Afghanistan Chronicles, Part 2: A Search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains

Outside Jalalabad, on the way to a mountain range called Tora Bora (“Black Mountain”), there are a number of small villages that have changed little since Biblical times. Leaving from the Spinghar Hotel, in November 2001, I led the first film crew to investigate rumors that al-Qaeda Arabs were hiding in Tora Bora until the coast was clear to make an escape. Tora Bora is a region that nearly skirts the Pakistani border near Pakistan's Kurram Agency. Rumor also had it that al-Qaeda had upped the price for the head of any foreign journalist, but it also seemed likely the Arabs would not want to draw attention and reveal their presence by taking out one intrepid crew. At least, that's what we assumed, and we decided to take the chance.

The local people claimed there were hundreds of Arabs in Tora Bora, a vast, rugged range of hills and mountains dotted with caves which were dug by the American CIA and the Saudis to provide refuge for anti-Soviet mujahidin during the Soviet war in the 1980s. There had been a US air strike in the area with cluster bombs a week before, but no ground forces had been deployed.

Our first contact on Tora Bora, a local man who had tagged along with us who claimed to know everything about the area, seemed to be covering up the facts. Our translator, Lal Aga, noticed tent poles still standing where the canvas had been removed. The tents were Arab, he insisted, not Afghan. A dog appeared who was caring for her newborn pups. There were a series of small caves filled with pots, pans, food and ammunition. Time to leave.

Before leaving the region, we interviewed a Taliban soldier who had just cut his beard and thrown away his turban. He refused to give his name, he said, to protect his family. He was terrified to talk about the Arabs, but the $100 he was offered would help him escape to Pakistan. He had been living with his mother in Jalalabad when the Taliban arrived a year before to conscript him. He had no choice, he said, but to join the Taliban to protect her.

He said he had seen Osama bin Laden many times in Jalalabad, nearby Duranta and other places. He confirmed bin Laden had a satellite phone with him 24 hours a day, and that no one else was allowed to touch it – ever. Did he ever see bin Laden talking with foreigners, we asked? Yes, frequently, he said, bin Laden would walk in his garden with foreigners who spoke other languages – and he would often spend time talking with many Americans. And how did he know they were speaking English? Because the al-Qaeda translators told him they were Americans. There had been many of them several weeks before the American planes had begun bombing.

One must wonder who these Americans were? Could they simply be nongovernmental organizations trying to work out an arrangement with bin Laden on some logistical issue? Or were they other Americans, discussing other things? No one has ever come forward – but then, no network aired this interview, even though it was offered in December 2001 when the independent team returned to the United States.

Discussing the interview back at the hotel that night, our colleagues from the ABC crew had little to say. They insisted the real news was in Kabul, and, because of a shocking murder of four journalists on the road to Kabul, they had been ordered back to Peshawar.

Meanwhile, Afghan facilitator Wakil Akbarzai, who had worked with the United Nations and the Afghan Rescue Organization under the auspices of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA) (and who now heads up the Afghan American Trading Company in New York), remained in Peshawar buying food and renting housing for the ABC crew, although he claimed that they never paid or reimbursed him. It was Ramadan, a 30-day period during which no food or drink is taken from sunrise to sunset. Breakfast was always at 4 AM. On the morning of November 28, Akbarzai's table included two other NIFA commanders who had spent the night in Torkham (the small town at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border) keeping an eye on the border crossing. At around 2 AM, they said, bright lights from the Pakistani military post that illuminate the area were suddenly turned off. In the darkness, six new SUVs approached the gate with their lights off. The gate opened and the vehicles crossed into Pakistan to disappear somewhere in the Khyber Pass.

Nothing of this was ever mentioned in the American press, although subsequent articles have hinted at the event. Other American journalists were told about it, but they reported nothing. What could this have meant? Many things, of course, some of which are suggested in our film, “Shadow of Afghanistan,” and my memoir, “Blood on the Lens,” but one thing is certain – orders had been sent from someone in power in Pakistan to let the caravan pass. A deal of some kind had been struck, at least by some of the players.

Watch part one in this series: “The United States Bombs Afghanistan”

Watch part three in this series: Children of Terror

Watch part four in this series: Kill the Journalist, Kill the Story, Kill the Truth