-pounders, so everything goes in there. Killed a lot of people.” That night, Al-Qaeda member Abu Jaafar al-Kuwaiti and others “were awakened to the sound of massive and terrorising explosions very near to us”. The following day, Abu Jaafar “received the horrifying news” that the “trench of Sheikh Osama had been destroyed”. But Bin Laden was not dead. An Al-Qaeda website offered the following description of what had happened: Bin Laden had dreamed about a scorpion descending into one of the trenches that his men had dug, so he evacuated his trench, moving two hundred metres away.
On 10th December, the US National Security Agency, which sucks up signals intelligence around the world, picked up an important intercept from Tora Bora: “Father [Bin Laden] is trying to break through the siege line.” This was then communicated to the Delta operators on the ground. Around 4 p.m. the same day, Afghan soldiers said that they had spotted Bin Laden and had him surrounded. Later that evening another intercept was picked up of Bin Laden talking on the radio with some of his lieutenants, according to the Delta commander Dalton Fury. The information was so accurate that it appeared to pinpoint Bin Laden’s location down to within ten metres. Another intercept that same night placed him two kilometers further away, suggesting that the Al-Qaeda leader was on the move.
For Fury this posed something of a quandary. This was the closest to Bin Laden’s position that any American forces had ever been, but at the same time three of Fury’s men were now pinned down in a ferocious firefight with some Al-Qaeda fighters. And as dusk fell, Fury’s key Afghan ally, Hazarat Ali, had retreated from the battlefield back to Jalalabad for some dinner to break his Ramadan fast, as is the Afghan way. Fury was under explicit orders not to take the lead in the battle and only to act in a supporting role for the hundreds of Afghans in Hazarat Ali’s ragtag army. Now he had no Afghan allies to guide him at night into the craggy moonscape of upper Tora Bora. Fury reluctantly made the decision to bail on that night’s mission. “My decision to abort that effort to kill or capture Bin Laden when we might have been within 2,000 metres of him, about 2,000 yards, still bothers me. It leaves me with a feeling of somehow letting down our nation at a critical time,” Fury says.
On 12th December, a defining moment came in the Tora Bora battle, and Al-Qaeda would swiftly exploit it. Haji Zaman Gamsharik, one of the Afghan warlords leading the attack against Al-Qaeda, had opened negotiations with members of the group for a surrender agreement. “They talked on the radio with Haji Zaman,” an Afghan front-line commander explained, “saying they were ready to surrender at 4 pm 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 8am tomorrow?’ So we agreed to this. Those Al-Qaeda who were not ready to be killed escaped that night. At 8 am the following day no one surrendered, so we started attacking again.”
News of the ceasefire with Al-Qaeda did not sit well with the group of 20 Delta operators who by 12th December had made their way deeper into Tora Bora, into an area near Bin Laden’s now-destroyed two-room house. Strung out on a ridge above the Americans were about 200 of Haji Zaman’s men, who were looking down on what remained of Bin Laden’s bombed-out house.
Haji Zaman’s commanders told the Delta operators that Al-Qaeda members would gather in the field in front of Bin Laden’s wrecked house to surrender the following morning. Instead, during that night, many of the militants who were supposed to surrender instead fled the Tora Bora mountains.
Back in Kabul, the CIA ground commander, Gary Berntsen, was screaming profanities into the phone when he was told about the surrender agreement. Berntsen remembers, “Essentially I used the f‑word… I was screaming at them on the phone. And telling them, ‘No cease-fire. No negotiation. We continue airstrikes.’” But there wasn’t much the small number of Delta operators on the ground at Tora Bora could do once their Afghan allies had dug their heels in about the cease-fire. As Fury remembers it,
US forces only observed the cease-fire for about two hours on 12th December – resuming bombing around 5pm that day.
The next afternoon, American signals operators who had spent the past four days on the ground at Tora Bora intercepting radio transmissions heard that “Father” [Bin Laden] was again on the move. Bin Laden himself then spoke to his followers: “The time is now. Arm your women and children against the infidel!” Following several hours of high-intensity bombing, the Al-Qaeda leader broke radio silence again, saying, “I am sorry for getting you involved in this battle; if you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.” One member of Berntsen’s team, an Arabic-speaking CIA officer who had been listening to Bin Laden’s voice for several years, was in Tora Bora monitoring the Al-Qaeda leader talking to his followers over an open radio channel: “Listening to Bin Laden pray with these guys. Apologising to them, for what’s occurred. Asking them to fight on.”
Khalid al‑Hubayshi, one of the Saudis holed up in Tora Bora, says that Bin Laden’s aides instructed the hundreds of mostly Arab fighters who were still alive in the mountainous complex to retreat to Pakistan and surrender to their embassies there. Hubayshi remains bitter about the behaviour of his leader: “We had been ready to lay down our lives for him, and he couldn’t make the effort to speak to us personally.”
On 14th December, Bin Laden’s voice was again picked up by American signals operators, but, according to an interpreter translating for the Delta team, it sounded more like a pre-recorded sermon than a live transmission, indicating that Bin Laden had already left the battlefield area. He had likely used the cover of Al-Qaeda’s “surrender” to begin his retreat during the early morning of 13th December, which is confirmed by the various American radio intercepts later that day in which Bin Laden made his final good-byes to his troops.
13th December was the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan, an especially sacred day in the Muslim calendar, when the Prophet Mohammed had received the first verses of the Koran. On the same holy day in 1987, not far from Tora Bora and surrounded by up to 200 Soviet soldiers, Bin Laden had witnessed a “miracle,” which he later recounted to a journalist: “A Soviet airplane, a MiG I believe, passed by in front of us, when a group of our Afghan Mujahideen brothers grouped together [and attacked]. The plane then broke to pieces as it fell right in front of our eyes.” Now Bin Laden was once again delivered from the clutches of a superpower around the time of this most sacred day.
Extracted from THE LONGEST WAR by Peter Bergen Published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. at £8.99
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