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The Hunt for bin Laden

18 minute read

The hunters stalked their prey from the sky and in the shadows, armed with instruments of death and waiting for Osama bin Laden to reveal himself. Above the gnarled ridges outside the besieged cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar, U.S. warplanes unloaded laser-guided Maverick missiles and 5,000-lb. bunker busters to collapse limestone redoubts and bury anyone taking cover inside. Members of the U.S. Army’s clandestine 800-man Delta Force tracked likely bin Laden hideouts, equipped with night-vision goggles and stun grenades, in case they had to creep inside the mountains, and laser pointers, in the hope that they could get warplanes to do the dirty, risky work. Bands of local Afghan fighterswhether driven by the desire to rid their country of bin Laden or win the $25 million bounty the U.S. had placed on his headjoined U.S. special-operations forces in the pursuit. Their orders were to shoot to kill. As one Army officer told TIME, “We won’t ask him if he wants to surrender.”

No one expected he would. From the moment the military launched its manhunt inside Afghanistan, U.S. commanders surmised that bin Ladenlike the men he has dispatched on his errands of suicidal terrorwould rather endure a fiery death than be captured by the infidels. He has reportedly instructed his closest aides, including his son, to give him the glory of martyrdom and shoot him if the Americans came knocking.

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) The swift, shocking transformation of Afghanistan’s map last weekas rebel forces seized control of at least two-thirds of the country from the Talibanmade bin Laden’s demise seem imminent, even if the Pentagon could not say precisely where he was. With Taliban forces ditching their guns and switching sides by the thousands, American commandos spent last week picking up bin Laden’s scentand nudging the six-week conflict toward a decisive climax. The Taliban faced devastation in its southern strongholds, and that shrank bin Laden’s theater of operation. Pashtun operatives showered Western and Pakistani intelligence agents with information about bin Laden’s hideouts. Pakistani officials told TIME that U.S. forces, working from reports that Taliban informants gave to Pakistani intelligence agents, have zeroed in on the Tora Bora region near Jalalabad, where bin Laden was thought to have sought the protection of the 1,500 Arab fighters left stranded there by the retreating Taliban. With hunters closing in, he was said to be moving nightly among caves in the honeycombed mountains stretching from Jalalabad to the northern half of the Uruzgan province. American F-15Es, unmanned Predator drones and commando ground troops killed scores of Taliban and al-Qaeda lieutenants, including bin Laden deputy Mohammed Atef, the reputed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The anti-Taliban storm has left the country in a state of “maximum turmoil,” as military strategists call itthe ideal environment for American forces to put bin Laden on the run. A huge, nagging fear was that bin Laden would disappear inside Afghanistan, dug in so deep that he could lead the U.S. forces on a long, futile chase. But allied officials exuded more confidence than ever before that they knew whereand howto get him.

With Kabul in opposition hands and Kandahar, the regime’s spiritual center, under siege by opposition Pashtun, the Taliban was on the brink of total collapse. But inside the Pentagon, joy was tempered by the grim knowledge of the threats to American forces on the ground. The pace and scale of the Taliban’s retreat last week left U.S. special-ops troops scattered throughout a ravaged land that lacks a central governing authority. Dozens of warlords staked claims to their own pieces of turf, and in several cities, ethnic tensions held the potential for fresh violence. And even as the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, attempted to install his replacements in Kandahar and take to the hills, he vowed to turn his cadre of holy warriors into guerrillas who would fight U.S. forces to the death.

From the start, the administration warned that the war on terrorism would have no obvious endgame. But liquidating bin Laden and his top al-Qaeda henchmen has always been the principal objective of the campaign. The war’s chief salesman, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, reiterated on Friday that the U.S. has no territorial designs on a land whose terrain and people sent two empires packing in recent centuries. Once the U.S. decapitates al-Qaeda, the bulk of the American military force will pull out of Afghanistan. “All we need,” an Air Force colonel told TIME Thursday, “is for someone to point their finger in the right direction.”

Hints coming out of Afghanistan and the Pentagon suggested that bin Laden was desperately trying to avoid his fate. He burrowed into the country’s most remote terrain, sheltered by a small band of bodyguards willing to die in his defense. Pakistani intelligence sources told TIME that al-Qaeda survivors were likely to lodge themselves in narrow canyons among the summits, near dried riverbeds shielded from American pilots by boulders and shadows. Some U.S. officials fretted that bin Laden might fake his death.

Inside Afghanistan, swelling ranks of humiliated Taliban commanders fell over themselves offering to give up bin Laden. “People are telling on Al-Qaeda’s hideouts,” said a diplomat in Pakistan. “They’re being systematically annihilated.” A Pakistani army officer told TIME that the military and intelligence commands there enlisted former Taliban troops to track bin Laden. “We’re certain he’s still in Afghanistan,” the source said Thursday. But by Saturday, a haze of conflicting reports had settled over the situation. The Taliban’s envoy to Pakistan said bin Laden had left Afghanistan with his familyand then promptly took the story back. Pentagon officials considered a bin Laden escape unlikely but not absolutely impossible. A few days before, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had offhandedly mentioned that bin Laden may have tried to sneak out of the countrypossibly in a helicopter flying close to the ground and possibly into the tribal areas of Pakistan, from which he could head for a new home in Somalia, Sudan or Yemen. “They could go down one of the valleys and not be detected,” Rumsfeld said. “It’s not a bottle that you can cork.”

But Rumsfeld may have been inviting bin Laden to make a run for it, knowing well that the escape hatches were slamming shut. American patrol planes watched the borders. Pakistan warned its tribal chieftains that it would punish anyone who gave sanctuary to bin Laden. Pakistani officials and American ground troops tightened their surveillance of refugees flowing out of Afghanistan. On Saturday, Pakistani guards at the Chaman border detained three Arab women and their two children trying to cross into Pakistan. The three women, from Yemen, claimed that their Arab husbands had been killed in the U.S. bombing as they fled south from Kabul. A TIME correspondent at the scene said the women wore black burkas of an expensive Saudi design and were interrogated about possible links to al-Qaeda and bin Laden.The accounts of defectors and Taliban prisoners held by the Northern Alliance allowed U.S. intelligence agents to check hunches about the location of bin Laden and Omar, who early last week was thought to be hiding with bin Laden. Military officials believe the two men later split up, communicating via human messengers and walkie-talkies. The implosion of Taliban-held territory left both men with few places to run outside of southeastern Afghanistan, and intelligence sources told TIME they believed friction between the two would lead one of them to make a fateful blunder that gave away their locations. “The confidence level is fairly high,” a senior U.S. official told TIME. “We’ve got a pretty good handle on generally where [bin Laden] is.” American warplanes were dispatched to help finish the job. EGBU-28 bunker busters burrowed through yards of limestone, and AGM-65 Maverick missiles homed in on cave openings, destroying the labyrinths and their inhabitants.

For U.S and allied forces, hazards still lurk around every corner. On Friday, for the first TIME, Rumsfeld confirmed that American special-ops troopswhose role has largely been to coordinate Alliance advances and guide U.S. bombers to their targetsare now killing Taliban guerrillas and al-Qaeda operatives. “They’ve gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it,” he said. The number of U.S. special-ops soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan rose to 300, with hundreds more headed in to hunt down the remnants of the al-Qaeda brass. Members of Britain’s Elite Special Air Service regiment are said to be assisting American commandos in the manhunt. The Pentagon may still establish forward bases in Afghanistan to stage special-ops search-and-destroy missions alongside the Pashtun in the south and to secure humanitarian supply lines in the north. But American military planners remained leery of sending ground troops into the caves to root out the enemy in person. They would prefer to dispatch their far more experienced Afghan proxies to the enemy lairs if entry becomes necessary. Caves are strewn with buried mines and trip-wire grenades set to kill intruders.

The Taliban has not vanished completely; fighters loyal to Omar may attempt to strike back with guerrilla ambushes or die trying. So for now, at least, America’s campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban will still be authored largely from the air. The U.S. plans to send another 50 to 70 warplanes to a base in Tajikistan. The number of AC-130 gunships, used to hover over targets and destroy them with devastating firepower, is rising from six to nine.

With most of the country now in anti-Taliban hands, the U.S. bombers have a fast-dwindling set of targets. The only Taliban lines left to pound last weekend were in Kunduz, the last government garrison in the north, and in Kandahar. Last week the Taliban was on the verge of quitting both cities, but defiant Taliban cadres made their stands. In the north, the estimated 6,000 Taliban troops who retreated to Kunduz from the decimated fronts at Mazar-i-Sharif and Taloqan had their supply lines and escape routes cut off. They had two options: surrender to the Uzbek and Tajik rebels or face death. As Taliban soldiers squabbled over whether to negotiate or fightthe Arabs arguing for the latterU.S. B-52s on Saturday pulverized them while Alliance commanders promised to attack. Alliance troops in Kunduz killed scores of non-Afghan Taliban fightersthe much-loathed Sudanese, Egyptian, Saudi and Chechen graduates of al-Qaeda’s terrorist campsand many more are now at the mercy of both their rebel conquerors and Taliban turncoats. Pakistani volunteers who made it to the border claimed their former comrades beat and fleeced them. Mahsud Khan, 25, told TIME that Taliban troops robbed him at gunpoint as they fled the Alliance advance. “A few minutes earlier, we were in the same trench,” he said. “We went there to help them, and they looted us.”

The siege of Kandahar was the most convincing sign that the Taliban had come undone. The swiftness of the regime’s retreat from the north led some allied commanders to warn that the Taliban was conserving its forces and artillery for a ferocious defense of their southern citadel. But it didn’t come. As Pashtun opposition forces encircled the city, the Taliban mustered no more than sporadic skirmishing. That, and the week’s long string of northern defeats, convinced anti-Taliban Pashtun that they could take down the core Taliban warriors in the south and persuade the rest to switch sides; the prospect of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara fighters sweeping into Pashtun cities was far more harrowing to Taliban soldiers than was surrendering to their Pashtun brothers.

Outside Kandahar, some anti-Taliban forces mobilized behind Hamid Karzai, a commander who supports the exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah. Karzai spent weeks working undercover in Afghanistan, drawing on his old tribal networks and recruiting chieftains to join the battle. His strategy was to sever the Taliban from its tribal links, winning over local chiefs with promises of peace and international aid. Karzai’s men advanced from Uruzgan, north of Kandahar; on the other side of the city, thousands of armed men from southern border towns loyal to another tribal elder, Ghul Agha Sherzai, moved into positions in the hills in the east. A delegation of tribal elders led by Abdul Haqiq, a former mujahedin commander, spent three days with Taliban representatives negotiating the handover of Kandahar and three other southern Afghan provinces. Under the plan, Mullah Naqib, an ex-commander, and Haji Bashar, a businessman allegedly linked to the opium trade, would both become interim leaders of Kandahar. According to sources in the city, a distraught Omar, at times on the verge of weeping, met briefly with the elders on Friday to press them to accept the plan, which would allow him to retain influence in Kandahar and make an unimpeded flight into the mountains. But the elders rejected the presence of these pro-Taliban commanders in Kandahar and vowed to stage a battle for control of the city. The situation remained murky and volatile, but it seemed increasingly unlikely that Omar could mount a credible counterattack.

This may account for why the rhetoric of the Taliban leader took on apocalyptic tones last week that seemed to betray his despair about the fate of his movement and his own dim prospects for survival. From an undisclosed location, Omar broadcast messages predicting his death in battle and naming Mullah Baradar, a former governor in Herat who commanded Taliban troops in Kabul, his successor. Early in the week he gave an interview to the BBC’s Pashtu news service in which he predicted “the destruction of America. If Allah’s help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time.”But few Afghans listened. “Omar doesn’t have the same power he had in the past,” says Haqiq, the Pashtun commander. “They keep saying he will fight to the end, but we don’t think that’s true.” Across Afghanistan, people deserted the regime as soon as it started losing, exposing its shallow hold on them. “The Taliban showed they were good at enforcing beard lengths,” says a Western diplomat, “and that’s about it.” The first, pivotal defeat of the Taliban, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was greased by local Pashtun fed up with taking orders from “these village idiots from the south,” as a foreign aid worker put it. Those fighters cut a secret deal with Alliance commander Rashid Dostum to allow Dostum’s cavalry to pour through the Taliban front line. After that, the Alliance achieved its rout of the Taliban in typical Afghan fashion: by bribing Taliban commanders to defect.

With their ranks dwindling after weeks of American air strikes, the enemy’s will to fight crumbled. Those pockets of Taliban troops still battling last week were doing so on their own. “As a fighting unit, they are rapidly collapsing,” says a U.S. intelligence official. Pakistani intelligence sources told TIME that the rank-and-file Taliban militiamen have lost their taste for jihad. Some have returned to their villages pleading for mercy; others tried to slip unnoticed across the Pakistani border. “It’s very easy,” says Khair Ullah, a resident of the border town of Bajaur. “You remove your black turban and trim your beard, and nobody says you are a Talib.”

Publicly, the U.S. knew better than to declare victory, insisting that Taliban fighters may be preparing to begin a new phase of the war, one in which they could do what they once did best: battle a more powerful foreign force from redoubts in the mountains, where tanks can’t go and helicopters crash. The surviving Taliban could still withdraw to avoid the hellfire of American strikes and then spring ambushes on towns and villages below. “They can defect, change their mind and go back,” Rumsfeld said. “It is not possible to answer the question as to the circumstance of the Taliban.” But their divisions are scattered, their hard-core fighters are fewPakistani sources say 2,000 members, at most, of Omar’s 50,000-strong force are still active near Kandaharand the regime has been drained of the financial and military resources that once sustained it. “Guerrilla warfare will be all that they can do,” says an Air Force general. “I doubt they can mount a counteroffensive.” Even if the Taliban commits its leftover men and matriel to a prolonged guerrilla campaign, there is little or no chance the same movement can return to power.

The sudden rollback of the Taliban vindicated the Pentagon’s faith in air power. Just weeks ago, with the rebels bogged down in the north and Taliban forces cockily daring the U.S. to try to hit them, American strategists warned of a lengthy war and said a large percentage of Taliban targets were yet to be bombed. Despite the derision hurled at them from military hawks early in the campaignwho insisted that this war, unlike those in Kosovo, could not be won from the skiesthe U.S. commanders are having the last word. Precision U.S. bombing raids early in the conflict obliterated the Taliban’s rear guard, which had provided reinforcements, food, ammunition and fuel to the front lines. When the U.S. began pounding front-line troops and the calls for backup went unanswered, panic began to spread.

Last week U.S. warplanes strafed lines of fleeing Taliban soldiers, but even those ripe targets soon withered. That gave U.S. pilots, in the words of Centcom chief Tommy Franks, more room to “focus on the alligators”the high command of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Last Tuesday, armed with fresh intelligence reports on the whereabouts of key Taliban and al-Qaeda figures, the Pentagon began attacking buildings in Kabul and Kandahar in which they were believed to be hiding. At least one strike nailed its target: on Friday, Rumsfeld said he had seen “authoritative reports” that the U.S. had killed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief. Atef had intimate ties to bin Laden through his daughter’s marriage to bin Laden’s son and was seen as the cold-blooded strategist charged with carrying out bin Laden’s deadly visions. As the mastermind of the ambush of the Army Rangers in Somalia in 1993, the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and the Sept. 11 airline attacks, Atef was responsible for more than 5,000 deaths. American commanders said his elimination may cripple al-Qaeda’s terror-making machine. “He’s not bin Laden or Omar,” says an Air Force officer. “He’s not John or Paul; he’s George or Ringo.”

That’s why the American targeting of Atef also served to deliver a pointed message to his boss. As American commandos did in northern Afghanistan, U.S. special ops in the south provided Pashtun tribes with advice, ammunition and weapons. But the immediate goal was to divine bin Laden’s location with enough precision for the U.S. to deploy its forceseither technological or human, in the air or down into a caveto deliver the final blow. All week American troops manned checkpoints on the roads running through former Taliban country, seeking clues to bin Laden’s coordinates. Special-ops commandos plied Taliban lieutenants on the leadership penumbra with cash in exchange for secrets about al-Qaeda leaders’ movements. While the informants could not deliver the exact address, they knew the neighborhoods in which to look. Even with bin Laden at large, U.S. commanders became convinced they had him trapped. “If he moves, we spot him,” a Pentagon official said. “If he doesn’t move, we close in on him, cave by cave.”

Still, no one in the allies’ war councils believes bin Laden’s demise will mean the end of al-Qaeda, much less global terrorism, or that the Taliban’s disintegration will douse the flames of hatred in Afghanistan. But as a new world began to rise from the ruins of the Taliban’s tyranny, there was cause for cautious optimism. Across Afghanistan, warlords scrambled to secure their own footholds, but for the most part, the Northern Alliance commanders avoided the widespread barbarism they administered a decade ago. And while America certainly has not finished the fight against terror, the punishment doled out by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan has made it more difficult for future bin Ladens to lure followers to join the jihad by portraying America, as he did, as a soft superpower that can be easily intimidated. “The Taliban really thought this was going to be the 1980s and their fight against the Soviets,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told TIME. “They didn’t realize that what al-Qaeda did on Sept. 11 unleashed some serious power against them.” They do now.

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