The Osama bin Laden I knew by Hamid Mir
These were the words of Osama bin Laden, which he spoke to me one morning during March 1997, in the cave of Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I was the first Pakistani journalist to interview Osama bin Laden. In May 1998, I encountered him for the second time in a hideout near the Kandahar Airport for many hours. He mentioned his possible death again and again to me in that long conversation and said: “Yes, I know that my enemy is very powerful but let me assure you, they can kill me but they cannot arrest me alive”. I received his messenger within a few hours after the 9/11 attacks and he praised all those who conducted these attacks but he never accepted the responsibility of the 9/11 attacks. It confused me. I tried to meet him again. I took the risk of entering Afghanistan in November 2001 when American warplanes were targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban from Jalalabad to Kabul.
I was lucky to meet him for the third time on the morning of November 8, 2001. I was the first and the last journalist to interview him after 9/11. Intense bombing was going on inside and outside the city of Kabul. He welcomed me with a smile on his face and said: “I told you last time that the enemy can kill me but they cannot capture me alive, I am still alive”. After the interview, he again said: “Mark my words, Hamid Mir, they can kill me anytime but they cannot capture me alive; they can claim victory only if they get me alive but if they will just capture my dead body, it will be a defeat, the war against Americans will not be over even after my death, I will fight till the last bullet in my gun, martyrdom is my biggest dream and my martyrdom will create more Osama bin Ladens”.
Osama fulfilled his promise. He never surrendered. US President Barack Obama finally announced the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. His death is the biggest news of 2011 for Americans but his sympathisers are satisfied that Osama bin Laden was not captured alive otherwise the Americans would have humiliated him like Saddam Hussain. For me, it was a great surprise that the world’s most wanted person was hiding in a Pakistani city, Abbotabad, home to Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). This is the same area where Pakistani intelligence agency ISI conducted a search operation to arrest Aby Faraj al Libbi in 2004 but the son-in-law of Osama escaped to Mardan where he was captured by ISI after few weeks.
It was learnt that the Americans conducted the operation without informing their Pakistani counterparts. Two American Chinook helicopters entered the Pakistani airspace from eastern Afghanistan. The government sources say: “We were unaware because the Americans jammed our radar system.” On the other hand, highly-placed responsible sources in the government confirmed that Pakistan shared very important information regarding Osama bin Laden in May 2010 with CIA. Pakistan security forces intercepted a phone call made by an Arab from the area between Taxila and Abbotabad. The CIA was informed in August 2010 about the possible presence of an important Al Qaeda leader in the area between Taxila and Abbotabad. Probably, this phone call was made by Osama bin Laden and that was a blunder. According to my knowledge, he escaped death at least four times after 9/11.At times, he dodged the world’s most sophisticated satellite systems and dangerous missiles by his own cleverness, and at others, it was his sheer luck that saved him from enemy strikes with only minutes to spare. The US air strikes started against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on October 7, 2001 and Osama bin Laden was spotted along with Dr.Ayman al Zawahiri on November 8, 2001 in Kabul. They had come to Kabul from Jalalabad to attend an al Qaeda meeting, and also to pay tribute to their Uzbek comrade, Jummah Khan Namangani, who lost his life in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on November 6.
It was the same day that I was granted an interview by the world’s most wanted man in Kabul. I was not allowed to use my camera to take photographs of bin Laden. One of his sons, Abdul Rehman, took my picture with his father and with Dr. Ayman al Zawahri. Abdul Rehman used his own camera and gave me the film. Despite all these security measures, a female spy was able to notice the unusual movement of many important Arabs in Kabul.
I remember an incident that happened when I was having tea with bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri after the interview. Bin Laden reminded me that this was the third interview I had with him. He informed me that I made some errors in translation of the article published after my first interview in 1997, but said he had found no evidence of any misrepresentation. He was hopeful, he said, that I would not misrepresent him in this interview. More than 20 al-Qaeda leaders were also present in the small room where they were taking tea. Conversation on that day proved that most of them were of the view that the US-backed Northern Alliance was moving close to Kabul due to the support of General Pervaiz Musharraf, who was providing air bases to the Americans in Pakistan.
Suddenly, an Arab al-Qaeda fighter entered the room and informed his leaders that they had arrested a woman in a blue burqa just a few meters from the place where we were meeting. She had been spying under the cover of posing as a beggar. She begged money — even from some al-Qaeda security guards posted outside of the place where I was interviewing bin Laden. But after a few minutes, one guard noticed that she seemed more interested in watching him than begging.
So the al-Qaeda fighter started observing her movements. He soon caught her red-handed when she was overheard talking to someone about “Sheikh” on a Thoraya satellite telephone. This news was broken to the meeting in Arabic, but I also understood the gist. Bin Laden immediately ordered one of his close associates that his “guest” must not be harmed. The associate, whose name was Muhammad, told me that he would be taking me to Jalalabad.
In the ensuing rush, I said goodbye to Osama bin Laden and left with Muhammad in a private car. We were arrested by some Taliban guards outside Kabul because I was without a beard and I also had a camera in my possession, which had not been used in the interview. Muhammad never informed the Taliban that he was from al Qaeda. He told them instead that he worked for Interior Minister Mullah Abdul Raze Ached. The Taliban verified this information from the interior minister and released us after three hours.
It was late in the evening when we reached Jalalabad. Muhammad dropped me at a big house and disappeared. He came back after two hours with some startling news. He claimed that the place in Kabul where I met his “Sheikh” had been bombed just 15 minutes after our departure, but luckily “Sheikh” and others had left the place immediately after us and nobody was harmed. Muhammad told me: “Brother, you missed martyrdom with us”. I was unaware of the exact location of the earlier interview. Muhammad told me that it was in the Weir Akbar Khan area of Kabul.
I spent that night in Jalalabad, surviving intense US bombing on my right and left. Next morning, in Jalalabad Muhammad said goodbye to me and I left for Pakistan by road. We were to meet again in 2004 in Kunar when I was covering presidential elections in Afghanistan. It was then that he told me the whole story of how he and his “Sheikh” had survived the carpet-bombing of the US Air Force for many days running through the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
It wasn’t until the third week of December 2001 when bin Laden and his fighters broke the circle created by Americans with the help of Haji Zahir, Haji Zaman and Hazrat Ali. The strategy of al Qaeda sometimes resembles that of the hunted in American western movies. A huge number of al Qaeda fighters entered into the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan from Tora Bora — but Osama bin Laden headed off in a different direction with a small group. Eyewitness Muhammad was also part of that group. Some Chechen and Saudi fighters provided them a cover of gunfire and they walked the whole night towards the safety of Paktia.
A top Afghan security official, Lutfullah Mashal, confirmed to me later that Osama bin Laden escaped to Paktia from Tora Bora in December 2001. Mashal followed him secretly. He claimed that Osama bin Laden entered North Wazirastan from Paktia. He spent some time there in Shawal area and then moved to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in the province of Khost. Mashal is now working with President Hamid Karzai and he is sure that the Americans missed the capture of bin Laden in Tora Bora because they were not ready to deploy their own forces on the ground. Americans depended more on a Northern Alliance commander, Hazrat Ali — but this man betrayed them. According to highly reliable Afghan sources, Hazrat Ali provided safe passage to al-Qaeda after getting lots of money from them.
Osama bin Laden remained underground throughout the entire year of 2002. He and his colleagues were always on the run. They kept changing their hideouts again and again. They were determined to save their lives, and because of that, during this chapter they were not fighting.
It was in April of 2003 that the world’s most wanted man was to surface again in Afghanistan, after the US invasion of Iraq. He called a meeting in the Pech Valley of Kunar province and delivered a hard-hitting speech, in which he announced his plans to resist America in Iraq. He said: “Get Americans in Iraq before they get us in Afghanistan”. He declared that Saiful Adil would be in-charge of organising resistance in Iraq, and advised him to contact Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who was hiding in Iran at the time. Bin Laden started addressing small gatherings of his comrades in Kunar as well as Paktia. One of his daughters-in-law died during childbirth in the Kunar mountains.
There was a big gathering at the funeral of his daughter-in-law. Local Afghans came to know about the death and started visiting the homes of some al-Qaeda fighters, who had married in Kunar. The news of these events reached the Americans. They launched an operation in Kunar, but once again Osama bin Laden escaped towards the south before the bombing started in Pech Valley.
It was late in 2004 when bin Laden found himself surrounded by British troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Bin Laden had been hiding in a mountain area with three defence lines. Highly placed diplomatic sources revealed to this writer recently in Kabul that the British forces were very close to taking Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. He was besieged for more than 24 hours but he managed to dodge one of the world’s best equipped armies. According to details gathered from some Taliban sources in Helmand, the British forces broke two defence lines of al-Qaeda in an area of five kilometres.
One-to-one fighting was about to start, but as the day ended the darkness of night provided some welcome relief to al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden wanted to fight on the frontline, but his colleagues stopped him. Heated arguments were exchanged. Bin Laden was angry, but Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri convinced him to escape. They placed many rockets with timers, aimed at two different directions, as a deception. They decided to break the enemy encirclement, heading in the third direction with a group of foot fighters. That group was providing cover to bin Laden. Most of the fighters lost their lives, but the plan succeeded.
Osama bin Laden slipped from the British hands along with Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri and some other fighters. These sources denied some reports that bin Laden had ordered his guards to shoot him if he was about to be arrested. The al-Qaeda sources claimed that he does not believe in suicide, it is easier for him to sacrifice his life in the battle against the enemy till the last bullet and the last drop of his blood. After that escape, he was very careful. He stopped moving inside Afghanistan and chose Pakistani tribal areas for an underground life. His big family was scattered after 9/11. Some of his children lived in Iran and one of his sons reportedly spent time in Karachi for a brief period but nobody thought that Osama would be captured in Abbottabad. He was hiding in Abbottabad with one of his wives, a son and a daughter. When Americans attacked his hideout, he immediately started fighting. His wife got bullet injury in her foot. According to his injured wife, Osama rushed to the rooftop and joined his guards who were resisting the attack. His 10-year-old daughter Safia watched American commandos entering the house, who took away the dead body of her father. She confirmed later: “The Americans dragged the dead body of my father through the stairs”.
Osama bin Laden is dead but al-Qaeda and its allies are not. Osama always exploited the flaws in American policies. His real strength was hatred against America; Islam was never his real strength. Physical elimination of Osama bin Laden is big news for the Americans but many outside America want elimination of the policies that produce bin Ladens. America came into Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden. No doubt that he was responsible for the killing of many innocent people but Americans cannot justify the killing of innocent people through drone attacks just because Osama killed some innocent Americans. Both Osama bin Laden and Americans violated the sovereignty of Pakistan. It must be stopped now. Osama is dead. If America does not leave Afghanistan after the death of Osama bin Laden, then this war will not end soon and the world will remain an unsafe place.
(Hamid Mir works for Geo TV. He interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. He was the last journalist to interview OBL after 9/11. He is also writing the biography of OBL)