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The Rediff Special/ Hamid Mir
How Osama has survived for six years
September 11, 2007
The world's only superpower has declared him its most dangerous enemy. He has been wanted by the United States for a decade now, but the world's most wanted man escaped death four times in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The US air strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda [Images] began on October 7, 2001. Osama bin Laden and his deputy Dr Ayman al Zawahri were spotted in Kabul on November 8, 2001. They came to Kabul from Jalalabad to attend an Al Qaeda meeting and also to pay tributes to their Uzbek comrade Jummah Khan Namangani, who died in the northern Afghan city Mazar-e-Sharif on November 6, 2001.
Namangani was a former soldier of the Soviet army who joined Al Qaeda in the late 1980s. He commanded the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces resisting the US-backed Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan. Muhammad Atif was overseeing the resistance in eastern and southern Afghanistan. First Atif was killed, and then Namangani.
Their deaths were a big blow to America's enemies. Al Qaeda's multinational Muslim army was on the retreat after Atif and Namangani's deaths.
Osama paid rich tributes to both of them in a meeting of select Al Qaeda leaders in Kabul on November 8, 2001. He also reviewed the situation at the same meeting.
I was granted an interview by the world's most wanted man the same day in Kabul. I was not allowed to use my camera. One of his sons, Abdul Rehman, took my pictures with his father and Dr al Zawahri with his camera and gave me the film.
Despite the security measures, a female spy noticed the unusual movement of many important Arabs in Kabul.
I was having tea with Osama and Dr al Zawahri after the interview. Osama reminded me that it was my third interview with him. He told me that in the first interview, there were some translation mistakes, but no misreporting. He was hopeful I would not misreport him the third time either.
More than 20 Al Qaeda leaders were present in the small room. Most of them were of the view that the US-backed Northern Alliance was moving close to Kabul only because of General Pervez Musharraf [Images], who provided air bases to the Americans in Pakistan.
Suddenly, an Arab Al Qaeda fighter entered the room and told his leaders that they had arrested a woman in a blue burqa just few metres away. She was spying under the cover of begging. She begged for money from some Al Qaeda security guards posted outside the place where I interviewed Osama. After some time one guard noticed she was more interested in watching him than in begging. He started observing her movements and caught her red-handed when she was talking to someone about 'Sheikh' on a Thuraya satellite phone.
This news was broken to the meeting in Arabic; I understood a little bit. Osama immediately ordered one of his close associates that the 'guest' must not be harmed.
The associate, Muhammad, told me he would take me to Jalalabad. I said goodbye to Osama in panic and left in a car. We were arrested by the Taliban outside Kabul because I did not have a beard and also because I had a camera.
Muhammad never informed the Taliban that he was from Al Qaeda. He told them he worked for then interior minister Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund. The Taliban verified his credentials from the minister and released us after three hours. It was late evening when we reached Jalalabad.
Muhammad dropped me off at a big house. He returned after two hours. He said the place in Kabul where I met his 'Sheikh' had been bombed just 15 minutes after we left, but 'Sheikh' and the others also left the place immediately after us and nobody was harmed.
Smiling, Muhammad told me, 'Brother, you missed martyrdom with us.'
I was not aware of the exact location of the place. Muhammad told me it was the Wazir Akbar Khan area in Kabul where I had met the world's most wanted man.
I spent the night in Jalalabad. I was lucky to survive the intense US bombing.
The next morning, Muhammad said goodbye to me and I left for Pakistan by road. We met again in 2004 when I was covering the Afghan presidential election.
He told how he and his 'Sheikh' survived the American carpet bombing for many days in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afgahnistan. It was the third week of December 2001 when Osama and his fighters -- with the help of Haji Zahir, Haji Zaman and Hazrat Ali -- broke the circle created by Americans around them.
The majority of Al Qaeda fighters entered the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan from Tora Bora, but Osama headed in a different direction with a small group. Muhammad was also part of that small group. Some Chechen and Saudi fighters provided them cover and they walked all night towards the eastern Afghan province Paktia.
A top Afghan security official, Lutfullah Mashal, confirmed to me later that Osama escaped to Paktia from Tora Bora in December 2001. Mashal followed him secretly. He claimed Osama entered North Waziristan, Pakistan, from Paktia, spent some time there and then moved to the mountains of the eastern Afghan province Khost.
Mashal now works with President Hamid Karzai and he is sure that the Americans missed Osama in Tora Bora because they were not ready to send their forces on the ground.
The Americans depended more on a Northern Alliance commander who betrayed them. According to highly reliable Afghan sources, this man provided safe passage to Al Qaeda in return for a lot of money. He is a member of the Afghan parliament now.
Osama remained underground in 2002. He and his colleagues were on the run. They kept changing their hideouts often. They were just saving their lives, they were not fighting.
In April 2003, Osama surfaced again in Afghanistan after the US invasion of Iraq. He called a meeting in the Pech valley of the northeastern Afghan province Kunar 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 Saif ul Adil as in charge of organising the resistance in Iraq and also advised him to contact Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who was hiding in Iran at that time.
Osama started addressing small gatherings of his comrades in Kunar as well as in Paktia. One of his daughters-in-law died during childbirth in those days in the Kunar mountains. There was a big gathering for the funeral. Local Afghans found out about the death and started visiting the homes of some Al Qaeda fighters who had married into families in Kunar.
The news reached the Americans. They launched an operation in Kunar, but once again Osama escaped towards the south before the bombing began in the Pech valley.
In late 2004, Osama was surrounded by British troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. He was hiding in a mountain area with three defence lines.
Highly placed diplomatic sources revealed to me recently in Kabul that the British forces were very close to capturing Osama. He was under siege for more than 24 hours but he escaped one of the world's most well equipped armies again.
According to details gathered from Taliban sources in Helmand, the British forces broke two Al Qaeda defence lines in an area of 5 kilometres. One-to-one fighting was about to start, but daylight ended and the darkness provided some relief to Al Qaeda.
Osama wanted to fight himself, but his colleagues stopped him. Heated words were exchanged. Osama was angry, but Abu Hamza Aljazeeri convinced him to try to escape. They placed many rockets with timers in two different directions as decoys. They decided to break the enemy circle in a third direction with a group of foot soldiers. That group provided Osama cover.
Most of the fighters died, but the escape plan succeeded. Osama slipped from British hands with Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri and some others.
My sources denied reports that Osama had ordered his guards to shoot him if he is on the verge of arrest. The sources claimed he does not believe in suicide; it is easier for him to sacrifice his life in fighting against the enemy till the last bullet and the last drop of his blood.
Another secret of Osama's survival is that he faces a lot of 'in house' restrictions after the Helmand episode. He believes in accepting the majority opinion of his colleagues, who have advised him to restrict his movements, not to use satellite phones and concentrate more on planning 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 Al Qaeda messages were issued by Dr al Zawahri. The Egyptian doctor is constantly in touch with his leader, but they live separately. Dr al Zawahri spends more time in Pakistan's tribal areas while Osama still feels Afghanistan is safer for him.
Osama is more interested in organising resistance against NATO forces than fighting the Pakistan army. Many Taliban leaders in eastern and southern Afghanistan proudly narrate the stories of their meetings with Osama in the last three years.
They now believe the 'Sheikh' is fighting their war against America, and that he is winning.
The bounty on Osama was $5 million in 1999, it was increased to $25 million 9/11, and it is now $50 million. Al Qaeda was operating only in few countries before 9/11, now it operates 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, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Uruguay, Ecuador, Mexico, the US, the United Kingdom, Canada [Images], France [Images], Germany [Images], Italy [Images], Spain and Australia.
In the Muslim world, Osama's popularity has increased in the last six years. Some of his critics believe he is popular by default. All those who hate US policies like Osama. His real strength is bad US policies. The world has become more unsafe after 9/11.
The US provided Osama 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 Muslim world is now burning in the fire of anti-Americanism; Osama is the only beneficiary of this situation.
He is still determined to stage attacks bigger than 9/11. His sympathisers claim it is not only America that is on his hit list. Al Qaeda is also capable of attacking other Western countries. UK and Italy are possible targets because of their blind support to the Bush administration after the US invasion of Iraq.
Osama is a threat to all these countries but he is still at large, even after six years of 9/11. Any new 9/11-like attack may ignite an ultimate clash of civilisations. That is what he wants.
I have interviewed top US and British officials in the last six years. I have asked one question to everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Tony Blair [Images], from top US General Richard B Myers to the British commander in Afghanistan General David Richards: Why is Osama bin Laden still at large?
They had no answer.
Dr Rice and Blair clearly told me they do not believe in a clash of civilisations, but their actions are different from their words. By issuing threats of entering Pakistan and by honouring people like Salman Rushdie, they are only strengthening Osama's hands.
The more hatred they create, the more power Osama gains. He changed the world six years ago and he can again push the world towards a grand clash with another attack.
All strong countries play into his hands through their policies, which create more and more hatred every day.
Hamid Mir, Executive Editor, Geo TV, Islamabad, is a frequent contributor to rediff.com
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