Bin Laden's Escape

By Girard, Renaud | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Bin Laden's Escape


Girard, Renaud, Queen's Quarterly


One year ago, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies were on the run, having been driven from Kabul by the American military and the Northern Alliance. Americans had braced themselves for a long, bloody war, and were understandably relieved that victory had been achieved so quickly, and with so little loss of life for us military personnel. But the question still remains: where is the most wanted man on earth? Despite the most extensive manhunt in human history, Osama bin Laden's whereabouts remain a mystery. And the most frightening prospect is that the mystery could be resolved for us at any moment.

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ON 16 September 2001, only days after 9/11, President George W. Bush promised the American nation that Osama bin Laden and his associates would be found, wherever they might be, and made to pay for their crimes. Immediately, America's enormous intelligence network began the hunt. The FBI set up sophisticated electronic eavesdropping systems in Pakistan; General Musharraf offered the Americans the files of his country's Inter-Service Intelligence organization. The CIA dispatched many of their best agents to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The intelligence services of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and many other countries worked closely with their American allies. From October, the Army Special Forces were on the ground in Afghan territory, and by November regular Army units had joined them. Forty kilometres northeast of Kabul, at the Bagram airfield, the Americans installed their military base, as had the Soviets during the 1980s. Never in history has so much military and civilian intelligence manpower, so mu ch air power and such extensive ground force activity been devoted to the hunt for one individual.

And yet, after more than a year, the most wanted man on the planet remains at large, along with his organization. The American authorities are convinced that al-Qaeda is actively preparing new major attacks, even more devastating than those of 11 September 2001.

Some members of the American intelligence network imagine bin Laden is in Iran -- a member country of what President Bush calls the "Axis of Evil." Some are convinced that the al-Qaeda leader is holed up in Yemen, having escaped by speedboat from the Pakistani coast into the Indian Ocean. Other analysts have argued that he must be concealed somewhere within Pakistan's tribal zones along the Afghan border, in Waziristan precisely, where the Americans sent Special Forces to direct the operations of the Pakistani army.

And it is by no means impossible that Osama bin Laden is still in Afghanistan. As retired Pakistani General Hamid Gul puts it: "Why would he want to leave a country where he has plenty of friends, where the geography offers so many hiding places, and where the government affiliated with the Americans controls only the capital?" The former chief of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence now lives in Rawalpindi at a modest residence reserved for officers. When General Hamid Gul was in charge of ISI, an important part of his activities involved distributing money and weapons from the United States to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. He favoured the Islamic commanders, including the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- who would wage bloody warfare against rival Afghan factions and the fragile new government after the Soviet withdrawal. Hekmatyar's rocket attacks helped reduce most of Kabul to ruins, killed huge numbers of innocent civilians, and did much to destabilize the country in the 1990s. General Gul is als o acquainted with bin Laden, and was twice invited by him to Sudan before the multi-millionaire left that country.

On 19 August 2001, less than a month before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Hamid Gul was in Kabul as a special guest reviewing one of the last military parades of the Taliban regime. The ties between the West, different groups of mujahidin, and the various regional governments have a long history, and involve myriad cases of divided and overlapping loyalties. …

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