With U.S. forces closing in on him during the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, Osama bin Laden employed a simple feint against sophisticated U.S. spy technology to vanish into the mountains that led to Pakistan and sanctuary, according to senior Moroccan officials.
A Moroccan who was one of bin Laden's longtime bodyguards took possession of the al Qaeda leader's satellite phone on the assumption that U.S. intelligence agencies were monitoring it to get a fix on their position, said the officials, who have interviewed the bodyguard, Abdallah Tabarak.
Tabarak moved away from bin Laden and his entourage as they fled; he continued to use the phone in an effort to divert the Americans and allow bin Laden to escape. Tabarak was captured at Tora Bora in possession of the phone, officials said.
"He agreed to be captured or die," a Moroccan official said of Tabarak. "That's the level of his fanaticism for bin Laden. It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough. There is a saying: 'Where there is a frog, the serpent is not far away.' "
More than a year later, Tabarak, 43, has established himself as the "emir" or camp leader of the more than 600 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to senior officials here who have visited the military compound twice to interview Moroccan citizens.
Some of the prisoners, by symbolically holding daylong fasts on the orders of Tabarak, have maintained some semblance of a command structure in defiance of U.S. attempts to isolate and break them, Moroccan officials said.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that there has been a series of one-day fasts by prisoners at the base and that a number of people have emerged as leaders among the prisoners. But they have not publicly identified Tabarak. U.S. policy is to neither confirm nor deny the presence of specific individuals being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Tabarak's authority there "comes from his proximity to bin Laden, because of the confidence Osama bin Laden had in him," said a Moroccan intelligence officer, noting that the former bodyguard outranks other senior prisoners including former leading officials in the Taliban administration. "He has charisma, and all the combatants at Guantanamo are deferential to him."
Tabarak, also known as Abu Omar, is respected even more because he helped bin Laden escape, the official said. The ploy involving the satellite phone is widely known and celebrated among the prisoners at the military prison, now called Camp Delta.
In the Tora Bora battle, U.S. B-52 bombers and attack helicopters, together with pro-Western Afghans and U.S. Special Forces troops, assaulted the high-altitude cave complexes where al Qaeda fighters had fled in November 2001. U.S. officials reported at the time that they believed bin Laden was in Tora Bora; by some accounts, his voice was heard on an intercepted radio transmission there.
Some military analysts argue that by relying heavily on Afghan allies in the battle, U.S. forces missed one of their best opportunities to capture the al Qaeda leader.
When Tabarak was detained, U.S. officials at first didn't realize exactly who they had, despite Tabarak's possession of the satellite phone, according to Moroccan officials. Unlike other captured senior officials, who were taken to secret locations for interrogation by the CIA, Tabarak was sent to Guantanamo Bay with dozens of other captives.
U.S. intelligence officials sent a mug shot of Tabarak, and numerous other captives, to cooperating intelligence agencies around the world, and the Moroccans immediately identified him, officials here said.
Tabarak's dedication to his cause has continued at Guantanamo Bay, where he has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the U.S. interrogators, insisting as he did at the time of his capture that he is a textile trader who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. "He's very solid," said the official, noting that despite his somewhat frail physique, Tabarak is disciplined and tough-minded.
U.S. and Moroccan officials have since established his role by examining the phone and interviews with other captives, including a Moroccan who moved with Tabarak as American forces approached.
Although the prisoners at Camp Delta have no single common area, they are not completely isolated from each other. They are held in rectangular cell blocks and have managed to find ways to communicate with one another, between adjacent cells or by shouting, officials said.
Moroccan officials here said 18 of their nationals were sent to Guantanamo Bay and none has been returned home.
In interviews here, Moroccan officials denied a recent Washington Post report that the United States has shipped al Qaeda fighters who refused to cooperate to Morocco, among other Arab countries, so that they could be interrogated using torture.
The Moroccan Human Rights Association charges that some of the people arrested here since Sept. 11, 2001, have been subject to torture and held for months without being brought before a court, in violation of Moroccan law. Government officials said those who were captured here after returning from Afghanistan are subject to duress, including sleep deprivation, but no physical abuse. They said they didn't believe abuse was an effective tactic.
Moroccan officials said, however, that they would like to see Tabarak returned and that they believe they could eventually compel him to cooperate. "We could play on our common culture, our religion and use his family," said an official involved in the interrogation of al Qaeda prisoners.