The files throw new light on how al-Qaeda leaders fled a mountain hideout in Afghanistan as U.S. and British special forces closed in on it.

Osama bin Laden escaped American and British special forces closing in on his refuge in December 2001 with the help of a minor local warlord who provided fighters to guide him to safety in the north-east of Afghanistan, according to a secret intelligence report compiled by officials at Guantánamo Bay.

The al-Qaeda leader's successful flight from Tora Bora has long been seen as one of the key early lapses of the international military effort in Afghanistan. Though various theories have been floated, no firm account of how Bin Laden evaded the coalition forces and their Afghan auxiliaries has yet emerged.

New details

However, the documents reveal new details about the escape of the world's most wanted man.

One document — an assessment compiled in August 2007 of a detainee at the Guantánamo detention centre called Harun Shirzad al-Afghani — claims Bin Laden escaped the dragnet around his mountain stronghold with the help of a local Pakistani militant commander and cleric called Maulawi Nur Muhammad.

A precise identification from the documents is difficult but it is likely that the man referred to is a minor militant leader who was shot dead by unknown gunmen during 2010 in the extremist centre of Miram Shah in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency. “Maulawi,” or more usually “Maulvi,” is an honorific title denoting a senior religious scholar in the local Deobandi school of Islam.

The document says Maulawi Nur Muhammad provided 40 or 50 fighters to escort Bin Laden and his close associate Ayman al-Zawahiri to safety following a meeting with a senior al-Qaeda military field commander known as Abu Turab in mid-December 2001.

American operation; 9/11

American forces launched their operation to capture or kill the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks at the beginning of December 2001, around three weeks after capturing Kabul, the Afghan capital. More than 100 western special forces soldiers backed by thousands of Afghans had closed in on their target after around 10 days of fighting.

Previously it had been thought that Bin Laden escaped south from Tora Bora into Pakistan, evading a blocking force of Pakistani troops and paramilitaries sent to secure the frontier. However, at least two accounts from detainees and other intelligence collated by U.S. officials appear to indicate that in fact the al-Qaeda leader and al-Zawahiri headed north, slipping through the lines of the coalition forces and their Afghan auxiliaries to the house of an Afghan sympathiser called Awal Malim Gul in or near the city of Jalalabad. They “rested” there before travelling further on horseback into the remote province of Kunar, where they were to remain for 10 months.

If true, the account is one of the most detailed to emerge so far of the movements of the al-Qaeda leadership in the aftermath of the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan.

The documents are full of other details about the episode. An insight into the reduced state of Bin Laden as the terrorist infrastructure he had painstakingly built up over previous years crumbled under the allied onslaught is a reference to a debt of $7,000 he apparently incurred during the chaotic last days at Tora Bora. According to the testimony of Harun Shirzad, a meeting took place in late 2002 at which a trusted lieutenant of Bin Laden called Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi handed the commander who had apparently helped Bin Laden escape “$7,000 US to repay ... money that UBL [Bin Laden] had taken from him during the Battle of Tora Bora”.

Less than three months earlier, the documents reveal, Bin Laden had sufficient funds to hand out nearly $11,000 for development projects in a village near the southern city of Kandahar.

The documents allow the movements of the al-Qaeda leadership during the fighting of 2001 to be established. One file reports that Bin Laden was near the eastern Afghan city of Khost on the day of the September 11 attacks, a detail that is corroborated by reliable evidence from other sources. Another refers to his stay in a guesthouse in Kabul in October. On November 13, with the fall of the Afghan capital imminent, Bin Laden held a meeting with senior associates at which the “logistical details” of the retreat eastwards of Arab militants who had been stationed north of the city was discussed.

By November 30, Bin Laden had apparently reached Jalalabad, where he gave $100,000 to distribute to local tribal commanders to ensure their loyalty.

He then moved up to the rocky mountains above Tora Bora, a site he knew well from the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. He had also lived nearby after arriving in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.

Detainees' accounts

Some have doubted whether the al-Qaeda leader was ever at Tora Bora. Several detainees, however, mention seeing or meeting him before or during the battle. One, a Yemeni doctor, Ayman Saeed Batarfi, describes two interviews with Bin Laden in which he asked the terrorist leader for medicine to treat the wounded.

Another detainee reports Bin Laden visiting his position at night to tell fighters “not to be afraid [as] the [American] bombing was far away”.

Several detainees told their jailers about senior militants organising guides and groups of militants for the mountain crossing into Pakistani territory on or around December 16 after negotiations with local Afghan commanders fighting alongside units of American special forces had failed. Several of these groups were hit by air strikes as they fled the battle zone and many militants killed, according to the detainees. A significant number of extremists were captured by Pakistani forces, although at least one detainee claimed that the Pakistani intelligence services helped “al-Qaida” fighters to escape.

Leaving Tora Bora

Bin Laden appears to have left Tora Bora before this exodus in some haste. “UBL left his bodyguards in Tora Bora,” one report states drily. Another says: “UBL suddenly departed Tora Bora with a few individuals UBL selected.” The al-Qaeda leader's family, based in Kandahar throughout the fighting in 2001, also escaped. According to one file, detainee Salem Ahmed Salem Hamdan, Bin Laden's personal driver, and another man, a militant married to one of Bin Laden's daughters, “facilitated the escape of three of UBL's wives from Afghanistan”.

“The group left Kandahar and made their way ... to the Pakistan border. At the border, detainee and Muataz turned the group over to other facilitators who would accompany the group to Quetta [the south-west Pakistani city]. Detainee and Muataz then planned to return to Kandahar but were attacked by Coalition forces, resulting in Muataz's death and detainee's capture,” the memo says.

The escape of others was financed by wealthy benefactors. One report describes how a key al-Qaeda operative charged with making travel arrangements for “fleeing mujahideen and their families ... frequently wrote to two wealthy Saudis ... appealing for funds [and they] provided large sums of money on about 20 occasions between November 2001 and January 2002, totalling more than $1,000,000.” There are few clues as to the location of Bin Laden or Zawahiri more recently. One intriguing reference appears to indicate that Zawahiri initially sought shelter in Pakistan's, cities as did many other senior leaders. In March 2003 however, following the detention of key 9/11 plotter Khaled Sheikh Mohammed by Pakistani authorities in the northern city of Rawalpindi, Zawahiri is reported to “have fled the house in which he was located and moved to Shkai, South Waziristan.”

Shkai is a remote valley in the rugged South Waziristan tribal agency on the Afghan frontier. According to a further file, senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Farraj al-Libby, eventually captured in Pakistan in 2005, travelled to Shkai to meet members of al-Qaeda's senior leadership between August 2003 and February 2004. These included Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, the senior al-Qaeda operative who played a key role in the 7/7 bombings in the U.K. and was captured in 2007.

“Between August 2003 and February 2004 detainee travelled to Shkai on three occasions. While at Shkai detainee met with al-Qaeda's Sharia Council, delivered funds to fighters ... and visited [Abdul Hadi al—Iraqi],” his file says.

Attack on U.S.

The documents paint a picture of an active but chaotic world of groups, factions and senior leaders in the west of Pakistan planning, organising and executing attacks in Afghanistan and in a range of other locations including Europe and the U.S. while western policymakers and strategists were largely distracted by Iraq. As well as revealing turf wars between senior al-Qaeda operatives, the memos include repeated references to attempts by al-Qaeda to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The memo on Abu Farraj al-Libby goes further, citing intelligence stating that by 2004 the militants already had a device that was located in Europe but that there were no operatives to use it. It was to be detonated in the U.S. in the event of Bin Laden's capture or death, a senior al-Qaeda figure had said.

As with all the claims in the documents, independent corroboration is extremely difficult. Many appear highly speculative or based on hearsay. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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