Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bin Laden Narrowly Escapes Death

Osama bin Laden's intelligence gathering operation appears to have helped him escape a US missle attack on an al-Qaeda base.
By Tim Judah

Osama bin Laden cheated death by less than three hours when he escaped a safe house outside Kabul shortly before it was hit by a US missile strike, according to an al-Qaeda source.


Amin, a 23-year-old Afghan recruit to the Islamic militant cell, told how, at the end of October, Bin Laden had come to spend the night at the Beni Hissar camp - an al-Qaeda headquarters run by a Sudanese called Abdul Aziz - on the southern outskirts of Kabul. "He came with a convoy of 120 bodyguards," he said.


When Bin Laden arrived at the camp, he told Aziz that he would leave at eight o'clock the next morning. "But then he got up at five, said his prayers and left," said Amin. Soon afterwards everyone in the camp was ordered to get out "because we were told there was a cruise missile strike coming," he went on. The missiles hit at eight o'clock.


Immediately afterwards a witch-hunt began to see if there was a spy in the camp. But none was found and, thus far, Bin Laden is still on the run.


There is little or no warning that a missile strike is imminent, which implies that Bin Laden has at least some, extremely reliable sources of information.


Early in the air war, the US knocked out what little air defences the Taleban had. But still, the Arab and Afghan residents at Beni Hissar were given frequent warnings of possible air strikes.


How they received this information is easy to understand. Bin Laden's foreign legion is equipped with a sophisticated Codan radio network, of the type used by the UN and aid workers in places such as Afghanistan.


This means that whenever an al-Qaeda spotter sees planes coming, all he has to do is report via Codan where they are and in which direction they are flying.


The two missiles struck the house right in the middle of the Beni Hissar camp compound, which sits below hills on the outskirts of Kabul.


From here Abdul Aziz commanded 850 men belonging to Bin Laden's foreign legion - whose largest contingents come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Qatar.


According to Amin, at the end of October these men were joined by 40 Arabs who were living in Germany and Italy and who travelled via Iran. In the remains of the camp building, this reporter saw torn up air tickets which, when pieced back together, reveal that they travelled first to Syria and then, on October 29, to Iran.


Amin arrived at the camp after the September 11 attacks on the US. He along with 14 other Afghan colleagues from the Taleban's ministry of education were sent here to take over non-essential tasks so that all the Arabs could go and fight.


Along with the foreigners they have all fled south to Kandahar. Amin stayed behind in his village outside Kabul because he hopes the fact that his father, who died in 1992 fighting alongside Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary Afghan military commander, will afford him some measure of protection.


Masood's men are now back in Kabul. But Masood himself died after a September 9 suicide bomb attack believed to have been orchestrated by Bin Laden.


Despite his hopes Amin is a frightened man. Only his mother, his brother and two friends know that he worked with Bin Laden's Arabs. He only agreed to talk in a moving car so that no one would see him and then start asking questions about why he was talking to foreigners.


Amin was charged with running camp finances. He was amazed how much money there was both for the Arabs and the Afghans drafted in to work with them. The Afghans were paid 120 US dollars a month for their contribution to the cause, roughly the annual salary of a professor at Kabul university. The Arabs were paid more.


The financial muscle of the Arabs meant that they did not take orders from the Taleban's ministry of defence. Indeed, they were often used to shore up crumbling lines when the student militia's own Afghan fighters started to flee. When the front line north of Kabul began to collapse, it was the Arabs who were dispatched to stop them. "They ordered them to get back to their positions, " said Amin.


While Western leaders rejoice at the apparent rout of the Taleban and Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, that is not the way Amin and, presumably, most of the rest of the men who share their radical creed see it.


The Taleban and Bin Laden don't believe in national states, but rather a far wider Muslim entity stretching from Indonesia to the Atlantic. So, looked at this way, the cause has not lost most of Afghanistan but simply given a tiny bit of Muslim ground to save its troops to live and fight another day.


And what if Bin Laden himself is killed? Amin explains, "Everyone who works for Osama is like Osama. So, after Osama it might be Abdul Aziz or someone else. Everyone loves him."


Asked whether he would be prepared to die as a suicide bomber, killing women and children in the West he said, "Inshallah, (God Willing) I will go. It is our way, it is the way of Allah because these people are unbelievers."


So, if in the coming days and weeks, Kandahar, the last Taleban stronghold falls and Bin Laden is killed or captured, celebrations may be somewhat premature. For Bin Laden and his followers, it seems, it will be a battle lost, but war will be far from over.


Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press), is a regular IWPR contributor.