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Taking a closer look at the war on terror

Peter L. Bergen, author of New York Times bestseller "Holy War, Inc.," re-examines America's complex conflict with al-Qaeda in "The Longest War." Here's an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In this excerpt from "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda," author Peter Bergen looks back at Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora in December of 2001, the most consequential single battle of the war on terrorism.

Chapter 5 -- The Great Escape

So let me be a martyr.
Dwelling in a high mountain pass
Among a band of knights who,
United in devotion to God,
Descend to face armies.
—poem by Osama bin Laden

As Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders quickly decamped to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Fifty miles from the border with Pakistan, it is a compact city surrounded by lush fruit groves and gardens fragrant with jasmine and roses. Al-Qaeda’s leader knew the city well, having first settled there in May 1996, after his expulsion from his previous base, in Sudan. During the late 1990s, bin Laden maintained a compound in a suburb of Jalalabad, which consisted of dozens of rooms spread out over more than an acre, a place that could house hundreds of people. Across the road was another large al-Qaeda compound.

Neighbors knew to keep away and not ask too many questions. It was quite predictable that bin Laden would eventually retreat to Jalalabad and from there to the neighboring mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora. In 1987 he had built a road to allow the movement of his Arab fighters from the Pakistani border through the Tora Bora mountains down to Jalalabad, which was then occupied by the Soviets. It took the Saudi militant more than six months to build the road, which only four-wheel-drive vehicles could navigate.

But the half year that bin Laden spent pushing the road through the Tora Bora passes would provide knowledge that he would put to good use almost a decade and a half later when he fled there, since he knew every ridge and track intimately.

Aside from its obvious advantage as a place from which to disappear, Tora Bora was a place that bin Laden loved. In the Tora Bora settlement of Milewa, a three-hour drive up a narrow mud-and-stone road from Jalalabad, the al-Qaeda leader maintained his own mini-jihadist kingdom for several years before 9/11. The buildings that made up the settlement were strung across a series of ridges that in winter lay far above the snow line, commanding lovely views of the verdant valleys below. They comprised a series of scattered lookout posts, a bakery, and bin Laden’s two-bedroom house, all constructed of the baked mud and stone typical of Afghan villages. Next to bin Laden’s house was a crude swimming pool and a broad field where al-Qaeda members cultivated their crops. From bin Laden’s house all he could see was his own little feudal fiefdom; the nearest village was out of sight, thousands of feet below down a scree-covered slope.

In the winter of 1996 bin Laden took Abdel Bari Atwan, a Palestinian journalist based in London, on a walking tour of frigid Tora Bora. The al-Qaeda leader told Atwan, “I really feel secure in the mountains. I really enjoy my life when I’m here. I feel secure in this place.” Bin Laden also well understood how the Tora Bora caves where he sat down with Atwan for an interview and a photographic session would have a certain resonance in the Muslim world, as it was in a cave in the mountains that the Prophet Mohammed had first received the revelations of the Koran.

Bin Laden would also routinely hike from Tora Bora into neighboring Pakistan, according to his son Omar. The treks could take anywhere between seven and fourteen hours. The Saudi exile instructed his sons on these walks, “We never know when war will strike. We must know our way out of the mountains.” Bin Laden told his sons they had to memorize every rock on the escape routes to Pakistan. Omar bin Laden later recalled, “My brothers and I all loathed these grueling treks that seemed the most pleasant of outings to our father.”

During the fall of 2001, Tora Bora was not yet a familiar name to many Americans—but it would be soon enough. What unfolded there remains, many years later, the most consequential single battle of the war on terrorism.

Presented with an opportunity to kill or capture al-Qaeda’s top leadership just three months after September 11, the United States was instead outmaneuvered by bin Laden, who slipped into Pakistan, largely disappeared from American radar, and slowly began rebuilding his organization. Abdallah Tabarak, bin Laden’s chief bodyguard, says that during the month of Ramadan, which began on November 17, 2001, bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made their way from Jalalabad thirty miles south to the mountains of Tora Bora, hard up on the border with Pakistan.

Around the same time, Hazarat Ali, a local Afghan commander, told a New York Times reporter that the al-Qaeda leader had been recently spotted in Tora Bora.

Bin Laden’s retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad and then on to the easily defended craggy ridges and cave complexes of Tora Bora was being closely monitored by the CIA. The Agency’s top official on the ground was Gary Berntsen. Berntsen had arrived in Kabul on November 12, the same day that the Taliban had fled the capital, and within two days was receiving a stream of intelligence reports from the Northern Alliance that the al-Qaeda leader was in Jalalabad, giving pep talks to an ever-growing caravan of fighters.

Berntsen decided to push a four-man CIA team into Jalalabad. To provide them with local guides he made contact with the Afghan commander Hazarat Ali, a longtime opponent of the Taliban, who sent three teenage fighters to escort the American team into Jalalabad, an area that was now crawling with fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Berntsen’s team arrived uneventfully in Jalalabad on November 21 and several days later they moved into a schoolhouse in the foothills of Tora Bora, which they used as a base. Berntsen says he was now receiving “multiple hits” from his sources on the ground that bin Laden was in Tora Bora.

From "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda" by Peter L Bergen. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Free Press.