A different sort of search requires a new set of tactics

Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.

Chapter 1: Cash in a Rubbermaid tub

Less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. bombers began hitting Afghanistan, hoping to bring down the Taliban government for giving al-Qaeda sanctuary. On the ground, the hunt for bin Laden was also underway. A few dozen U.S. paramilitary troops, dressed as Afghans in beards and loose robes and accompanied by hired Afghan fighters, took up the chase.

The American presence at first was thin, and expertise was scarce. The CIA had had a team tracking bin Laden from back home at Langley since 1996, but now it scrambled to find officers who knew Afghanistan and could deploy immediately. Only about a dozen agency people were working in the country on Sept. 11, according to a former senior intelligence official who helped set up agency outposts there.

The first job was to identify tribal leaders and meet with them, always bringing gifts. "The message was 'We're your friends,' " said the senior intelligence official. "We're everyone's friends. But whoever hosts us is in line to get American money."

This account of the hunt is based on interviews with more than 20 senior political, military and intelligence officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss operations.

CIA field commander Berntsen, who led a team charged with finding bin Laden, worked out of a Kabul guesthouse, fueling the hunt with several million dollars in cash that he kept stowed in a Rubbermaid tub. From that makeshift bank, he distributed payoffs in the thousands of dollars to informants in tribal villages where bin Laden sightings had been reported.


ARCHIVE: Bush announces Afghanistan bombing (2001)

"I must have gotten eight reports at the time, saying he's in this village here or that village there," said Berntsen, who had investigated al-Qaeda's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "He was stopping and giving speeches."

Intelligence analysts would later learn where bin Laden was in the first weeks after the attack, mainly through interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives held at CIA "black sites" overseas and at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the Americans had no idea that bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were on the move, traveling through Afghanistan by car, meeting frequently with followers and Taliban leaders. According to classified U.S. military documents obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, based on interviews with detainees, bin Laden held court at a secret guesthouse in or near Kabul.

Acting like an exiled head of state, he received terrorist operatives from Afghanistan, Malaysia and elsewhere, and met with leaders such as the Taliban's Jalaluddin Haqqani. He issued instructions for campaigns against Western targets, lectured on Islam and history, and sent out a video boasting about how pleasantly surprised he was that the attacks had claimed so many American lives.

In early October, Yunis Khalis, an elderly Afghan warrior who controlled a swath of territory in the country's east, including the regional capital of Jalalabad and the nearby cave complex at Tora Bora, sent a message to bin Laden telling him he could provide sanctuary for the al-Qaeda leader.

Bin Laden had friends and followers all along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Even before the founding of al-Qaeda in 1988, bin Laden had spent years in the area, developing relationships with tribal and religious leaders, many of whom he worked with side by side in the Afghan mujaheddin's 1980s battles against the Soviet Union.

I want justice

Khalis and bin Laden had known each other since those days, when Khalis, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance, had received tens of millions of dollars in guns and money from the CIA. He later introduced bin Laden to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. After the United States began to bomb Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Khalis, then 82, called for jihad against the Americans.

Taking advantage of Khalis's hospitality, bin Laden arrived in Jalalabad just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks and immediately began to spread cash among local tribes, either directly or through trusted intermediaries.

When the bombing around Jalalabad intensified, bin Laden fled into the fortified caves of Tora Bora, about 35 miles south of the regional capital. Bin Laden knew the territory; as a young man, he had driven bulldozers there as Afghan resistance fighters excavated miles of tunnels.

In late November, probably within days after bin Laden had arrived in the area, Berntsen's team tracked him to a mountainous area called Milawa, just below the peaks of Tora Bora. Berntsen's men called in airstrikes - a barrage from B-52s, F-15s and plenty more - that lasted nearly 60 hours.

"Our guys were exhausted; they had been hammering Osama for days," Berntsen said. "Finally, bin Laden fled deeper into the mountains."

Berntsen, who was back in Kabul, summoned several members of his team to tell him what they would need to take down bin Laden now that they thought they knew where he was. The response: "We need 800 Army Rangers between bin Laden and the border."

Berntsen wrote to his superiors, begging for troops. His pleas went unanswered, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Tora Bora. Without more manpower, Berntsen couldn't risk a ground assault.

Still, the Americans tried to stay close to bin Laden. Berntsen's deputy, a CIA paramilitary officer, recruited an Afghan to trek into the mountains and offer bin Laden and his followers food and water, then report back on the terrorist's location.

"The guy saw bin Laden and his son," Berntsen said. "When you're desperate, you're desperate. And when you don't have food and water, you'll take it."

As the United States carpet-bombed the cave complex, bin Laden and Zawahiri urged their fighters to carry on against the Americans. In the bitter cold of the caves, bin Laden sipped mint tea. He heard pleas from his fighters for medicine and, with ever-greater urgency, escape routes.

A videotape later obtained by the CIA shows bin Laden in that period, teaching followers how to dig holes where they could spend the night without being seen by U.S. spy planes. As bin Laden speaks, a U.S. bomb explodes in the background. The terrorist casually notes that "we were there last night."

VIDEO EDITING AND SHOOTING: Alexandra Garcia and Ben de la Cruz
WRITING AND REPORTING: Marc Fisher, Ian Shapira and Peter Finn
PHOTO RESEARCH: Dee Swann and Nick Kirkpatrick
VIDEO RESEARCH: Akira Hakuta, Jayne Orenstein, Tucker Walsh, Jason Aldag and Jonathan Forsythe
CARTOGRAPHY: Laris Karklis and Gene Thorp
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Steven King and Cory Haik
PHOTO CREDITS: AFP, The Associated Press, Getty Images, Linda Davidson for the Washington Post, The White House

Your Reactions

word cloud

Cast Your Vote