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On bin Laden's Trail
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On bin Laden's Trail @ National Geographic Magazine
By Tim McGirkPhotographs by Reza

The world's most wanted man took refuge in the crags and caves of Tora Bora's mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pashtun people, who call this harsh land home, have made it one of the best hiding places on Earth.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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 (five 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.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Enter the cottage industry of gun-making in an Afghan town, where extended families make everything from gun bodies to bullets.

Author Tim McGirk and photographer Reza discuss the geography of resistance, the intricacies of tribal relationships, and the Pashtun fascination with guns.

After the terrorist attack of September 11, Osama bin Laden was last seen in late fall 2001 in Afghanistan's rugged Tora Bora. Where do you think he is? And do you think he will be caught?

E-greet a friend with an image of lightning flashing over the Afghanistan and Pakistan border.
Cast your vote on whether you think Osama bin Laden will ever be caught.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The Durand Line, drawn by British diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893, forms the basis of the present-day 1,640-mile (2,640-kilometer) border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the U.S. State Department's Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, this border is the third most rugged in the world, based on extremes in elevation. It ranges from 1,230 feet (370 meters) above sea level at the Kabul River to 24,557 feet (7,485 meters) at Nowshak, a peak in the Hindu Kush. Only the India-Nepal and China-India boundaries have a greater elevation range.
—Kathy B. Maher
Did You Know?

Related Links
AÏNA: Afghan Media and Culture Center
Founded in August 2001 by Reza, a world-renowned photojournalist and longtime National Geographic contributor, Aïna is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Afghanistan establish a free press. Visit this site to learn how you can help.
CIA World Factbook
The online World Factbook 2004 provides links to country profiles on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where you'll find general background on people, government, and history.

Library of Congress Country Studies
Get a comprehensive description of Afghanistan and Pakistan and learn more about the Pashtun at this website, brought to you by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.
United Nations Children's Fund
In Afghanistan there are 400,000 internally displaced people; in Pakistan nearly one-third of the country's 140 million people live in poverty. Learn about UNICEF's goals and accomplishments at this site.  
Center for Afghanistan Studies
This University of Nebraska website provides information on educational and cultural exchange programs in Afghanistan.


Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans, 550 B.C.-A.D. 1957. Oxford University Press, 1983.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin Press, 2004.
McGirk, Tim. "Remember Afghanistan?" Time (March 8, 2004), 46-61.
Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press, 2000.
Smucker, Philip G. Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail. Brassey's, 2004.
Spain, James W. The Way of the Pathans, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1972.


NGS Resources
Pelton, Robert Young. "Into the Land of Bin Laden." National Geographic Adventure (April 2004), 74-8, 82-8.

Allen, Tom. "So Laughter Can Rise Again." National Geographic (December 2002). Available only online at

Raimondo, Lois. "Long Road Home." National Geographic (June 2002), 82-105.

Newman, Cathy, "A Life Revealed." National Geographic (April 2002), special report.

Edwards, Mike. "Central Asia Unveiled." National Geographic (February 2002), 108-25.
Junger, Sebastian. "Requiem for a Warrior." National Geographic Adventure (November/December 2001), 172.
Girardet, Edward. "Eyewitness Afghanistan." National Geographic (December 2001), 130-7.
Miller, Peter. "Afghanistan: Land in Crisis." National Geographic (December 2001), map supplement.


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