by Florian Flade
In November of 1996 few people in the world knew of the danger growing in Afghanistan, the terror threat created by a once wealthy Saudi who gave up the luxury of his homeland to fight Holy War in the mountains of the Hindukush. Osama Bin Laden was in no way the person he is today.
Back in 1996 – two years prior to the U.S. Embassy Bombings in East Africa and five years to the devastating attacks of 9/11 – he was the leader of a multi-national, multi-ethnical terror group based in a remote region of the world, with just one dream: Jihad against the United States.
Abdel Bari Atwan, the chief-editor of Arabic newspaper „Al-Quds Al-Arabi“ (with whom I´d an interview yesterday), met Bin Laden in the freezing night of November 23th 1996 in his Afghan mountain base of Tora Bora, close to the border to Pakistan. The al-Qaeda leader welcomed the Palestinian journalist as a guest and invited him to a 3-day stay at his home, which was not more than several caves dug into the mountains.
The terrorist and the journalist dinned together, talked, walked around Tora Bora and slept in the same cave. Osama Bin Laden seemed committed to tell the world his ambitions to fight Jihad against the last remaining superpower – America. Without leaving any doubt he told Abdel Bari Atwan about his plans to attack the U.S. for their support for Israel and for sending troops – including women and Jews – to the Prophet´s land, the Arabian Penninsula.
Atwan, who knew of Bin Laden´s long journey from fighting against the Red Army in the 1980s, to exile in Sudan and returning to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, asked the al-Qaeda Boss what reaction he expected from the USA if they are going to be attacked.
„You will be kicked out of Afghanistan exactly the way you were kicked out of Sudan“, Abdel Bari Atwan told Bin Laden, „Do you have any plan for that? Do you expect this to happen? He answered: Yes, and I have my plans for that.“
Al-Qaeda´s withdrawal a strategic victory
What his exact plan for living in exile or hiding from America´s military was, we don´t know. Yet, five years after the journalist´s visit to al-Qaeda´s mountainous bastion (called „Lions Den“) of Tora Bora, Osama Bin Laden needed a plan. Nineteen Arabs, recruited, trained and financed by al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks, the biggest terror attack in history.
Being attacked on it´s on soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor 1945, the U.S. had to go to war with a group of Islamic terrorists, hiding in a country ruled by religious fanatics.
As promised by President George W. Bush, American hit Afghanistan hard and with full power. The Taliban regime collapsed within weeks, leaving Afghan and foreign extremists fleeing in all directions.
Bin Laden ordered his al-Qaeda fighters to withdraw to Tora Bora, their old war base in the 1980s Jihad. Faced by several hundred soldiers of U.S-allied Afghan militiamen and U.S. Special Forces, al-Qaeda defended the mountains of Tora Bora for a few weeks. Airstrikes hit them hard and caused a high number of casualties.
When the battle of Tora Bora was over, American soldiers discovered that the cave system al-Qaeda had used was far more primitive and well-organized as they thought. Dozens of al-Qaeda men were killed in the airforce carpet bombings but none of the high-ranking leaders were among the dead or captured. Bin Laden was at Tora Bora in November/December 2001 but he fled the scene and escaped to neighboring Pakistan.
Hunting A Ghost
Since early December 2001, the most-wanted terrorist in the world has disappeared. Video and audio tapes are released from time to time, yet the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leader are unknown. In the past nine years since 9/11, dozens of rumours have come up saying Bin Laden either lives in Iran or died long time ago (coming even from Taliban sources), some say at Tora Bora others say he died of kidney failure and was buried in the Pakistani tribal areas.
To proof he is alive and well and maybe even still in-command, al-Qaeda´s media wing As-Sahab released a small number of propaganda productions, mostly audio tapes, in the past months. By referring to recent events or attacks (or better said attempts), Osama Bin Laden is proving he is among the living and in the same moment mocking the U.S. Government, which has changed since 9/11 but still is unable to catch or kill the Saudi terrorist.
Nine years have gone since U.S. President Bush promised to bring the masterminds of 9/11 to justice and still Bin Laden successfully avoided being put in front of a American court.
The new man in the White House – also telling about catching or killing Bin Laden for mass murder of American lifes – is stepping up the fight against al-Qaeda by increasing the drone attacks on the Pakistani tribal areas. This method may work to disrupt parts of al-Qaeda´s military activities as well as their abilities to train recruits in terror camps but it does not lead to the killing of Bin Laden – so far.
Several high ranking al-Qaeda leaders were indeed killed by CIA drones – the latest being AQ No.3 Mustafa Abu al-Yazid who died in spring. But what about THE one? Where is Osama Bin Laden? Why did a 27 Million Dollars (25 Million promised by the U.S. Government, two Million by Airline Pilots Association and the Air Transport Association) bounty not lead to his death by an American missile or Special Forces Team?
No reliable intel since 2004
Intelligence on Osama Bin Laden has gone cold, the CIA admitted years ago. No reliable information about Bin Laden´s movements have emerged since 2004, a intel source recently told CNN.
In 2003 and 2004 an informant in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region with close connections to al-Qaeda’s top leadership provided a stream of reliable information on Bin Laden’s movements. But the information was never quite fresh enough for Western intelligence agencies to target al-Qaeda’s leader.
Tantalizingly at one point, according to the former official, information about his exact location was only one week old. But the intelligence stream on Bin Laden’s movements never resulted in what is known as “actionable intelligence” that could have led to his capture or assassination.
Since fleeing from the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, Bin Laden traveled around the Pakistani Federal Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), staying in villages and very remote buildings. He tried not to enter bigger towns and was constantly on the move – that´s what U.S. intelligence officials believe. Between 2003 and 2004 Bin Laden may have even crossed back into Eastern Afghanistan and stayed in rural areas far away from the cities.
One indicator of Bin Laden´s presence in Pakistan came from the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was arrested in Pakistan in February 2003. Mohammed met with Bin Laden after September 11th 2001 and prior to his arrest.
Pakistan denies – for good reason
Pakistan´s government denied several times since 2001 the al-Qaeda leader is hiding in it´s border region with Afghanistan. One Taliban fighter captured in late 2009 claimed to know Bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan earlier that year.
„In 2009, in January or February I met this friend of mine. He said he had come from meeting Sheikh Osama, and he could arrange for me to meet him,“ the arrested militant said. „He helps al-Qaeda people coming from other countries to get to the Sheikh, so he can advise them on whatever they are planning for Europe or other places.“
„The Sheikh doesn’t stay in any one place“, the Taliban fighter told interrogators, „That guy came from Ghazni, so I think that’s where the Sheikh was.“
There is no proof to say the information is credible as Pakistan has a very clear and constant interest in making the West believe Bin Laden is not in the Waziristan area or anywhere else in the country. Which country besides the USA would want to have Bin Laden in their prison cell or be the murderer of al-Qaeda´s spiritual leader?
In December 2009, Pakistan´s President Yousuf Raza Gilani doubted the information about Bin Laden living somewhere in the FATA area. „I doubt the information which you are giving is correct, because I don’t think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan“, Gilani said on a visit to London.
A spokesman for then Prime Minister Gordon Brown disagreed: „The al-Qaeda leadership, including Bin Laden, are probably somewhere in Pakistan’s borders.“
CIA-Chief Leon Panetta told reporters in June last year, the last information the U.S. intelligence community got hinted towards Pakistan. Asked whether or not the U.S. officials believe Osama Bin Laden is still in Pakistan, Panetta answered: „The last information we had, that’s still the case.“
U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, even went as far as blaming the Pakistani Government for not hunting down the al-Qaeda leader. In Mai she accused Pakistan´s political elite of knowing where Bin Laden is. „I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden is, and we expect more co-operation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill those who attacked us on 9/11.“
A White among Blacks?
As a tall Arab, Bin Laden stands out of the local people in the tribal areas of Pakistan. If he is somewhere in that region, people would know and recognize him – that´s the opinion of those speculating he is gone to other areas maybe even to Iran.
In fact, Bin Laden is perfectly able to blend in the native community. One of his last video tapes from 2003 shows him hiking through a mountain area alongside Ayman az-Zawahiri. Dressed in local clothing, Bin Laden does not look that different from local tribesmen. „There are blonds in this region, people with green eyes, tall people with light-skin“, journalist Abdel Bari Atwan told me, „When I was crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, the border guards could not tell the difference between me – an Arab – and the local people.“
Most of those who have met, hunted or written about Osama Bin Laden assume that World´s No.1 Terrorist is alive and living somewhere in FATA. While the exact location is argued about – some say it is Waziristan, others believe Bin Laden is hiding in Baluchistan or the northern areas of Bajaur agency or Chitral – the rough estimate is: Afghan-Pakistan border region.
Prof.Gunaratna, who wrote an excellent book on al-Qaeda, thinks Bin Laden is most likely in North Waziristan. Other experts like Steve Coll, Peter Bergen and former CIA-analyst Bruce Riedel express the same speculation.
South Waziristan, a jihadi-controlled region along the Afghan-Pakistani border, was the target of a Pakistani military offensive back in late 2009. A high number of militants was killed, hundreds arrested, and the area is now occupied by troops.
The very costly but successful operation led most foreign militants, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Tajiks of the IMU and IJU, and the Arab jihadis of al-Qaeda, to flee into North Waziristan agency.
North Waziristan – The Jihadi Capital of the World
Even under the pressure of Washington and Kabul, Pakistan´s army is not willing and maybe not able to move against the terror threat growing out of North Waziristan. It is known that militant groups have regrouped under the protection of local Taliban Warlords and turned North Waziristan into the main basis for jihadi training.
Most of the terror plots prevented by Western intelligence, be it the Najibullah Zazi case in the U.S. or the Times Square Bombing attempt can be traced back to North Waziristan, where the people who were ready to carry it out, were trained in making explosives.
There is no doubt al-Qaeda exists in North Waziristan. Around the towns of Datta Khel and Miranshah, the terror network has established basis for planning and plotting terror attacks against the West. Western jihadi recruits travel to this region, some of them later told interrogators that North Waziristan is multi-national, multi language terror hub – the capital of Jihadi terrorism in the world.
Does this mean Bin Laden is living in the villages of North Waziristan? Of course not. Maybe the area is filled with people who regard him as a hero and as their spiritual leader but it is also packed with spies and local Pakistanis cooperating with the ISI. And there are the drones, a deadly and daily threat causing damage to the terror networks.
Another question is: In the face of losing their territory to a military offensive, would the Pakistani Taliban leaders, who are largely in control of North Waziristan, proof to be loyal to their Saudi guest?
To a large degree Bin Laden relies on the friendship of Pashtun tribes leaders. Some, like the powerful Afghan Taliban leader Jalahuddin Haqqani, can be trusted, others have changed loyalties in the past.
Osama Bin Laden is probably not very close to the jihadi training camps in North Waziristan, moving only with a very small number of people, staying in the most remote areas. His Egyptian, Yemeni and Saudi bodyguards (the nationalities he trusts most), try their very best to isolate and shield the al-Qaeda leader from the outside world. The average al-Qaeda recruit coming to Waziristan, be it European, North American or Arab, is not allowed to get in touch with al-Qaedas Shura council members. Outsiders coming into the world of al-Qaeda are always suspected of being spies, most of them have to proof their loyalty and commitment in weeks of harsh terror training. Meeting „The Sheikh“ – an impossible dream for jihadis in 2010.
In-Command or Isolated?
A widely agreed on assumption is: Bin Laden is the spiritual leader figure, who draws the outlines of al-Qaeda strategy but he is not in command or control of the networks day-to-day operation.
Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says, he thinks Osama Bin Laden does not communicate with the leaders of al-Qaeda´s branches in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq or Somalia. Atwan agreed on President Obama´s recent statement: „Bin Laden has gone deep underground.“
Nevertheless there are signs Bin Laden is very well aware of what his network is plotting and carrying out. In January it did not take very long for him to issue an audio tape message about the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger plane.
„The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes 9/11“, Bin Laden said. It is unclear though if he knew of the up-coming attack planned and carried out by the Nigerian al-Qaeda recruit, but at least Bin Laden seemed to be pleased with Abdulmutallab´s mission.
Former CIA-analyist Bruce Riedel told me, there is no sign Bin Laden had retired from the terror business. „Osama bin Laden is alive and in strategic command of the worlds first truly global terror network“, Riedel wrote in an e-mail, „From somewhere in south Asia he gives orders to his networks.“
With all the US-intelligence hunting for him and concentrating on the small territory of Waziristan, I believe Bin Laden has in fact frozen all it´s communication. Perhaps he is still in touch with his deputy az-Zawahiri but if so he is certainly not on the phone with him but sending letters.
No need for new propaganda
Up to today there was no annual 9/11-propaganda message by al-Qaeda. No video, no audio tape of Osama Bin Laden, nothing. The terror network seems to have decided not to issue any „remember our great victory“-message this year. One reason might be the daily drone attacks on Waziristan that very well may have disrupted the pipelines of propaganda.
Yet, the real question is: Is there really a need for new propaganda messages? Isn´t a person like Florida Pastor Terry Jones or Dutch politician Geert Wilders or Barak Obama´s drone campaign filling the ranks of al-Qaeda sympathizers more than a Bin Laden message ever could? Isn´t a European Burqa ban and growing Islamophobia in the US caused by the Ground Zero Mosque fueling the cause of al-Qaeda to an extent a new audio or video tape of it´s leader could never have done?
To be realistic, what news should the al-Qaeda leader tell to the world they did not tell before? Facts are on the table: CIA says Bin Laden is alive, US withdrew from Iraq, Americans feel the suffering caused by a collapsing economy first hand, Anti-Islam sentiment is growing in Western countries, Europeans want to leave Afghanistan sooner than later, NATO soldiers are dying in Afghanistan on a daily basis, Somalia is being taken over by Al-Shabaab, Yemen has been highlighted as a new terror safehaven, Pakistan is on the brink to civil war – what else should Osama Bin Laden tell? He warned the West over and over again, what is lacking is a successful attack – that´s the only message he is eager to deliver.