Bin Laden’s Escape

How Al Qaeda Escaped Afghanistan and Lived to Fight Another Day

In 2001 the U.S. almost killed Osama bin Laden, but a series of bad decisions from the White House and Pentagon allowed al Qaeda’s leaders to escape and continue fighting.

© Reuters Photographer / Reuter

Osama bin Laden expected to die on December 14, 2001.

For the previous two weeks, nearly a million pounds of American bombs had rained down on Osama bin Laden’s six-by-six mile hideout deep in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Approximately one hundred U.S. special operations forces had partnered with local Afghan forces and rapidly cornered the al Qaeda leader.

And now, it appeared that his time had come. Bin Laden wrote his will, and American intelligence intercepted him announcing to his followers, “Our prayers have not been answered. Times are dire… I’m sorry for getting you involved in this battle.”

But as American and Afghan forces closed in, bin Laden escaped. Much has been written about the operational failure of outsourcing the bulk of the warfighting to a ragtag and untrustworthy coalition of Afghan rebels and absent Pakistani border guards. Less known but recently explored in my book, 102 Days of War—How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001, is how policy decisions and leadership failures in the White House and the Pentagon combined with duplicitous Pakistani actions allowed America’s enemies to survive 2001.

Osama bin Laden was far from alone at Tora Bora when American military units had him within their reach. Indeed, the best estimates indicate that over one thousand al Qaeda and Taliban operatives were positioned around the Tora Bora mountain range at the start of the battle. While approximately two hundred militants were killed and fifty were captured, the rest fled into Pakistan and disappeared.

The list of al Qaeda operatives present at the battle who managed to escape reads like a primer on the who’s who of the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. In fact, the individuals who escaped from Tora Bora are now the most-wanted leaders of al Qaeda’s global franchise.

Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now the leader of al Qaeda, was present at the battle before escaping into Pakistan. So was Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni firebrand who runs al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Wuhayshi is now second in command for al Qaeda and the leader of arguably the most dangerous branch of al Qaeda in the world.

Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, the courier who led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, also fought at Tora Bora and remained by his side from 2001 until they were killed by Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.

Some prominent al Qaeda lieutenants, such as Atiyah abd al Rahman and Abu Zubaydah, escaped from Tora Bora and were either killed or captured years later in extensive manhunts. Others, like FBI most-wanted terrorist Saif al Adel, remain at large.

Al Qaeda was not the only jihadist organization present at Tora Bora. An unknown number of militants from the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other regional terrorist groups were involved in the battle before making their way into Pakistan.

And of course, hundreds—if not thousands—of al Qaeda foot soldiers and mid-level operatives escaped into Pakistan where they found a haven to rebuild al Qaeda.

Bin Laden’s escape was the culmination of many factors, not to mention the sheer luck that a bomb did not land on his location at Tora Bora. Some of those factors included America’s reliance on dubious Afghan warlords, Pakistan’s lackluster efforts to seal the border, and the distraction of Iraq.

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U.S. failures in tactics, policy, and leadership also played a critical role. Muddled objectives and a fundamental misunderstanding of what was at stake contributed to the decision not to reinforce the commandos at Tora Bora. Most notably, a task force of Marines and a contingent of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division were available nearby to provide reinforcements but were never called into action. Thousands of American troops were within reach and could have deployed to Tora Bora, but the top military leader in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, remained committed to the light footprint approach. And, neither President Bush nor Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was paying close enough attention to intervene.

Part of the Bush Administration’s justification for not sending more troops to Tora Bora was that the pursuit of one man did not merit additional resources or risk.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in his memoir that “The justification for our military operations in Afghanistan was not the capture or killing of one person. Our country’s primary purpose was to try to prevent terrorists from attacking us again. There was far more to the threat posed by Islamist extremism than one man.”

In the weeks after 9/11, Secretary Rumsfeld instructed his civilian and military subordinates, “Don’t over-elevate the importance of al Qaida,” while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz “warned against focusing narrowly on al Qaeda and Afghanistan.”

As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith said, “If you think that 9/11 led inevitably to our military action in Afghanistan, then you aren’t doing justice to the administration’s strategic deliberations.”

To be fair, the Bush Administration did not possess a crystal ball that allowed them to foresee the exact succession of leadership of al Qaeda operatives located momentarily at Tora Bora. But certainly keen policymakers should have perceived that the escape of so many terrorists would ensure that al Qaeda would be destined to survive.

Tora Bora was the last time that the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership would ever be in the same place. For the United States of America, it was a singular opportunity to destroy much of al Qaeda in one swift motion.

At its core, the Battle for Tora Bora was not simply a botched attempt to kill bin Laden; it was a fight for the very existence of al Qaeda, one that the terrorist group survived allowing them live and fight another day.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. Government.