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‘The Exile’ Book: Bin Laden’s Escape to Iran | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Afghan fighter watches as US warplanes bomb positions held by al-Qaida in the Tora Bora mountains in 2001. Photograph: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

London– At the time when September 11 attacks on New York and Washington occurred, Osama bin Laden was hiding in an Afghan cave, unable to get a decent TV satellite signal and was forced to follow up the developments on the radio.

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy released detailed account of Bin Laden’s movements in their latest book “The Exile” which depicts the story of al-Qaida members and their leader hiding in Pakistan and Iran between 2001 and 2011, as reported by The Guardian.

In reality, the difference between Bin Laden’s situation and his impact was vast and a subject of discussion for years to come, until eventually, the Americans killed him in the raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

When the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was arrested in Rawalpindi, Bin Laden felt vulnerable.

Fearing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be forced to talk and reveal the whereabouts of Bin Laden, a Kuwaiti Qaeda leader moved Bin Laden to an uninhabited building owned by his father near Kohat in north-west Pakistan.

It was an unsatisfactory solution. By 2004 Qaeda was keen to settle and protect its leader and thus managed to build a more suitable home for him in the military town of Abbottabad, where he along with his wives and children moved in.

The main question that arose after the Abbottabad raid was about the two most powerful men in Pakistan, the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, and the Director-General of The Main Intelligence Agency General Ahmad Shuja Pasha.

Were they aware that Bin Laden had been hiding in Pakistan?

Many officials in Washington believed Pakistan was not just an unreliable ally, but a thoroughly deceitful one. Firm evidence that it had given sanctuary to the architect of 9/11 would make the country the ultimate state sponsor of terrorism.

There were reasons to think senior Pakistanis did know. First, it was difficult to believe that Bin Laden could have been living within a couple of miles of Pakistan’s military academy without the army being aware of his presence. Second, Pakistan had a long record of protecting and sponsoring violent extremists and denying it.

Exile’s authors Scott-Clark and Levy’s used a Mauritanian cleric called Mahfouz Ibn al-Waleed as a source.

Over a decade before 9/11, Mahfouz chaired Qaeda’s sharia committee, pronouncing on the religious validity of the organization’s policies and actions. He was one of the few people with advanced knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

Mahfouz realized the sensitivity of the different political trends in Tehran, and thus avoided contact with the Iranian government and dealt directly with the Revolutionary Guard. With the promise of immunity from Qaeda attacks, Iran indicated it was receptive and by March 2002 there was a steady flow of senior Qaeda figures and Bin Laden’s relatives moving into Iran.

The reception revealed the degree of animosity and distrust between the factions in Iran.

For instance, pro-government personnel in the ministry of intelligence and security began arresting Qaeda members in Iran after tracking their phone calls to their affiliates left behind in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Iranian government even went as far as deporting some of the members back to their countries of origin. Revolutionary Guard asked Qaeda leaders not to use their phones.

Eventually Tehran’s leaders worked out a common position, yet the way they reached an agreement and its details remain a subject of debate.

For its part, US argued that Iran harbored terrorists, and to avoid such a term, Tehran prefers to say that it detained them.

Senior Qaeda leaders were housed within a training facility of the elite Quds Force in north Tehran.

Some of Bin Laden’s relatives were put in a separate facility in the same compound. Others were put in safe houses and another group ended up in a provincial prison where conditions were so bad they went on hunger strike. None was free to leave Iran, unless they were going to fight US forces in Iraq.

Iran figured that Qaeda members were not only a good source of intelligence but also a bargaining chip. But the Revolutionary Guard and US vice-president Dick Cheney both opposed negotiating, it was a deal that could never be done.

Situations changed after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. US State Department Official Ryan Crocker, accompanied by Zalmay Khalilzad, president Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, approached Iran once again. And this time the Iranian government made a remarkable offer: if US would give them the leaders of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that opposes Iranian government, Tehran would hand over Qaeda’s military council and Bin Laden’s family.

In reality, there could be no greater demonstration of the depth of Washington’s hatred to Tehran than the decision to turn down that opportunity.

Some of the arguments in “The Exile” may be debatable and a few details turn out to be wrong. For example, the version of how Bin Laden’s son Hamza managed to flee Pakistan after the Abbottabad raid may need to be revised as new information comes to light.

Scott-Clark and Levy wrote that Qaeda managed to get Hamza on a plane to Qatar, whereas others think his movements were facilitated by the Inter Service Intelligence in Pakistan.

However, such a detail doesn’t take away the authors’ achievement of speaking to previously silent senior Qaeda figures and Bin Laden’s family members, not to mention just about all the key players inside Pakistan’s military establishment.

Scott-Clark and Levy produced the best account yet of what happened to Qaeda after 9/11. This book can be considered as an astonishingly good piece of work.