How Osama bin Laden got away seven times before being ‘officially’ killed this day in 2011

There were at least seven occasions between 1995 and 2011 when it should have been possible to apprehend Osama bin Laden much earlier, but he was allowed, rather mysteriously, to get away

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden
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Bharat Dogra

It is well-known that the CIA, often acting through Pakistan’s ISI, had enlisted the close cooperation of Osama bin Laden (OBL) to oust the Soviet Army from Afghanistan. However, after this aim was achieved, over a period of a few years, OBL and his organization Al Qaeda (AQ) turned hostile to the USA.

Soon, the CIA and other USA intelligence agencies started tracking him as a major threat. This happened around 1995 when OBL and his close followers were in Sudan.

OBL is reported to have died in a US raid in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. During these 16 years, from 1995-2011, the threat perception about OBL continued to increase, or remained steady at a very high level.

He was first placed on the ‘most wanted’ list, then an award of $25 million was announced for information relating to his capture, raised after some time to 50 million dollars.

Several attacks were launched with the main aim, or one of the main aims, being to capture or kill him.

One such effort is reported to have succeeded at last on May 2, 2011, as per official accounts. However, there were at least seven occasions when it should have been possible to apprehend OBL much earlier, but he was allowed, rather mysteriously, to get away.

The first such instance was in Sudan in 1995-96. The official 9/11 Commission report has stated, “CIA paramilitary officer Billy Waugh tracked down Bin Laden in Sudan and prepared an operation to apprehend him, but was denied authorization.”

The second such occasion came when with about 300 close and loyal followers, OBL left Sudan for Afghanistan (Jalalabad) on a chartered flight. It is unlikely that the US government, which was in close touch with the Sudan government on this issue and whose intelligence agencies were closely trailing the activities of OBL in Sudan, would have failed to apprehend OBL at this stage if it had made a serious and timely effort.

The third such occasion came in 2001. A report in Le Figaro, a leading newspaper of France dated October 31, 2001, supported by other media sources (particularly those in Europe) stated that OBL came for treatment to an American hospital in Dubai in July 2001 with a deputy, a personal doctor and nurses as well as bodyguards.

He is reported to have stayed there for ten days, in the course of which he is reported to have met several visitors including the local CIA man and Arab intelligence officials. This CIA official was recalled to his headquarters after the visit.

This report quoted hospital sources and is widely believed to have a base in French intelligence sources. Publishers stood by their report, and even though the report was officially denied by the hospital and US authorities, it continued to have high credibility, and reports based on the original report were published in several respected media outlets. It was stated that OBL had flown in from Quetta, and flights to Quetta by some Arab aristocrats ostensibly for hunting expeditions but taking them to terrorist bases were not uncommon.

It should be recalled that by the reported time of this stay of Osama in Dubai, OBL and AQ were already suspected by the CIA to be planning a major attack in the USA, and in fact CIA director George Tenet had already briefed several Senators about this, as is evident from his own later disclosures. So it is highly questionable, to say the least, why OBL was not apprehended during this visit.

The fourth escape for bin Laden is likely to have taken place on September 10, 2001, just a day before the 9/11 attack. On this day, CBS reported in January 2002, OBL was admitted secretly to a military hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, for urgent treatment of a kidney related ailment (anchor Dan Rather, correspondent Barry Petersen).

The fifth instance of OBL being let off relates to the period starting early October and continuing till the third week of November in 2001. This is the time when the US bombing of Afghanistan had started as a part of its war on terror, but OBL had not yet escaped to Tora-Bora caves.

During this period, he also appeared openly in Kabul, for offering condolence for a colleague who had died and also to give an interview to a senior journalist from Pakistan.

During this period, there were at least two instances of him travelling openly in rather long convoys of vehicles when he and AQ fighters close to him would have been a rather easy target of US bombing. However, while there were a lot of other bombings, which probably also harmed innocent persons, these long and very visible convoys passing along predictable routes were surprisingly spared from bombing attacks.

The sixth escape relates to the period lasting from the last days of November to around December 16-17, 2001 or so when Osama, with about 1200 fighters, had taken shelter in Tora Bora caves in East Afghanistan, rather close to tribal areas of Pakistan.

The USA sent a very small force of about 100 soldiers who were supposed to enlist the help of local Afghan allies to kill or capture Bin Laden and close aides in Tora Bora. They were supported by heavy aerial bombing of caves by US planes.

As Afghan allies were reluctant to remain in the caves after dark, the general practice was to launch daily attacks but return to the base in the evenings. During the first week, the presence of OBL in the caves was confirmed almost beyond doubt by radio intercepts. However, to US fighters it also became clearer as days passed that local Afghan allies were not very reliable in terms of helping in capture of OBL. The promised help from Pakistan was also not reliable and in any case was being delayed.

Hence the US force, which fought quite valiantly in the middle of several difficulties, repeatedly asked for ground-level US reinforcements. However, this was refused at higher levels.

Despite this, on December 9, the US forces gained a clear edge as a 15,000 pound daisy cutter bomb, apart from its massive destruction, created so much heat in the caves that things became very difficult for OBL’s fighters.

The situation worsened further for them when some US soldiers advanced to guide bomber planes to aim better and they stepped up bombing for about 17 hours.

However, a leading local ally pleaded with the US force to halt the bombing for a while to arrange the surrender of leading AQ fighters. This proved to be just a ruse that allowed about 800 OBL loyalists to escape on the night of December 11. OBL, with some of the closest buddies and bodyguards, still stayed on.

On December 14, the US forces finally prevailed upon Afghan allies to stay on for the night close to the caves and a cave to cave operation was launched. Now it was clearly time for OBL and buddies also to leave and they left, most probably on December 16 or just around that, helped by Afghan and Pakistani contacts, partly on foot and partly on horse, to finally cross over to Pakistan unhindered.

This timeline is well-confirmed in perhaps the most comprehensive and credible report on this particular OBL escape prepared for the members of the Foreign Relations Committee, US Senate, in November 2009. In his accompanying letter, the Chairperson John F. Kerry stated that the focus is on learning from mistakes in the past.

With this focus, this report titled ‘Tora Bora Revisited (TBR) — How we failed to get bin Laden and why it matters today’, made a strong indictment of highest levels of military and political leadership in the USA which refused to provide reinforcements to valiant US soldiers on the ground in Tora Bora, and this resulted in the defeat of a main objective of the intervention of capturing or killing OBL and his closest deputies as soon as possible.

As the TBR report confirms, in late November, CIA senior official on counter-terrorism Henry Crumpton, who was earlier head of the CIA unit on Afghanistan as well, made a strong plea for sending more ground troops to Tora Bora to the top army authorities and in fact went to the extent to meeting President Bush and Vice-President Cheney for this. They listened to him but did nothing to heed his suggestion.

Gary Bernsten, senior CIA operator who was specially sent to Tora Bora by his boss to ‘kill the enemy’, later wrote: “We needed US soldiers on the ground. I had sent request for 800 Army US rangers and was still waiting for a response. I repeated to anyone at headquarters who would listen —we need rangers now! The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away.”

This account of frustration of ground level US forces is matched by statements of other Tora Bora force leaders. In fact, even the official history of the Special Operation Command regrets this when it says, “Given the commitment of fewer than 100 American personnel, US forces proved unable to block egress route from Tora Bora south into Pakistan.”

This, as well as other reviews, note that the additional US soldiers needed at Tora Bora were clearly available. There were US soldiers available for this top-priority assignment in Afghanistan, including about 1000 nearer at Kandahar, and others could be brought in quickly from Uzbekistan and the Middle-East, and of course the US.

Around 2500 soldiers were needed, including those needed closer to Pakistan border in case the fugitives could not be apprehended earlier on in the escape route or in the caves, but for this extremely important assignment only about 100 soldiers were sanctioned.

Summarizing the sad failure, the TBR report notes-

--Calls for reinforcements for launching assault were rejected.

---Requests were also turned down for US troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan.

---The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines.

Further the TBR report confirms: ‘There were enough US troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep and block maneuver required to prevent the escape of OBL’.

The report noted further that this failure proved very costly as the escape of the charismatic terrorist gave more strength to his followers and al Qaeda units in many countries. By crossing over to Pakistan, OBL and his AQ militants continued their plots there, the report says, including the July 2005 transit bombings in London and two aborted attacks in the USA.

One of the important factors behind this failure was the fact, not even known to ground forces in Tora Bora, that President Bush had already shifted his focus from strengthening Afghanistan efforts to invading Iraq for removing Saddam Hussein.

In fact, even as senior experts were pleading with him for Tora Bora reinforcements, Bush had quietly asked his defense secretary Rumsfeld, himself a known hawk on Iraq, to prepare for Iraq invasion.

This happened on November 21, just a week or so after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, not allowing time for consolidation and focused attention there.

Rumsfeld lost no time in phoning his top general Tommy Franks the same day to get the Iraq invasion files ready in just a week’s time. Franks was busy planning for Tora Bora when he got this phone call and his reaction, recorded in the official TBR report was, “Son of a B…No rest for the weary”.

The seventh escape of OBL relates to the period lasting from the last fortnight of December 2001 (when he crossed over to tribal areas of Pakistan) to May 2, 2011 when he was reported to have been killed in a US attack in Abbottabad, about 100 km from the capital of Pakistan. The official Pakistani account differs in some respects, depending upon the source, but the overall trend has been to say that the Pakistani authorities were not aware of the whereabouts of OBL during this period till around the time he was killed in US action.

It is very, very difficult to believe that OBL, with whom the ISI had interacted so closely for so long, who had so many common friends in Pakistan, could have stayed on in Pakistan with family and friends for over a decade without the ISI knowing about this.

It is likely that OBL spent the first half of this decade in and around Waziristan, perhaps moving here and there. The next half of his time in Pakistan, from 2005 to the summer of 2011, was spent in conditions of more stability and comfort in a windowless mansion of Abbottabad, probably specially built to house him and those close to him. This was built at a distance of just about a kilometre from the Pakistani Military Academy.

It must require very special imagination to believe that no senior persons in the Pakistani army and the ISI were aware of OBL living in this mansion for around six long years.

We can safely conclude that he lived there with their knowledge without being apprehended for about six years and so this was his sixth escape.

Several accounts of OBL living with Pakistan authorities’ knowledge have been published (NYT magazine by Carlotta Gall, London Review of Books by Seymour Hersh etc.).

A more controversial point is at what stage the US authorities came to know about OBL living in this mansion. The official US version is that while the attack took place on May 2, the US authorities came to know about OBL living here only a few days before in April, 2011.

However, due to the close, even if sometimes hostile, interactions between the US intelligence agencies and the ISI, this too is unlikely. The Daily Telegraph reported on October 18-20, 2010, quoting a NATO official, that OBL was living very comfortably in Pakistan with the knowledge of the authorities there.

Anyway, it is well-known that President Bush, after getting involved in Iraq war, had stopped according priority to pursuing OBL. The Washington Post reported that the CIA unit composed of special operating paramilitary forces dedicated to capturing OBL was shut down in 2005. This happened around the same time that OBL is likely to have moved into the Abbottabad mansion.

However, the arrival of President Obama appears to have revived interest in the pursuit of OBL.

Before concluding, it may also be pointed out that published accounts of May 2 attack have different versions by different soldiers, and the accounts of some Pakistani authorities differ from US authorities, some of the former claiming to have been helpful in this attack.

There is even a story that residents around the mansion had been told the previous day not to venture out of their houses if they hear loud noises late in the night.

It may be added that OBL was given a sea burial by US forces, and the entire account of his medical condition, confirming his identity (by DNA test or in other ways) and burial in sea is based on official sources only without any other independent confirmations.

However, this is a divergence, and the main point sought to be made here is that of how the most wanted world-level terrorist was let off time and again when there were clear opportunities to apprehend him.

This has important implications for understanding the reality of the war on terror and of the various forces at work here.

(The writer, a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener of Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine—A Path to Peace)

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    Published: 02 May 2022, 7:23 PM