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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The team stayed on the hunt. In December 2002, they conducted a nighttime raid on Tora Bora, capturing a man who had given medical care to bin Laden. But bin Laden was long gone. The trail had gone cold.

Tora Bora taught both sides important lessons. The Americans learned, as a top intelligence official said, "that it was a bad idea to 'outsource' something as important as capturing or killing bin Laden." Mutual mistrust kept the Pakistani military and Afghan fighters from embracing the Americans' search for bin Laden.

After Tora Bora, the Americans knew that "when the time came to move, we would do it ourselves," said the official, who was involved in the search for years.

Bin Laden, who took the U.S. bombing seriously enough to have written his will in mid-December of 2001, learned that he had lost his safe haven and was now a fugitive on the run. "Hiding and isolation from operatives and recruits transformed him from a hands-on leader into an almost mythical figure within al-Qaida," the intelligence official said. That new mystique lent additional import to each video or audio transmission that bin Laden managed to smuggle out, but it also dampened al-Qaida's fundraising and recruiting capacity.

The popular version of bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora was dramatic enough. Somehow, a hunted man made it over the mountains, south to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

But U.S. interrogators later learned from Guantanamo detainees that bin Laden had actually taken a more daring route, to the north toward Jalalabad, right past the approaching U.S. and British special forces and their Afghan allies. After resting there, he proceeded on horseback on a several days' journey into Konar province, in Afghanistan's far northeast. A U.S. intelligence official this week confirmed this account.

"It's still unclear who bribed who and who talked to who," the official said, but "bin Laden got out. Knowing the land, knowing the people who could direct you, he was able to get out to Konar," into valleys "that no one has subdued . . . places the Soviets never pacified."

Bin Laden and Zawahri next moved on to an "unknown location," according to military documents. Some detainees reported that the two had stayed in Konar for up to 10 months. Even bin Laden's closest followers didn't know where he had gone, according to U.S. analysts who mined the interrogations of al-Qaida operatives.

"It became clear that he was not meeting with them face to face," said an intelligence official. "People we would capture had not seen him."

U.S. forces believed that at Tora Bora they had come within perhaps 2,000 yards of bin Laden. Yet he managed to slip away, vanishing so completely that several years went by without a single tip, surveillance photo or monitored transmission of any value. On the ground, American operatives continued to try to pry intelligence from "locals willing to talk for some pocket change," Fury said. "The CIA did a lot of this fishing. Mind-numbing. A million dead ends."

A few months after Tora Bora, as part of the preparation for war in Iraq, the Bush administration pulled out many of the Special Operations and CIA forces that had been searching for bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to several U.S. officials who served at the time.

Even the drones that U.S. forces depended on to track movements of suspicious characters in the Afghan mountain passes were redeployed to be available for the Iraq war, Lt. Gen. John Vines told The Washington Post in 2006. Once, when Vines' troops believed they were within half an hour of catching up to bin Laden, the general asked for drones to cover three possible escape routes. But only one drone was available - others had been moved to Iraq. The target got away.

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