Why Bin Laden's Still Free

In the past several weeks, international focus has returned to the dusty tribal regions of South Waziristan straddling the Afghan and Pakistani borders, long heralded as the primary lair of remaining Al Qaeda and allied Islamic militant fighters.  As Pakistani and U.S. forces have squeezed these areas in a cross-border “hammer and anvil” campaign, speculation has also increased that senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Usama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, have fled high into the mountains seeking sanctuary from the new coalition military threat.  Any sense of relief at this news should be appropriately tempered: Bin Laden has not only trained and prepared for exactly this type of awkward confrontation for over two decades, moreover, he seems utterly convinced that he has a fair chance of eventually winning it.

Bin Laden and his senior advisors first studied how to fight a superpower military force during the late 1980s in battles with the Soviet army in Afghanistan.  Less than two hundred miles northeast of South Waziristan sits the imposing famed Tora Bora mountain range, near the Jaji region.  It was here that bin Laden chose to found his Islamic revolution, building new roads through the mountains and constructing huge underground bunkers to protect foreign and native Afghan fighters from Soviet air raids.  In August 1986, bin Laden finally selected a permanent hardened base for himself inside the Thamar Khail mountain (approximately 10km southwest of Jalalabad).  He arranged for the excavation of an elaborate underground complex below the surface of the mountain that became known as “Al-Massadaat al-Ansar” (a.k.a. The Lion’s Den.) Under the supervision of several dozen foreign mujahideen and a gaggle of Caterpillar tractors, the Den quickly developed to accommodate a Central Command bunker, an anti-aircraft defense room, food and weapons storehouses, and even a kitchen. It housed a small magazine including 3 82mm mortars, RPG launchers, automatic weapons, and a BM-21 rocket system. 

A Syrian Arab-Afghan later noted that the Den was quite strategically located in far eastern Afghanistan, “presid[ing] over the valley on the borders of Pakistan.” But though the sheltered Lion’s Den was offered some protection from its proximity to the Pakistani border, it was nonetheless also situated perilously close to Soviet and Afghan Communist army in the Chowni fortress attempting to curb cross-border mujahideen insurgents.  Bin Laden ordered that trees be chopped down to help conceal the recessed cave entrances to his new secret underground facility.  Even so, the creation of a frontline mujahideen base in Thamar Khail was a risky venture that — to many observers — bore the ominous markings of a suicidal Alamo-style showdown.    

By far, the Den’s greatest defenses were its natural ones; during the winter, rain and ice blocked all access roads, making a frontal military assault difficult, if not impossible. Weather problems also negatively affected the ability of communist forces to order air strikes and airborne reconnaissance missions. The conditions in the lofty mountains were so poor during the harsh winter that only a dozen or so of bin Laden’s most loyal followers remained steadfastly hunkered down in the Den. When movement was possible, the mujahideen typically had four sport utility vehicles and a truck transport at their disposal.

At this time, according to eyewitnesses, an unnamed “Egyptian doctor”— almost certainly a reference to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri — was placed “in charge” of the Lion’s Den and served as personal physician to Usama bin Laden. The latter suffered from an ongoing problem with low blood pressure (rendering him on occasion unable to move) and often needed to be given glucose intravenous injections. In a new book released from Azzam Publications in London, bin Laden is quoted discussing the experience of being outnumbered and besieged high in the Afghan mountains. The errant Saudi reflected, “This period, when we were positioned close to the enemy, was one of the most beautiful times that we spent in the Jihad, may Allah accept it. We lived in one tent, built roads and dug trenches ... We took turns standing guard, but felt extremely lonely because the place was frightening for both sides — for the enemy, because we overlooked them, and for us, because it was so isolated and we were so few in number. None of us was able to venture too far out from the tent because there were many dense forests around us, and we were very close to the enemy.”

In 1987, bin Laden’s secret lair in the mountains was nearly overwhelmed during an enemy military operation involving thousands of troops (including elite Soviet Spetznaz commando units), armored personnel carriers, tanks, assault aircraft armed with 1,000 pound bombs, artillery, and multiple rocket launcher systems. For days, Soviet aircraft relentlessly bombed and strafed mujahideen positions near Thamar Khail. One of the survivors from inside the Den described a scene of “powerful explosions, smoke, the smell of gunpowder, stones flying everywhere… we felt that it was impossible for us to stay alive with such terrifying explosions around us. They continued for a few minutes, a few minutes that felt like an eternity.”  The terrifying onslaught dropped even the most fearless of the Arab-Afghans to their knees in fervent prayer to God. The power and intensity of the bombs being dropped “made them feel as if they were landing on top of them. The severity of the explosions was such that the entire mountain shook and the dust thrown up by the explosions actually entered the cave where the Mujahideen were.”

The experience of the Lion’s Den was relived by a new generation of Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan during the battle for Tora Bora in late 2001. Once again, Arab-Afghan mujahideen fleeing from superior numbers of enemy troops had sought refuge in the lofty mountains near Jaji, perhaps hoping that bin Laden’s early underdog victory against the Soviets could be mimicked in the new struggle with America. However, in this case, the mujahideen were too numerous to occupy any one particular defensive position. According to Azzam Publications, “[i]t was expected for the Americans to land [in Tora Bora] at the lower foothills first.”  As a result, green recruits were sent up to relative safety in the higher mountains, leaving the first battles to more veteran fighters. This decision proved more-or-less irrelevant: the entire area was carpeted by artillery, bombs, and missiles long before any ground troops arrived on the scene.

Ultimately, U.S. airpower proved to be the devastating factor in Tora Bora, creating chaos and confusion in remaining Al Qaeda ranks. Tactical movements and retreats across the Tora Bora mountainsides caused the deaths of possibly hundreds of fleeing Al Qaeda fighters caught underneath a hail of cluster bombs. During relentless strikes by American B-52 stratofortresses, “there was no difference between the night and the day: the sky was raining fire and the Earth was erupting volcanoes.”  The defenses of the Arab-Afghans in Tora Bora quickly collapsed under the withering air assault. Al Qaeda survivors quietly reassembled and fled through gaps in the mountains into the uncontrolled tribal regions of Pakistan.

The latest joint U.S.-Pakistani military operation along the Pashtun border seems to confirm what many have long suspected: Bin Laden and his supporters remain undaunted by their defeat at Tora Bora and are fully committed to a campaign of waging siege warfare from secret holdouts on the far reaches of southern Afghanistan. This desperate strategy will only be further emboldened if reports are true that reported Al Qaeda leadership figures supposedly “cornered” in South Waziristan by thousands of Pakistani troops were inexplicably once again able to escape despite the assistance of U.S. satellites and reconnaissance drones.  Ayman al-Zawahiri defied widespread reports that he was trapped by the Pakistanis by instead releasing an audiotape taunting Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, accusing him of “stab[bing] the Islamic resistance in the back” and simultaneously urging all Pakistani Muslims to “work hard to get rid of this [American] client government.”

In order to break the ideology of Al Qaeda, we must first dismiss the myth of Usama bin Laden’s invincibility in the “Lion’s Den” of Afghanistan. The cult hero status that bin Laden currently enjoys puts him in the position of a 21st century Che Guevara figure for the Muslim world.  Idyllic legends of romantic shadow revolutionaries hidden among the peaks of Khurasaan are difficult to dispell in a region where many are devoid of real hope. Moreover, as long as bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other senior Al Qaeda leaders remain at large in pockets along the Afghan-Pakistani border, they buy time to plan further terrorist operations to rival even 9/11.  New waves of arriving U.S. troops face a difficult and critical task to complete in the midst of Al Qaeda’s heartland: to finally knock bin Laden from his remote mountain perch once and for all.

Evan Kohlmann is an International Terrorism Consultant and author of the upcoming book, Al Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network (Berg Publishers, June 2004).