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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 21, May 14, 2011

Osama — Before and After

Tuesday 24 May 2011

by HAMID MIR

“It does not matter if I die....my death and the death of others like me will one day awaken millions of Muslims from their apathy.” Osama bin Laden addressed these words to me in March 1997, in a cave in eastern Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains. I was the first Pakistani journalist to interview him. In May 1998 I encountered him for the second time in a hideout near Kandahar airport. He again mentioned his possible death, saying: “They cannot arrest me alive.” I received his messenger within few hours after the 9/11 attacks and he praised those who conducted the attacks but never accepted responsibility for them. This confused me.

I took the risk of entering Afghanistan in November 2001 when American warplanes were targeting the Al-Qaeda and Taliban from Jalalabad to Kabul. I met bin Laden the third time on November 8. I was the first and last journalist to interview him after 9/11. Intense bombing was going on in and outside Kabul. He again said: “My martyrdom will create more Osama bin Ladens.”

Bin Laden fulfilled his promise. He never surrendered. US President Barack Obama announced his death on May 2, 2011. His death is the year’s biggest news for the Americans but his sympathisers are satisfied bin Laden was not captured alive to be humiliated like Saddam Hussein. For me, it was a great surprise he was hiding in a Pakistani city, Abbottabad, famous for the Pakistan Military Academy.

It is learnt the Americans conducted the operation without informing the Pakistani authorities. But highly placed responsible government sources confirmed Pakistan shared important information regarding bin Laden in May 2010 with the CIA. Pakistani security forces intercepted a phone call made between Taxila and Abbottabad. The CIA was informed in August 2010 about the possible presence of an important Al-Qaeda leader there. Bin Laden probably made this call, his biggest blunder.

Sometimes bin Laden dodged sophisticated satellite systems and missiles by his own cleverness; other times luck saved him. US air strikes started against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on October 7, 2001, and bin Laden was spotted with Ayman al Zawahri on November 8 in Kabul. They had come to attend an Al-Qaeda meeting and the same day I was granted an interview. Despite security measures, a female spy noticed the unusual movement of many important Arabs in Kabul.

Over 20 Al-Qaeda leaders were present in the small room. Suddenly an Arab Al-Qaeda fighter entered and informed his leaders they had arrested a woman in a burqa a few metres away. She had been spying, posing as a beggar. The Al-Qaeda caught her talking to someone about a “Sheikh” on a Thoraya satellite telephone.

In the ensuing rush, I said goodbye to bin Laden who told a close associate his “guest” must not be harmed. The associate, Muhammad, was to take me to Jalalabad. He would later give me startling news. He claimed the place where I met his “Sheikh” had been bombed 15 minutes after oiur departure but the others also left. Nobody was harmed. He said it was in Kabul’s Weir Akbar Khan area that I’d met the world’s most wanted man.

Muhammad and I met again in 2004 in Kunar where he told me the whole story of how he and his “Sheikh” had survived US carpet-bombing in Tora Bora. It wasn’t until December 2001 that bin Laden and his fighters broke the circle created by the Americans. They entered the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan from Tora Bora—but bin Laden headed off in a different direction with a small group.

A top Afghan security official, Lutfullah Mashal, confirmed to me later that bin Laden escaped to Paktia. He claimed bin Laden entered North Waziristan. Mashal is sure the Americans missed his capture in Tora Bora because they were not ready to deploy ground forces. Bin Laden remained underground through 2002, surfacing again in April 2003 in Afghanistan after the US invasion of Iraq. Calling a meeting in Kunar province’s Pech Valley, he announced plans to resist America in Iraq.

In 2004, bin Laden found himself surrounded by British troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Highly placed diplomatic sources revealed to me recently in Kabul that British forces were very close to taking bin Laden—dead or alive. He was besieged for over 24 hours before managing to dodge one of the world’s best-equipped armies. According to the Taliban sources in Helmand, the British forces broke two Al-Qaeda defence lines in an area of five kilometres.

Bin Laden wanted to fight but Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri convinced him to try to escape. He slipped from British hands with some other fighters. These sources denied reports that he had ordered his guards to shoot him if he were near arrest. They claimed he did not believe in suicide, it was easier for him to sacrifice his life in battle. After that escape he was careful, going underground in the Pakistani tribal areas. Nobody expected he would be nabbed in Abbottabad. When the Americans attacked his hideout he started fighting. According to his injured wife, Osama rushed to the rooftop and joined his guards resisting the attack. His 10-year-old daughter Safia watched American commandos enter the house and take away her father’s dead body.

Osama is dead but the Al-Qaeda and its allies are not. Bin Laden always exploited flaws in American policies. His real strength was hatred against America, not Islam. His physical elimi-nation is big news for the Americans but many outside America want elimination of the policies that may produce more Osamas. No doubt he was responsible for the killing of many innocent people but the Americans cannot justify killing innocents through drone attacks on that count. Both bin Laden and the Americans violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. This must stop now. Osama is dead. If America does not leave Afghanistan now, this war will not end soon and the world will remain an unsafe place.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

The author, a well-known journalist, works for Pakistan’s Geo TV.

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