Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden
Saturday 23 August 2003
The al-Qaida leader is said to be hiding in northern Pakistan guarded by a 120-mile ring of tribesmen whose job it is to warn of the approach of any troops. Rory McCarthy reports
Early in March, intelligence agents searching the western deserts of Pakistan thought they had finally tracked down the world's most wanted man. A convoy was spotted racing along one of the remote smugglers' routes which winds down from southern Afghanistan, through the sand dunes of Pakistani Baluchistan and into Iran. American intelligence agents had a tip that Osama bin Laden was in the group.
They seemed to have reason to be optimistic. Five days earlier Pakistani officers had scored the biggest success so far in the hunt for Bin Laden and his al-Qaida deputies. In a midnight raid they had arrested a ragged-looking Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the Pakistani Kuwaiti who was regarded as the third most senior figure in Bin Laden's network, a man described by the jubilant authorities in Islamabad as a "kingpin of al-Qaida."
Mohammad had been pinpointed when he made a satellite telephone call, which US military electronic eavesdropping tracked to Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. A computer and lists of phone numbers were recovered after his arrest, amounting to what the Pakistani interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, called an "arsenal" of information.
That new information encouraged investigators to focus their attention on the sparsely populated deserts of Baluchistan. Within a few days they had spotted the convoy.
A major operation was mounted by Pakistani soldiers and US troops. There were reports of heavy gun battles around the Afghan border town of Spin Majid, with up to nine of the men in the convoy killed.
Baluchistan's interior minister appeared on television to announce that two of Bin Laden's sons had been captured. Then one Pakistani journalist broke the sensational news that Bin Laden himself had been caught.
Within hours, it became clear that he had not. In fact, several sources now say the intelligence tip was faulty: Bin Laden was never even in the convoy.
Those with knowledge of the operation have told the Guardian that two of the Saudi-born millionaire's sons had been led by Afghan warlords in the previous days down the same route, a well-trodden drug smugglers' path, and across into Iran. By the time the operation took place, there were still convoys of drug smugglers on the trail but the sons were gone.
"In the end it was just another flop," said Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who has met Bin Laden three times and studied al-Qaida in detail.
"The intelligence agencies have totally failed with al-Qaida. They are such highly motivated people in al-Qaida that it is very difficult to break into the rank and file of the organisation."
That is one of the reasons why, almost two years after the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden has yet to be found.
But a Guardian inquiry has revealed that there are others. Experts who have been following the attempts of the Pakistanis and the US to find the al-Qaida leader have suggested that:
* The Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, struck a deal with the US not to seize Bin Laden after the Afghan war for fear of inciting trouble in his own country;
* The al-Qaida leader is being protected by a three elaborate security rings which stretch 120 miles in diameter; and
* The Pakistani special forces looking for him are no closer than they were a year ago.
For the Americans, the March operation was yet another bitter lesson in the difficulty of tracking down Bin Laden. With the US election nearing and mounting concerns about Washington's second great military project - Iraq - George Bush more than ever needs the incalculable political boost that Bin Laden's capture would bring.
The Saudi's last known hiding place was in the caves of Tora Bora in the Spin Ghar mountains of eastern Afghanistan. It was December 2001 and the Taliban regime was collapsing across Afghanistan under the weight of America's bombing campaign.
Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters were holed up in the caves, where Bin Laden was heard making a radio address exhorting his men to fight. He also made a 33-minute video recording. Looking gaunt and tired, he described the September 11 attacks as "blessed strikes".
"We say that the end of the United States is imminent," he said. It was the last the world saw of him.
Bin Laden fled the mountains and spent the next six or seven months trying to re-establish his network, according to Mansoor Ijaz, a financier who has spent years tracking his movements and operations. In the small world of international terrorism analysts, Mr Ijaz, an American of Pakistani origin, knows al-Qaida better than most. He has close contacts in Pakistan's intelligence agencies and has worked, behind the scenes, as negotiator over Bin Laden in the past. In 1997 he was involved in negotiating attempts by Sudan to provide crucial information on the Saudi exile and worked on an attempt to have him extradited from Afghanistan through the United Arab Emirates in 2000.
In the same year he persuaded General Musharraf and his ISI intelligence agency to accept a rare ceasefire among Kashmiri militant groups.
Since 1991 he has been chairman of a New York-based hedge fund, Crescent Investment Management, which focuses on national security technologies and for which James Woolsey, a former chief of the CIA, is vice-chairman of the advisory board.
Mr Ijaz argues that the flight from Tora Bora badly disrupted al-Qaida's access to electronic communications: satellite phones, radios and email. "Initial communications were stopped and it took them a while to transplant and regroup," he said in an interview. "It was in a place where it was impossible for them to get communications across to anybody."
He suggests Bin Laden is hiding in the "northern tribal areas", part of the long belt of seven deeply conservative tribal agencies which stretches down the length of the mountain ranges that mark Pakistan's 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.
Mr Ijaz, who has recently visited Pakistan, believes Bin Laden is protected by an elaborate security cordon of three concentric circles, in which he is guarded first by a ring around 120 miles in diameter of tribesmen, whose duty is to reportany approach by Pakistani troops or US special forces.
Inside them is a tighter ring, around 12 miles in diameter, made up of tribal elders who would warn if the outer ring were breached. At the centre of the circles is Bin Laden himself, protected by one or two of his closest relatives and advisers. Bin Laden has agreed with the elders that he will use no electronic communications and will move only at night and between specified places within a limited radius.
At first Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a bespectacled Egyptian doctor who is regarded as the potent intellectual force behind the al-Qaida net work, passed messages by word of mouth, what Mr Ijaz calls a "human chain-link fence". But the message system was inefficient; too many specific details were being missed.
"By the time they got from the first man to the 10th man, the messages had in fact become so distorted no one knew what they were talking about," he said.
And so Bin Laden began to use handwritten notes, more specific but potentially more of a risk. On March 16 Pakistani intelligence officers acting on information from US military eavesdroppers arrested Yassir al-Jazeeri in Karachi.
Al-Jazeeri, a Moroccan, was believed to be one of Bin Laden's closest bodyguards. In his pocket he carried a handwritten note from Bin Laden. It was perhaps the closest investigators had come to finding the trail of the al-Qaida chief.
For their part Pakistani officials say their intelligence on Bin Laden is still remarkably limited.
Many of the reports they receive of his movements, they insist, are simply wrong. "We have been getting reports of his presence across the border inside Afghanistan and along the border area also," Mr Hayat said in an interview.
"Not all reports have been credible at times. If others were credible we would certainly have been able to get near to him but certainly that has not been the position so far." Nevertheless Bin Laden, he said, remained a "fiercely hunted man."
The terrain of the tribal regions makes it almost impossible to find a single man intent on hiding, according to Mr Hayat. Local communities rule themselves, bound by deeply rooted codes of honour and respect which are enforced with vast armouries of weapons, ranging from assault rifles to heavy artillery.
Few would dispute Mr Hayat's complaints about the terrain. The tribal agencies have developed an infamy for their protection of wanted men. Even today Pakistani officers describe the immense difficulties they face operating in the tribal lands, an area without police and which the army never entered before September 11. Several hundred soldiers are required every time one house is searched. A handful of men are needed for the search, dozens more to protect them from the neighbours.
Some argue that the Pakistani authorities saw the difficulties from the start and, although they publicly stressed their commitment to the hunt for Bin Laden, in private they had a different strategy.
Mr Ijaz believes an agreement was reached between Gen Musharraf and the American authorities shortly after Bin Laden's flight from Tora Bora.
The Pakistanis feared that to capture or kill Bin Laden so soon after a deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan would incite civil unrest in Pakistan and would trigger a spate of revenge al-Qaida attacks on western targets across the world.
"There was a judgment made that it would be more destabilising in the longer term," he said. "There would still be the ability to get him at a later date when it was more appropriate."
The Americans, according to Mr Ijaz, accepted the argument, not least because of the shift in focus to the impending war in Iraq. So the months that followed were centred on taking down not Bin Laden, but the "retaliation infrastructure" of al-Qaida.
It meant that Gen Musharraf frequently put out remarkably conflicting accounts of the status of Bin Laden, while the US administration barely mentioned his name.
In January last year Gen Musharraf said he believed Bin Laden was probably dead. A year later he said he was alive and moving either in Afghanistan or perhaps in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Yet western diplomats say they believe the Pakistani authorities are committed to the hunt for Bin Laden, although they admit that frequently the official accounts of the timing and location of successful arrests do not square with reality.
Since Tora Bora, there has been a series of high-profile arrests. "I think there is no doubt they are very much against al-Qaida," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and security analyst. "I think the Americans find their reliance on the Pakistanis now is increasing."
In March last year police in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad raided a house on a tip from the CIA eavesdroppers and arrested Abu Zubaydah, one of Bin Laden's top associates and a man responsible for running two al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.
On the anniversary of September 11, a raid in Karachi produced Ramzi al-Shibh, a Yemeni who was suspected of passing money and information between the teams of the September 11 hijackers and al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.
He was also an aide to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was eventually picked up in Rawalpindi this March in the most significant arrest to date. Dozens of less high-profile men, responsible for providing shelter to al-Qaida figures or printing off fake passports, have been arrested.
"We were able to nab some of the very high-profile al-Qaida activists," Mr Hayat said. "We launched very successful operations all over inside Pakistan, arresting and neutralising those people who were involved in facilitating those people, who were the planners, the architects, the financiers."
For the future, the single greatest task facing the Pakistanis and the Americans will be to tame the powerful elders who run Pakistan's tribal areas and who appear to have given Bin Laden sanctuary. The danger is that the longer he remains uncaught, the bolder and stronger the surviving al-Qaida elements will feel.
"With so much of the retaliation infrastructure gone or unsustainable, Bin Laden's martyrdom does not pose nearly the threat it did a year ago," Mr Ijaz said.
Yet failing to catch the Saudi now could embolden the surviving al-Qaida forces. It was like "watching a radiation-hardened cancerous tumour regenerate and proliferate even more dangerously", he said.
"That's why Pakistan must now end the charade and get Bin Laden."