By Hamid Mir
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Islamabad, Pakistan One man changed the world on 9/11 six years ago. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that he won't change it more with other attacks similar to the world-altering 9/11. The world's only superpower has declared him their most dangerous enemy, and he as been wanted by the superpower for more than a decade. But the truth is that Osama bin Laden, the World's Most Wanted Man, has been lucky enough to have escaped death four times in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001.
Sometimes he dodged the world's most sophisticated satellite systems and dangerous missiles by his own cleverness, and at other times it was only luck which saved him from enemy strikes with only minutes to spare. US air strikes were started against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the 7th of October 2001, and Osama bin Laden, was spotted along with Dr. Ayman al Zawahri, on November 8th 2001 in Kabul. They had come to Kabul from Jalalabad to attend an al Qaeda meeting, but also to pay tribute to their Uzbek comrade, Jummah Khan Namangani who lost his life in the Northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan on November 6th.
Namangani was a former soldier of the Soviet Army who joined al Qaeda in late the 1980s. He was commanding the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces resisting the US-backed Northern Alliance. Warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, in Northern Afghanistan and Muhammad Atif were looking after the resistance in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan. First Atif lost his life and then Namangani. Their death was a big blow to the enemies of the USA. A multinational Muslim Army of al Qaeda was in retreat after the death of Muhammad Atif and Namangani. Osama bin Laden paid rich tributes to both of them in a meeting of selected al Qaeda leaders in Kabul, on November 8th. He also reviewed the situation in the same meeting. It was the same day that I was granted an interview by the World's Most Wanted man in Kabul. I was not allowed to use my camera to take any pictures of bin Laden. One of his sons, Abdul Rehman, took my picture with his father, which is published with this story and with Dr. Ayman al Zawahri. Abdul Rehman used his own camera and gave me the film. Despite all of these security measures, a female spy was able to notice the unusual movement of many important Arabs in Kabul. I remember an incident that happened when I was having tea with bin Laden and Dr. Zawahri after my interview. bin Laden reminded that this was the third interview I had with him. He informed me that I made some translation mistakes in the article published after my first interview, but said he had found no evidence of any misrepresentation. He was hopeful, he said, that I would not misrepresent him on this interview. More than 20 al Qaeda leaders were also present in the small room where were taking tea. Conversation on that day proved that most of them were of the view that the US-backed Northern Alliance was moving close to Kabul due only to the support of General Pervaiz Musharraf, who was providing air bases to Americans in Pakistan.
Suddenly an Arab Al Qaeda fighter entered the room and informed his leaders that they had arrested a woman in a blue burqa just a few meters away from the place where we were meeting. She had been spying under the cover of posing as a beggar. She begged money--even from some al Qaeda security guards posted outside of the place where I was interviewing bin Laden. But after a few minutes, one guard noticed that she seemed more interested in watching him than in begging. So the al Qaeda fighter started observing her movements. He soon caught her red-handed when she was overheard talking to someone about "Sheikh" on a Thoraya Satellite telephone. This news was broken to the meeting in Arabic, but I also understood the gist. bin Laden immediately ordered one of his close associates that his "guest" must not be harmed. The associate, whose name was Muhammad told me that he would be taking me to Jalalabad. In the ensuing rush, I said goodbye to Osama bin Laden and I departed with Muhammad in a private car. We were arrested by some Taliban guards outside of Kabul because I was without a beard and I also had a camera, in my possession, which had not been used in the interview. Muhammad never informed the Taliban that he was from al Qaeda. He told them instead that he worked for Interior Minister Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund. The Taliban verified this information from the Interior Minister and released us after three hours. It was late in the evening when we reached Jalalabad. Muhammad dropped me in a big house and disappeared. He came back after two hours with some startling news. He claimed that the place in Kabul where I met his "Sheikh" had been bombed just 15 minutes after our departure, but luckily "Sheikh" and others also left that place immediately after us and nobody was harmed. Muhammad smilingly told me: "Brother, you missed Martyrdom with us". I was unaware of the exact location of the earlier interview. Muhammad told me that it was in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, where I had met the World's Most Wanted Man.
I spent that night in Jalalabad, surviving intense US bombing on my right and left. Next morning, in Jalalabad Muhammad said goodbye to me and I left for Pakistan by road. We were to meet again in 2004 when I was covering Presidential Elections in Afghanistan. It was then that he told me the whole story of how he and his "Sheikh" had survived the carpet-bombing of the US Air Force for many days running in the Tora Bora Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. It wasn't until the third week of December 2001 when bin Laden and his fighters broke the circle created by Americans with the help of Haji Zahir, Haji Zaman and Hazrat Ali. The strategy of al Qaeda sometimes resembles that of the hunted in American western movies. A huge number of al Qaeda fighters entered into the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan from Tora Bora--but Osama bin Laden headed off in a different direction with a small group. Eyewitness Muhammad was also part of that group. Some Chechen and Saudi fighters provided them a cover of gunfire and they walked the whole night towards the safety of Paktia. A top Afghan security official, Lutfullah Mashal confirmed to me later that Osama bin Laden escaped to Paktia from Tora Bora in December 2001. Mashal followed him secretly. He claimed that Osama bin Laden entered North Wazirastan from Paktia. He spent some time there and then moved to the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, province of Khost. Mashal is now working with President Hamid Karzai and he is sure that the Americans missed the capture of bin Laden in Tora Bora because they were not ready to deploy their own forces on the ground. Americans depended more on a Northern Alliance commander, Hazrat Ali--but this man betrayed them. According to highly reliable Afghan sources, Hazrat Ali provided safe passage to al Qaeda after getting lots of money from them. Hazrat Ali incidentally is a member of the Afghan Parliament these days.
Osama bin Laden remained underground throughout the entire year of 2002. He and his colleagues were always on the run. They kept changing their hideouts again and again. They were determined to save their lives, and because of that, during this chapter they were not fighting. It was until April of 2003 that the World's Most Wanted man was to surface again in Afghanistan, after the US invasion of Iraq. He called a meeting in the Pech Valley of Kunar province and delivered a hard-hitting speech, in which he announced his plans to resist America in Iraq. He said: "Get Americans in Iraq before they get us in Afghanistan". He declared that Saif ul Adil would be in charge for organizing resistance in Iraq, and advised him to contact Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who was hiding in Iran at the time. Bin Laden started addressing small gatherings of his comrades in Kunar, as well as in Paktia. One of his daughters-in-law died during childbirth in the in Kunar Mountains. There was a big gathering at the funeral of his daughter-in-law. Local Afghans came to know about the death and started visiting the homes of some al Qaeda fighters, who had married in Kunar. The news of these events reached the ears of the Americans. The Americans launched an operation in Kunar, but once again Osama bin Laden escaped towards the south before the bombing had started in Pech Valley.
It was late in 2004 when bin Laden found himself surrounded by British troops in the Southern Afghan province of Helmand. bin Ladin had been hiding in a mountain area with three defense lines. Highly placed diplomatic sources revealed to this writer recently in Kabul that the British forces were very close to taking Osama bin Laden--dead or alive. He was besieged for more than 24 hours only to manage to dodge one of the world' best equipped armies--escaping with his life yet again. According to details gathered from some Taliban sources in Helmand, the British forces broke two defense lines of al Qaeda in an area of five kilometers. One-to-one fighting was about to start, but daylight ended and the darkness of night provided some welcome relief to al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden wanted to fight on the frontline, but his colleagues stopped him. Hot arguments were exchanged. bin Laden was angry, but Abu Hamza Aljazeeri convinced him to make a try for escape. They placed many rockets with timers, aimed at two different directions, as a deception. They decided to break the enemy encirclement, heading in the third direction with a group of foot fighters. That group was providing cover to bin Laden. Most of the fighters lost their lives, but the escape plan succeeded. Osama bin Laden slipped from British hands with Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri and some other fighters. These sources denied some reports that bin Laden had ordered his guards to shoot him if he were near arrest. The al Qaeda sources claimed that he does not believe in suicide, it is easier for him to sacrifice his life in battle against the enemy till the last bullet and his last drop of his blood have been spent.
Osama bin Laden is facing lots of "in house" restrictions since the Helmand episode. This is still another secret of his survival. Rather than relying on his own instincts, he believes in accepting the majority opinion of his colleagues. The majority of them advised him to restrict his movements, not to use satellite phones and to concentrate more on planning rather than fighting on his own. He was even advised to issue messages only on very important occasions. He never felt it necessary to contradict some media reports of his death last year. In the last two years, most of al Qaeda's messages were issued by Dr. Ayman al Zawahri. This Egyptian doctor is constantly in touch with his leader, but they are living separately. Dr.Zawahri spends more time in Pakistani tribal areas, while Osama bin Laden still feels that Afghanistan is safer for him than Pakistan. He is more interested in organizing resistance against the NATO forces rather than fighting against the Pakistan Army. Now many Taliban leaders in the East and South of Afghanistan proudly narrate the stories of their meetings with the most wanted man in the last three years. They now believe that "Sheikh" is still fighting their war against America, "Sheikh" is winning and the Superpower is losing. In 1999, bin Laden's head money was only 5 million US dollars, then it was increased to $ 25 million after 9/11 and in 2007 it rose to 50 million. Before 9/11, al Qaeda was operating only in a few countries, now it is operating in more than 62 countries with active cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Malayasia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Uruguay, Ecuador, Mexico, USA, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia.
Bin Laden was less popular in the Muslim world before 9/11, but he is more popular 6 years after. Some of his critics believe that he is popular by default. All those who hate US policies like Osama bin Laden just in reaction alone. His real strength is bad US policies. The world has become more unsafe after 9/11. The United States provided him relief by attacking Iraq without finishing the war in Afghanistan. More Muslims have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq than Americans killed on 9/11. The whole Muslim world is now burning in the raging fire of anti-Americanism, and Osama bin Laden is the only beneficiary of this situation. He is still determined to stage more 9/11's, with attacks bigger than the previous one. His sympathizers claim that it's not only America that is on his hit list. Al Qaeda is also capable of attacking other Western countries. The United Kingdom and Italy are the most possible targets because of what is perceived as their blind support to the Bush administration after the US invasion of Iraq. But also other European countries, like Poland, whose troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be hit by al Qaeda in revenge. Osama bin Laden is a threat to all these countries but is still at large six years after 9/11. Any new 9/11-like attack may ignite an ultimate clash of civilizations. That's what Osama bin Laden wants. I have interviewed top US and British officials in the last six years. I have asked many of them, from Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and US top General Richard B. Myers to General David Richards, British Commander in Afghanistan why Osama bin Laden is still at large. They had no answer. Rice and Blair clearly told me that they don't believe in a clash of civilizations, but their actions are different from their words. By issuing threats of U.S. troops entering Pakistan and by honoring people like Salman Rushdie they are only strengthening the hands of Osama bin Laden. The more hatred they create, the more power Osama bin Laden gains. He changed the world six years ago and he can again push the world towards a grand clash with another massive attack. All strong countries are ready to play into his hands through their policies, which bin Laden would say, create more and more hatred everyday.