they seek him there,
those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or in hell,
that damned elusive Pimpernel?
– Leslie Howard as freelance French Revolution-era British agent code-named “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” in the classic film with the same name.
I knew something was very, very wrong almost immediately after the fall of Tora Bora, when Osama bin Laden and his sidekick Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri seemed to vanish into thin air, leaving not a trace, not even a rumor or the echo of an unconfirmed sighting.
Despite a gigantic reward eventually totaling $25 million, and wanted posters that went up around the entire world – I remember spotting one on the wall of a gas station/general store/saloon far out in the dusty, haunted Void that is the Great Basin, as if any minute Osama was about to ride out of the sunset on a jackass – he was as gone as gone can be.
Of course, America’s intelligence agencies – the same ones that had completely failed to forestall the 9/11 attacks, and later would help ignite the Iraq War with tall tales of Iraq-al-Qaeda alliances – came up with an excuse for their failure to capture, kill, or even locate within a thousand-mile radius, the most wanted men on the planet. He was hiding out in a mudwalled village somewhere in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, protected by the locals’ tribal code of nanawati, the protection of strangers and fugitives.
Even so, why hadn’t we heard a single thing about which tribal clan or village might be hosting him? Well, our intell mavens had a kind of explanation for that, too: the NWFP, they said, was like the Dark Side of the Moon, a sort of alternative universe, impenetrable and unknowable to outsiders.
This flimsy fable was enough to satisfy the American public and the mass media, but to me it sounded about as convincing as “The dog ate my homework.” I had traveled extensively in the Tribal Areas during the 80s and 90s, and gotten to know some of the territory’s most intractable, incorrigible characters, men like Nadir Khan Zakhakhel, the Smuggling King of the Khyber Pass, and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the fierce old Achmedzai chief who battled the Russians for twenty years and was now a close ally of Taliban and al-Qaeda and sworn enemy of the United States.
I had also studied the history of the area, focusing on the British campaigns to pacify the region back in the days of the Raj.
From both experience and scholarship I knew that secrets never lasted long in the NWFP; the tribespeople were world class gossips, and news leapt from compound to compound, and bazaar to bazaar, like chain lightning.
If Osama had shown up in the Tribal Area after Tora Bora, everyone from Derra Ismail Khan to Swat would have been talking about it before the tall Saudi with the Rasputin eyes had time to shake the dust off his shalwar kameez.
In fact, there was an almost perfect historical precedent for Osama the Fugitive: a fundamentalist mullah named the Fakir of Ipi led rebellion after rebellion in the NWFP against the British, relying on nanawati to escape capture; the British never did catch the old fox, and he died peacefully in 1960.
After Tora Bora, some Western journalists read of the Fakir’s career and drew the
conclusion that since tribal solidarity had successfully protected him the same could easily be true of true of bin Laden.
But they didn’t study their historical sources rigorously enough. The Fakir never vanished a la Osama bin Laden; the Brits almost always knew exactly where he was; in fact, they sent expedition after expedition after him, and even used the primitive aircraft of the time to bomb his hideouts. Their problem was that they never succeeded in
summoning up enough manpower, firepower and tactical skill to kill or capture him: very, very different than the incorporeal Mr. bin Laden.
Besides, bin Laden never succeeded in his desire to be totally accepted by the tribesmen of Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Even before the defeat at Tora Bora, foreign al-Qaeda fighters fleeing from anti-Taliban forces and their American advisors were being charged between $500 and $1,000 for safe passage across the border into the NWFP; even before Tora Bora, bin Laden himself, along with his bodyguards, were reportedly charged the monetary equivalent of five thousand Kalashnikovs by one group of mountain villagers just to pass through on their way to the battlefield!
But if the tribals in the NWFP weren’t hiding him, who was? Where the hell was he, how did he get there, and, most frightening of all, what was he up to?
(to be continued)