October 22, 2017


Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, a complex of caves in a mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, in November 1996 | Photo from the book
Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, a complex of caves in a mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, in November 1996 | Photo from the book

It has been more than six years since Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid conducted by the United States Navy Seals on his compound in Pakistan’s garrison city of Abbottabad, just a stone’s throw away from the military academy. But it took almost a decade for the US intelligence agencies to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist after he fled the Afghan city of Kandahar in October 2001.

With the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept 11, 2001, Al Qaeda intended to drag the world’s sole superpower into a long-drawn war in Afghanistan, and succeeded in its plan to make the world more insecure. Post-9/11, along with thousands of Al Qaeda members and their families, Bin Laden dodged American forces and their Afghan allies to cross over into Pakistan. While many militants were killed or captured by Pakistani security forces working closely with the Central Intelligence Agency, Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri melted away in Pakistan. There were some instances when the intelligence agencies came close to getting both Al Qaeda leaders, but they lost track until Bin Laden was eliminated in 2011.

Bin Laden’s death may have brought an end to a dark chapter, but the militant ideology he espoused continues to threaten global security. An offshoot of Al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, has emerged as a more brutal group. Al Zawahri is presumably still alive and guiding Al Qaeda. More recently, Hamza bin Laden has arrived on the scene vowing to take his father’s mission forward. While the Middle East has become the main centre of militant war, the situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly unstable despite US war efforts. Taliban insurgents have expanded their influence in a large part of the war-torn country.

An authoritative account of how the world’s most wanted man managed to evade the greatest manhunt

How Bin Laden managed to leave Afghanistan and travel to different parts of Pakistan for several years before making Abbottabad his abode intrigued the world. Several accounts of the great escape were written, but none covered the entire story. Many have holes and lack substance. The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, authored by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, is certainly the most authoritative volume on the subject yet. It provides detailed insight into the lives of the fugitives and also reveals how Al Qaeda tried to reorganise and continue its operations from its new base in Pakistan.

It is indeed a great investigative and well-referenced work by the two well-known British journalists who together have produced several books. Though voluminous and sometimes with too much detail about related events across many countries, the book is a page-turner. The authors reconstruct events based on interviews with members of the Bin Laden family — some of whom were witness to the Navy Seals’ raid — former Al Qaeda commanders and senior Pakistani and American security and intelligence officials associated with the so-called US ‘war on terror’.

Bin Laden and his close aides had already made plans to make Pakistan their new base in anticipation of the US invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11. The network Al Qaeda had built among Pakistani militant groups helped the fugitives find safe haven not only in the lawless tribal regions, but also in Pakistani cities. These associate groups provided Al Qaeda with logistical support, safe houses, false documentation and, in some cases, manpower. Al Qaeda’s nexus with Pakistani jihadi groups was strengthened when thousands of Pakistani militants who had received ideological and military training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan returned home following the fall of the Taliban government.

The Exile provides a fascinating account of Bin Laden’s flight from Tora Bora through treacherous and difficult mountainous routes. Al Qaeda had more than 3,000 activists in Afghanistan before the US invasion; most were Arabs, others came from more than a dozen Islamic countries. Fifteen hundred miles of porous border with Pakistan was a major exit point for the fleeing militants and many used Pakistan as a transit point to the Gulf countries and Iran. Others stayed in Pakistan and took shelter in the tribal regions or found refuge in crowded cities from where they could regroup with the help of their allies among local militants.

During his early period in Pakistan, Bin Laden briefly went across the border to stay in the Afghan province of Kunar, and was helped by supporters of one of the most infamous warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has now reached a peace deal with the Kabul government and joined mainstream Afghan politics. This information in The Exile was not available in any literature previously.

The book also describes in detail how Pakistan’s financial and industrial heartland with a population of more than 15 million became a sanctuary for senior Al Qaeda leaders including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden too stayed in the city for a while where he narrowly escaped capture by Pakistani security agencies and the FBI. He had ignored the risks and gone to Karachi to spend time with his youngest wife Amal, who had been staying with the family of Sheikh Mohammed. Another purpose of his visit was to discuss future terror projects with other senior members of Al Qaeda.

However, with the leadership scattered in different parts of Pakistan, most projects were doomed to fail. It is quite intriguing to learn how Sheikh Mohammed also attempted to take his own adventurous path, defying instructions of the senior leadership. One such example was the brutal killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl who was earlier kidnapped by Al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani militants. Sheikh Mohammed himself slaughtered Pearl and posted the video of his execution to the media.

Most intriguing is how Bin Laden was able to avoid Pakistani and American security agencies as he travelled across the country. He remained untraceable even when many of his close aides were either captured or killed. The biggest success for Pakistani intelligence came exactly one year after the 9/11 attacks when Al Shibh was captured from Karachi. More than one year later Sheikh Mohammed too was nabbed in Rawalpindi, but Bin Laden and Al Zawahri remained elusive. This says something about Al Qaeda’s strong support network in Pakistan.

Bin Laden also stayed in Martung village in the Shangla district in Swat. Nestled among heavily forested mountains, this remote village was also the home of Bin Laden’s couriers who were killed with him in the Abbottabad raid. With a population of less than 1,000 people, it is curious how a complete stranger went unnoticed by the locals. I went there days after Bin Laden’s death, but the people were too scared to even talk about that family.

The book describes in huge detail life inside the Abbottabad compound where Bin Laden lived for more than five years with two of his many wives, some children and even grandchildren. Interestingly, the family was planning to leave the compound and relocate elsewhere, but it was too late.

As revealed in the book, Bin Laden was actively running Al Qaeda operations from his hideout and remained in constant touch with others members of the network. This account contradicts the Pakistani intelligence’s version that he was isolated and completely out of touch with surviving Al Qaeda operatives, and that it was his deputy Al Zawahri who was actually running the terror operation.

While discussing all the wild speculations and conspiracy theories, the authors refrain from presenting their own conclusion about whether Pakistani military authorities were clueless about the US raid, or whether there was some cooperation as inferred by renowned American author Seymour Hersh. It remains a mystery whether the Inter-Services Intelligence provided Bin Laden protection or if the agency, notorious for its links with jihadi groups, was completely oblivious of him residing right in the heart of a high-security garrison town.

The book also reveals Al Qaeda’s Iranian connection, not previously known in such detail. Despite serious ideological differences with the militant outfit, Tehran provided shelter to some senior Al Qaeda leaders and some members of Bin Laden’s family, including one of his sons. Iranian authorities also arranged for some Al Qaeda members to travel to their original homeland. Interestingly, Tehran had in parallel also been cooperating with Americans and the Kabul government against the Taliban insurgents and there is more of such information that makes the book a riveting account of Bin Laden’s life in Pakistan.

The reviewer is an author and a journalist

The Exile: The Flight of Osama Bin Laden
By Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
Bloomsbury, US
ISBN: 978-1408858769

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 22nd, 2017