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Nytimes mystery { September 30 2002 }

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September 30, 2002
10-Month bin Laden Mystery: Dead or Alive?

TORA BORA, Afghanistan, Sept. 23 This is where the trail ran cold.

With the uncertainties surrounding Osama bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States whether he is alive or dead, in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or perhaps in some hide-out much farther afield this much is known: The last sightings of the leader of Al Qaeda of which pursuers can be reasonably certain were here in the White Mountains of southeastern Afghanistan.

Those sightings came nearly 10 months ago, when the main mountain base at Tora Bora that had been used for years by Mr. bin Laden and his followers came under two weeks of intensive American bombing. Targets for the B-52's included dozens of caves in the forested heights above the base that were used as hide-outs and ammunition depots. The base was left a field of blasted debris, and many caves disappeared beneath hundreds of tons of rubble, burying forever anybody within.

From the Tora Bora district, in the shadow of 14,500-foot peaks, it is a grueling six-hour walk up rock-strewn riverbeds and precipitous mountain trails to the international border, and on to remote tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. The trek is swifter on horseback, often favored by Mr. bin Laden during the years when he was regularly at Tora Bora, according to villagers. Since the bombing in December, glimpses of him and an entourage of Arab militants, sometimes on horses, have been reported by tribespeople on both sides of the border, mostly from locations within a range, north and south, of about 100 miles.

Many of the tipoffs, American officials say, have been little more than hearsay; others have been prevarications by Qaeda sympathizers. Although raids have led to the arrests of scores of Arab militants, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, none have produced solid leads to Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts. Nor has the $25 million reward for the Qaeda leader proved of much avail. In a region of widespread poverty, the bounty has collided with ancient tribal traditions of secrecy, an abiding suspicion of outsiders and a profoundly conservative form of Islam that has favored the Qaeda fugitives and isolated their American pursuers.

The frustrations for American troops have not been helped by the suspicion that here at Tora Bora, where Mr. bin Laden was all but trapped, indecisiveness on the part of American commanders, or perhaps reluctance to risk casualties, may have helped him escape. If he fled to Pakistan, he did so over snow-choked mountain trails that were not blocked by American or other allied troops until after the bombing an oversight that some of the allies point to as having squandered the best opportunity of the war to snare America's most wanted man.

Within weeks, high-ranking British officers were saying privately that American commanders had vetoed a proposal to guard the high-altitude trails, arguing that the risks of a firefight, in deep snow, gusting winds and low-slung clouds, were too high. Similar accounts abound among Afghan commanders who provided the troops stationed on the Tora Bora foothills on the north side of the mountains, facing the Afghan city of Jalalabad. Those troops played a blocking role that left the Qaeda fugitives only one escape route, to the south, over the mountains to Pakistan.

Months later, exactly what happened here has been obscured by the political crosscurrents of the war. Some Afghan commanders who fought here are deeply embittered against the Americans for reasons related to perceived American favor or disfavor in the warlord struggles that continue to feed tensions around Jalalabad, as elsewhere in Afghanistan. American commanders never disclosed much about their strategy at Tora Bora and remain reluctant to discuss operational details even now.

Helping the Fugitives

One important fact, though, seems to have been that some of the Afghan commanders at Tora Bora had links with Mr. bin Laden going back to the late 1980's, then found themselves drafted into the hunt for him after Sept. 11. One of these men, Hajji Zaman, who fled Afghanistan for sanctuary in France last spring, was accused by rival Afghan commanders of organizing a brief American bombing halt a few days into the attack to allow him to negotiate Qaeda leaders' surrender, only to use the standstill with the inducement of a hefty Qaeda bribe to help the fugitives escape.

Another commander, Hajji Zaher, said in an interview in Jalalabad that he had pleaded with Special Forces officers to block the trails to Pakistan. "The Americans would not listen, even when I told them that one word with me was worth more than $1 million of their high technology," said Mr. Zaher, 38. "Their attitude was, `We must kill the enemy, but we must remain absolutely safe.' This is crazy. If they had been willing to take casualties to capture Osama then, perhaps they'd have to take fewer casualties now."

Among American commanders, the legacy of Tora Bora, and of the unyielding hunt for Mr. bin Laden, has been one of deep uncertainty and even dissension. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, in overall command of United States military operations in the region, has said for months that he does not know whether Mr. bin Laden is dead or alive. But senior officers of the Joint Special Operations Command, deploying the elite units like the Delta Force that are responsible for counterterrorism, have argued that he was probably killed by the bombing. Some senior officers believe that it is time to scale back the manhunt, on the assumption that he is dead.

Another possibility, some American officers believe, is that Mr. bin Laden, who is 45 if he is still alive, died of sickness at Tora Bora and was buried somewhere in the heights, after the bombing interrupted the dialysis he needed to survive a longstanding kidney condition. This version has been tentatively supported by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who has assigned 10,000 troops to the border areas to support the manhunt. General Musharraf has said he thinks it more likely that Mr. bin Laden is dead than alive.

In the mountains surrounding Mr. bin Laden's old base, named for the nearby village of Melawa, all that is left now is a pastoral stillness. Along a riverbed below, tribesmen with donkeys drag tree trunks and roof beams salvaged from the forest and villages obliterated by the bombing. Scavengers have mostly disappeared, leaving little but litter of rusting barbed wire, twisted ammunition boxes, torn pages from the Koran, discarded flashlight batteries and plastic bags of a Pakistani-made dextrose drip that, physicians say, could be used for dialysis treatment.

Some of the largest caves lie above the ruins of the stone-walled buildings that served as living quarters and defensive bunkers for Mr. bin Laden and scores of other Arabs. Since the bombing, they have been accessible only through cramped crawl spaces opened by American and Afghan troops digging through tons of collapsed earth and rock. In the clammy darkness, the deep caverns are filled with piles of unexploded ammunition, including mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Afghan soldiers, fearing that the caves are booby-trapped, warn intruders to stay well away.

Clues as to what became of Mr. bin Laden have been pored over by Special Forces teams and Afghan militia units that stayed on here for weeks after the bombing. Reporters, too, have trekked out from Jalalabad, 20 miles from Melawa or more than three hours in a jeep over the tortuous dirt track Mr. bin Laden paid to have cut through the foothills. Ranging over the mountains, clambering up to caves, questioning the villagers who have returned to settlements on the heights abandoned during the bombing, the strangers have pretty well exhausted everything the mountains, and the mountain people, can tell them.

The conundrum remains, though. If Mr. bin Laden died here, nobody has been able to find any trace of that, not among the dozens of Arab fighters' bodies strewn across the mountain ridges after the bombing, and not in the caves the Special Forces teams could still enter or dig into. The possibility remains that he lies dead somewhere in one of dozens of sealed-up caves that villagers say were never searched, or perhaps in a shallow grave somewhere in the maze of gullies and ravines that flank the mountain trails.

He Could Be Far Away

All this leaves American forces with the frustration of continuing the hunt for Mr. bin Laden without the spur that would come from knowing, with reasonable certainty, that he is still alive.

According to some theories, Mr. bin Laden could by now be a long way distant, perhaps in one of the teeming cities of Pakistan. Two raids that have netted the most important Qaeda suspects seized so far outside the United States Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni and former roommate in Hamburg of Mohamed Atta, pilot of one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, and Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's operations director took place, respectively, in Karachi and Faisalabad, two of Pakistan's biggest cities.

American officials do not discount completely, either, the possibility that Mr. bin Laden could have fled farther afield, perhaps aboard one of the small vessels, or dhows, that ply the Arabian Sea between Pakistan's desert coast and his ancestral homeland of Yemen the ancestral homeland, too, of many of the Sept. 11 hijackers. In an interview with an Arab newspaper more than three years before Sept. 11, Mr. bin Laden said he yearned to return to the "mountains and deserts" of Yemen.

Another question that dogs the manhunt is how much Mr. bin Laden, as an individual, matters. When the first months of the hunt passed without his capture, or proof of his death, President Bush and other top American officials began suggesting that even if he was still alive, he was of diminishing importance, because he had been deprived of much of the network he needed to run Al Qaeda's terrorist plots. An opposing view is that alive, he is potentially as menacing as ever.

Even if the need to lie low has defanged him for the moment, his success in evading the toughest troops in the American forces with every advantage of satellite technology and helicopters and other modern technical wizardry has made him an irresistible icon to many in the Muslim world, especially among the alienated young.

At Tora Bora, most villagers take a narrower view. On the question of Mr. bin Laden, good or bad, many villagers are equivocal. In the wily way of those who have seen armies come and go, they give the impression of thinking it too early in America's war with Al Qaeda to venture a view. But the relief that he is no longer a force in their neighborhood and no longer a magnet attracting American bombing is palpable.

In hindsight, at least, some villagers say the Arabs were never popular. A tribesman working as forester in the Melawa area, Kudrat, 35, said that once Mr. bin Laden and his followers took over the Melawa base in the summer of 1996, after being forced under American pressure to leave Sudan his writ was paramount. "He had a lot of armed people with him, Arab people, and they behaved in a rude and arrogant way, as if they were the owners of heaven," Mr. Kudrat said.

As for Mr. bin Laden, the forester added: "He was very rich, and he behaved like a king. If he wanted something, he simply ordered it, and the Taliban gave it to him."

The Melawa base was originally built by the Islamic Party, one of the most radical of the Muslim guerrilla groups that fought a jihad, or holy war, against Soviet occupation troops in the 1980's. The villagers said the base underwent a major expansion under Mr. bin Laden, with new buildings, some with concrete foundations, including a house for himself. It was here, with bookshelves and carpets and a television set linked to a satellite dish, Afghan officials say, that he gave some of his interviews to foreign reporters in the late 1990's, setting out plans for a holy war against the United States.

The villagers said Mr. bin Laden made important allies among tribal chiefs in the area, building and repairing mosques and madrasas, the Islamic religious schools, as well as buying materials for the base. But by the fall of 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital, consolidating their rule in Afghanistan. After that, the villagers say, he became only an occasional visitor to Tora Bora, spending most of his time with the Taliban leaders, 400 miles away at their stronghold in the southwestern city of Kandahar.

According to the villagers, he returned for the last time sometime in the weeks after Sept. 11. From then on, he appears to have remained mostly out of sight. Mr. Kudrat, the forester, said the last time he saw him was when Mr. bin Laden and about a dozen of his Arab followers visited Mr. Kudrat's home village of Khan-i-Merajuddin, about two miles from the Melawa base, on the evening of Nov. 30. This was about four days after the American bombing started.

Hours later, Khan-i-Merajuddin was bombed, with dozens of villagers killed, including, Mr. Kudrat said, nine of his own relatives. But by then, he said, Mr. bin Laden and his group had left. Asked how he could be sure it was Mr. bin Laden he saw that night, Mr. Kudrat replied: "Everybody knew who he was. He was tall, he had the skin color of an Arab, a long turban, and he had a long beard, black and gray. He had very long arms. The other Arabs with him treated him like a god. They mounted their horses, and rode away."

An Intercepted Voice

American commanders, asked what proof there was that Mr. bin Laden remained at Tora Bora during the bombing, have referred to an intercepted conversation, by radio, in which a voice thought to have been his was heard giving instructions to Qaeda fighters telling them to spare Afghan Muslims, if possible, but to fight to the death against the Americans. A similar message, over his signature, was found in pamphlets in the pockets of some of the Afghan militiamen killed by Qaeda rocket fire at Tora Bora.

An Afghan commander who held part of the front line at Tora Bora, Alim Shah Qaderi, said he had been told of one last sighting of Mr. bin Laden, at the village of Tangi, close to the Pakistan border, on Dec. 8, shortly before the bombing ended. Villagers there, Mr. Qaderi said, had told him that a man who looked like the Qaeda leader, along with a group of about 20 other Arabs, had ridden into Tangi on horseback late that day, paused for water and to buy supplies, and then ridden on toward Pakistan.

Mr. Qaderi, now back to a civilian life in Jalalabad as chief of the city's creaky telephone service, said he had remained at Tora Bora for weeks after the bombing, working with American search teams. But those teams, he said, had left many collapsed caves unsearched, had photographed but not DNA-tested bodies still lying on the mountains, and had not dug up many of the Arab graves that were left on the higher ridges, marked by white flags that were an Islamic banner for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"So my final word is this," the commander said. "If Osama is dead, somebody has to prove it, and they haven't. And if he's alive, he won't stay out of sight forever. So what can the Americans do but to keep on searching?"

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