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By the time we had finished, the Yemenis realized that Hada wasn’t just an ignorant old man.

One of the operatives Abu Jandal and Hada had mentioned was Abdul Aziz al-Janoubi, an alias of Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi. We didn’t know his real name at the time, so we referred to him as Abdul Aziz. Because of the information we already had about him, including the fact that he had been in the same close combat class from which Mihdhar had been selected as a hijacker, we initially thought that Darbi might be among the 9/11 hijackers, but no one fitting his description was registered on any of the flights.

After ruling out that possibility, I had asked Abu Jandaclass="underline" “Do you think Abdul Aziz is operational?”

“He is in the special operations division,” Abu Jandal had replied, “but to know for sure if he is operational right now, you should check where his family is. If he sent his wife back to her family, that means he’s probably on a mission.” We now asked Hada, the wife’s father, and confirmed that Darbi’s family was back in Yemen staying with him at his house.

From the descriptions Abu Jandal and Hada had given us of Darbi, we were able to further identify him, and we got a picture of him from the Yemenis—he had applied for a Yemeni passport under a different name. We sent out a worldwide alert to police forces and intelligence agencies; a few months later, when I was back in the United States, I stopped at a grocery store in Manhattan and did a double-take when I saw an NYPD Wanted poster for him behind the cash register. Eventually Darbi was captured while attempting to visit his mistress in Azerbaijan.

Part 5


17. Bin Laden’s Escape

“What’s this?” a Northern Alliance commander asked me, in early 2002, as we walked through the rubble of what had been bin Laden’s hideout in Kabul. A U.S. fighter plane had flown overhead and dropped thousands of leaflets, a few of which settled on the ground near us.

I picked one up. “It’s a note offering twenty-five million dollars for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden,” I said. The sum was written out as a numeral, with its impressive string of zeros.

“That won’t work,” he said, shaking his head. “You won’t get any information.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for a start, most people in this area can’t read. But beyond that, they don’t believe that amount of money exists in the world. They are simple folks. If you would write, say, a hundred rupees, that would be more believable, and you’d probably get more responses.”

After the Taliban refused an ultimatum from the U.S. government to stop harboring al-Qaeda, on October 7, 2001, the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom and attacked Afghanistan. Primary strikes were launched at the capital, Kabul, at the country’s main airport, at Kandahar, where Mullah Omar was based, and at Jalalabab—all cities considered central to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Supported by U.S. air cover and Special Operations Forces, the Northern Alliance pressed forward against Taliban positions.

Once the U.S. attack began, the leaders of different terrorist groups came together for a meeting. Among those present were representatives of al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Independent operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby, of Khaldan, also participated. They all agreed to put their personal and ideological differences behind them and unite to fight the invading U.S. forces.

Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of al-Qaeda’s military commanders, was appointed commander of all the Arabs. He was assisted by Abdel al-Wakeel al-Masri, one of the 1998 East African embassy bombing co-conspirators. Abdel Wakeel toured al-Qaeda bases and instructed fighters to dig trenches around their bases. He told several al-Qaeda operatives, “The United States will only attack by air and drop bombs. They won’t put troops on the ground.” Al-Qaeda’s military preparations were premised on this assumption.

When U.S. forces appeared in Afghanistan, it was a surprise to most al-Qaeda members, including Salim Hamdan. For years he had sat through speeches by bin Laden in which the al-Qaeda leader had told those gathered that the United States was a weak country that retreated when attacked. It was a shock, therefore, to see the United States responding to the attacks in New York and Washington by invading Afghanistan, and to see al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the run.

Once the invasion began, bin Laden and his entourage kept constantly on the move, traveling between Kabul and Jalalabad, areas bin Laden was very familiar with, having lived and traveled in the region since the beginning of the Soviet jihad. At one stop, in a small village, Hamdan timidly approached the al-Qaeda leader and asked for a brief leave. His wife was pregnant and ill. He promised to return.

Bin Laden granted permission. With his personal driver and confidant gone, he decided to change his entourage. He realized that his life would now be that of a fugitive. While before he had been a guest of the ruling Taliban, he now needed operatives with different skills around him. The new group he picked included three of his most trusted advisers and operatives: his son Uthman; Hamza al-Ghamdi, the leader of the Northern Group; and Khallad. Among the others were Khalid al-Habib, an Egyptian; Yousef al-Qanas (“the sniper”), a Kuwaiti; Abdulrahman al-Taezi, a Yemeni; and Abu Saeed, a Saudi.

Where the Taliban could no longer hold their lines, the foreign fighters took over security for the cities. Saif al-Adel, one of al Qaeda’s chief military operatives, was sent by bin Laden to Khandahar to help organize the defense of the city. Realizing the situation was getting increasingly dangerous, bin Laden gave the order for al-Qaeda fighters to take their families out of Afghanistan. The one leader who hadn’t fled from al-Qaeda’s main camp was Abu Hafs, al-Qaeda’s main military commander, who was unable to travel because of his back problems. In mid-November a U.S. airstrike leveled the house he was staying in, killing him and seven other al-Qaeda members. One of the seven was Zachariah al-Tunisi, who (one of his friends confided in Abu Zubaydah) was involved in the 1993 battle against U.S. forces in Somalia. He had in fact fired the RPG that took down the U.S. helicopter in the episode that became known as Black Hawk Down. Also killed was Moaz bin Attash, the youngest member of the bin Attash family, at the time assigned to take care of al-Qaeda’s main guesthouse in Kandahar. After the strike killing Abu Hafs, surviving al-Qaeda members ran to the site, removed the rubble by hand, and buried the bodies nearby. The death of Abu Hafs was a great loss for al-Qaeda, and bin Laden personally delivered a taped eulogy from his hiding place.

In late 2001, as Taliban-controlled cities began falling to the Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Operations Forces started hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, bin Laden gave the order for fighters to head to Tora Bora, a mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan. Located in the White Mountains, near the border with Pakistan, Tora Bora’s interconnected caves were well known to bin Laden and other operatives from the Soviet jihad days. The treacherous terrain and well-hidden bunkers all but prevented easy penetration by invading forces, and the mountain range offered escape routes into Pakistan.

Bin Laden knew, however, that it was just a matter of time before U.S. Special Operations Forces, guided by Afghani allies, successfully breached the cave network, so after al-Qaeda regrouped, he ordered operatives to head into Pakistan and the lawless tribal regions. These were places into which it would be difficult for U.S. Special Operations Forces and Northern Alliance fighters to follow them. To avoid attracting attention, bin Laden traveled with only Hamza al-Ghamdi and Qanas. Other operatives watched as bin Laden and the two walked off and disappeared into the mountains. Bin Laden’s circle had just gotten smaller. (When we learned about bin Laden’s new entourage a few months later in Gitmo from detainees, it was clear that the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader lay with those two men. These details were shared across the U.S. government.)



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