Published: December 2004

On bin Laden's Trail

By Tim McGirk
Photographs by Reza
Elders of the Wazir tribe gather in a farmhouse in southern Afghanistan to discuss how to press a grievance with the U.S. military. American troops searching for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda fighters had arrested a young Wazir male for allegedly attacking U.S. troops. Since then the elders, who claim the young man is innocent, have heard nothing about the case. As both American and Pakistani troops comb the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border for Islamic militants, the Wazir and other tribes of the famously independent Pashtun peoples in the area can expect no end to conflict. Whose side are they on? The elders must decide as the military continues its manhunt.

Faqir Shah sprays machine-gun fire across the black hills of Tora Bora, shooting at phantoms of al Qaeda. The shots echo through a forest of twisted holly trees, zigzagging up through the ravines to the granite peaks, as if searching for a reply. But there is no response, only the wind. Shah lowers his machine gun, smoke curling from the barrel. It's the first time the Afghan militiaman has gone back to Tora Bora since the fierce battle between al Qaeda fighters and the U.S. military in December 2001, and there is an equal measure of bravado and fear in his macho display.

"We fought al Qaeda here for two weeks in the snow," says Shah, who is wearing U.S. Army-issue camouflage trousers under a ragged gray coat. He points to a nearby bomb crater, 15 feet (4.6 meters) deep, left by one of the U.S. warplanes, and says, "See that hole? An American soldier tossed a piece of concrete in there from the World Trade Center, because he thought al Qaeda was all finished. I told him I didn't think so."

Shah leads me across the boulders of a narrow creek and up a hill into the Tora Bora caves. There are dozens of caves honeycombed into the hillside, all empty now, save for a few cartridges left over from the U.S. siege of three years ago. Next we venture back outside to the ruins of a mud-brick house, pulverized by bombs. I find fragments of an artillery shell, a prayer cap. "This was where Osama lived," says Shah.

I sit in the rubble, peel an orange, and check the coordinates on my GPS. North 34.07.080 by East 70.13.209. According to eyewitnesses, sometime before the siege of Tora Bora began in early December 2001, bin Laden stopped here for the night, gave a pep talk to hundreds of his fighters, and vanished.

As this article goes to press in early October 2004, the world's most wanted man has not been seen since, although rumors are flying that U.S. forces or their Pakistani allies have captured him and will produce him just before the U.S. presidential election.

Where could he have gone? Since 9/11 I've asked that question nearly every day as I covered breaking news from my home in Islamabad, Pakistan. In search of an answer, I've trailed bin Laden along the smugglers' crossroads near Afghanistan's desert border with Iran, through the craggy mountains of the Hindu Kush, and even in the high-rent districts of two Pakistani cities, Peshawar and Karachi, where a few al Qaeda chiefs have been found hiding in fancy villas.

It may turn out that bin Laden is hiding somewhere far away—in his family's ancestral homeland of southern Yemen, perhaps, or posing as a dreadlocked beachcomber in Costa Rica. There's no shortage of theories, some of them outlandish. But electronic intercepts, statements from captured al Qaeda fighters, and videotapes that show bin Laden in local surroundings are persuasive evidence that bin Laden is still right here, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in a wild, mountainous region the size of Ireland that I've come to think of as "Bin Ladenstan" for its most infamous occupant.

For any outlaw or fugitive this is the perfect hiding place: a fortress-like maze of geography, defined by a great wall of mountains running a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) from the Hindu Kush south to the Arabian Sea. Those formidable mountains form a natural barrier between Central Asia and the plains of India, as a parade of would-be conquerors, from Alexander the Great to 19th-century Britain, and more recently the Soviet Union, have learned the hard way.

Even more forbidding than rocks and snow are the locals, a bewildering array of tribes and clans known collectively as the Pashtun, who number more than 25 million and are sometimes referred to as the Pakhtun, or Pathan. Living on both sides of the border, the Pashtun share a language (Pashtu), a love of guns and jokes, a deep suspicion of outsiders, a passion for the green chewing tobacco called naswar, and belief in a strict and ancient code of honor, called Pashtunwali. One tenet of this code—nanawateh, or sanctuary—is particularly vexing to bin Laden's hunters. It means that every Pashtun is duty bound to help anyone who comes knocking at his door seeking refuge, even if it's his worst enemy. A Pashtun is expected to give his life defending a guest, and many have done so.

I recall a conversation with the urbane Col. Mohammad Yahya Effendi, one of the Pakistani spymasters who ran the Afghan rebels, or mujahideen, during the Soviet war in the 1980s. The Pashtun "can act with nobility and yet be absolute rascals," Effendi told me. "They'll do all sorts of treacherous things—even betray their fathers. But they're bonkers when it comes to giving sanctuary. It's like a sacred mission."

Anyone who hands bin Laden over to the Americans might be 25 million dollars richer in reward money, explained Effendi, but the disgrace would hang over this person, along with his family, clan, and tribe, for many generations. "Osama's a major Islamic hero," he added. "Whoever betrays him, why, his life wouldn't be worth an onion."

In a clearing near the ruins of bin Laden's Tora Bora house, I punch a few buttons on the GPS, broadening the map on my screen. Due south, directly over the Spin mountain range in front of me, is the crooked line of the Pakistan border, drawn by a British diplomat, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, in 1893.

Northeast lies the Afghan town of Jalalabad. There are stories that bin Laden doubled back there from Tora Bora and spent a few days cloistered in the house of a wealthy landowner, even as U.S. forces and their allies were closing in. That seems unlikely: Returning to the Afghan war zone would have been foolhardy, and bin Laden has proved to be a cautious man.

Directly in front of me lies another possibility: a mule trail that threads through the holly trees, away from bin Laden's house up to a granite ridge, toward Pakistan. It's only logical that bin Laden would have headed for Pakistan; in December 2001, Pakistani troops were slow in sealing off the border, and dozens of al Qaeda fighters made a run for it up those mountains. Maybe bin Laden did too.

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