May 6, 2011

Hunt for bin Laden: Lessons learned from the enemy

Ian Shapira, Marc Fisher and Peter Finn, The Washington Post

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Intelligence analysts would later learn where bin Laden was in the first weeks after the attack, mainly through interrogations of al-Qaida operatives held at CIA "black sites" overseas and at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the Americans had no idea that bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, were on the move, traveling through Afghanistan by car, meeting frequently with followers and Taliban leaders. According to classified U.S. military documents obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and based on interviews with detainees, bin Laden held court at a secret guesthouse in or near Kabul.

Acting like an exiled head of state, he received terrorist operatives from Afghanistan, Malaysia and elsewhere and met with leaders such as the Taliban's Jalaluddin Haqqani. He issued instructions for campaigns against Western targets, lectured on Islam and history, and sent out a video boasting about how pleasantly surprised he was that the attacks had claimed so many American lives.

In early October, Yunis Khalis, an elderly Afghan warrior who controlled a swath of territory in the country's east, including the regional capital of Jalalabad and the nearby cave complex at Tora Bora, sent a message to bin Laden telling him he could provide sanctuary for the al-Qaida leader.

Bin Laden had friends and followers all along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Even before the founding of al-Qaida in 1988, bin Laden had spent years in the area, developing relationships with tribal and religious leaders, many of whom he worked with side by side in the Afghan mujaheddin's 1980s battles against the Soviet Union.

Khalis and bin Laden had known each other since those days, when Khalis, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance, had received tens of millions of dollars in guns and money from the CIA. He later introduced bin Laden to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. After the United States began to bomb Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Khalis, then 82, called for jihad against the Americans.

Taking advantage of Khalis's hospitality, bin Laden arrived in Jalalabad just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks and immediately began to spread cash among local tribes, either directly or through trusted intermediaries.

When the bombing around Jalalabad intensified, bin Laden fled into the fortified caves of Tora Bora, about 35 miles south of the regional capital. Bin Laden knew the territory; as a young man, he had driven bulldozers there as Afghan resistance fighters excavated miles of tunnels.

In late November, probably within days after bin Laden had arrived in the area, Berntsen's team tracked him to a mountainous area called Milawa, just below the peaks of Tora Bora. Berntsen's men called in airstrikes - a barrage from B-52s, F-15s and plenty more - that lasted nearly 60 hours.

"Our guys were exhausted; they had been hammering Osama for days," Berntsen said. "Finally, bin Laden fled deeper into the mountains."

Berntsen, who was back in Kabul, summoned several members of his team to tell him what they would need to take down bin Laden now that they thought they knew where he was. The response: "We need 800 Army Rangers between bin Laden and the border."

Berntsen wrote to his superiors, begging for troops. His pleas went unanswered, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Tora Bora. Without more manpower, Berntsen could not risk a ground assault.

Still, the Americans tried to stay close to bin Laden. Berntsen's deputy, a CIA paramilitary officer, recruited an Afghan to trek into the mountains and offer bin Laden and his followers food and water, then report back on the terrorist's location.

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