Rumors Of Bin Laden's Lair

Gray-bearded and almost toothless, Khan Kaka lives in a mud house with a weather-beaten pine door beside a little plot of corn and vegetables. But to his neighbors in this corner of Afghanistan's remote Kunar province, the gangling, tobacco-chewing old man is one of the most respected figures in the Pech River valley. It's all about connections: since 1996 Kaka's son-in-law, an Algerian named Abu Hamza al Jazeeri, has been a special bodyguard to the man Kaka calls loar sheik--"big chief"--Osama bin Laden.

Every two months or so, al Jazeeri comes down from the mountains to visit his wife and three sons, who live with Kaka. "He appears and disappears like lightning," Kaka says. "I never know when he's coming or going." The old man and his neighbors listen eagerly to the latest news from the Qaeda leader's hideout. On a visit in January al Jazeeri reported that one of bin Laden's daughters-in-law had recently died in childbirth, and that bin Laden spoke at her funeral, blaming America for her death. Only a few dozen mourners could attend, not the thousands who would ordinarily pay their last respects. Bin Laden blamed America for that, too. "I had enough riches to enjoy myself like an Arab sheik," bin Laden said, according to al Jazeeri's account. "But I decided to fight against those infidel forces that want to sever us from our Islamic roots. For that cause, Arabs, Taliban and my family have been martyred." Kaka and his neighbors have memorized the eulogy. Asked where bin Laden is now, Kaka grins and waves without a word toward the 12,000-foot peaks surrounding the valley: up there.

No one seems to have a better answer. Two years after the September 11 attacks, the world's Most Wanted terrorist remains free. "We don't know where he is," says U.S. Army Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for America's forces in Afghanistan. "And frankly, it's not about him. We'll continue to focus on killing, capturing and denying sanctuary to any anti-Coalition forces, whether they are influenced by bin Laden or not." Some U.S. officials speculate that life on the run has made it impossible for bin Laden to communicate with his followers, effectively turning him into a figurehead. "Bin Laden's operational role is not as important as it was to Al Qaeda and the Taliban," says a senior U.S. diplomat in Kabul. "But symbolically he is still very important."

He's more than that, according to senior Taliban officials contacted by NEWSWEEK in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They say bin Laden remains directly engaged as a strategist and financier for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and related groups. In April, shortly after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the Qaeda leader convened the biggest terror summit since September 11 at a mountain stronghold in Afghanistan. The participants included three top-ranking representatives from the Taliban, several senior Qaeda operatives and leaders from radical Islamic groups in Chechnya and Uzbekistan, according to a former Taliban deputy foreign minister. He got the details from a Taliban colleague who was there. Bin Laden, in a fiery mood, appointed one of his most trusted lieutenants, Saif al-Adil, to be Al Qaeda's chief of operations in Iraq. The leader handed the Egyptian-born al-Adel a letter of introduction, asking all religious leaders, businessmen and mujahedin to give him any support possible. Al-Adel left Afghanistan immediately. A few weeks later he was reported to be in neighboring Iran, where he is said to be under house arrest. The Taliban official nevertheless insists, contrary to American intelligence assessments, that al-Adel made it to Iraq and is organizing anti-U.S. operations.

At the same meeting bin Laden said he was working on "serious projects," another ranking Taliban source tells NEWSWEEK. "His priority is to use biological weapons," says the source, who claims that Al Qaeda already has such weapons. The question is only how to transport and launch them, he asserts. The source insists he doesn't know any further details but brags: "Osama's next step will be unbelievable." The plan was reportedly delayed and revised after the March capture of Al Qaeda's operations chief, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. U.S. intelligence officials say no one disputes bin Laden's interest in germ warfare. Nevertheless, they argue, his main priority is to kill Americans by any means readily at hand--and most bioweapons are harder to get and use than many of the alternatives.

No one but bin Laden himself knows exactly what he's planning. So where is he? "Up there," says Pashtun Momand, the police major in charge of Kunar province's counterterrorism office. He's pointing at the thickly forested mountains east of the tiny provincial capital. A few people deny that bin Laden is living there. The province's governor, Said Fazel Akbar, insists that U.S. and Afghan forces are in hot pursuit. "He may come to Kunar," Akbar says, "but he can't stay for long." His opinion is not widely held.

Bin Laden seems to be in good health, according to both the former Taliban deputy foreign minister and an Afghan named Haroon, who claims to have visited the Qaeda leader in June. Three of bin Laden's sons are said to be with him, sworn to kill their father rather than let him be captured alive. Two of his wives are said to be living nearby in the mountains, but not with him; he visits them when security allows. Taliban sources say the Qaeda leader communicates with his friends and followers via handwritten letters and computer disks delivered by relays of messengers. Each carrier knows only where to find the next link in the chain. The system is slow, but it keeps the Americans from using electronic intercepts to find him.

Bin Laden could hardly ask for a better hiding place. Even some American officials agree that Kunar is a likely refuge. The sparsely populated province isn't big--less than two thirds the land area of Connecticut--but it offers more comfort and protection for bin Laden than any other part of Afghanistan. "There is no effective central government control in the mountains beyond the capital," says Kunar's chief of police, Col. Abdul Saffa Momand (no relation to the major). The mountain roads are almost impassable; his men have no radios, and their families barely survive on their monthly salary of $14--when the paychecks come at all. "A soldier on patrol at night is risking his life for nothing," the colonel says. "It's impossible to access the areas where Al Qaeda is hiding," he adds. "Even from a helicopter you only see mountains, rocks and trees." Unlike the desert ranges that are typical in Afghanistan, Kunar's mountains are covered with evergreens and shrubs, and the terrain is crisscrossed with smugglers' trails leading over the border into Pakistan.

Kunar's population is, likewise, congenial to bin Laden. In recent decades the province has become home to more than a thousand Arab men, many of whom--like bin Laden's bodyguard al Jazeeri--have intermarried with local Afghans, gaining strong family ties in the region. At the height of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, the CIA effectively ceded Kunar to the Arab volunteers who were pouring in to join the mujahedin. "We preferred that they operate in their own fief, and out of our way," says Edmund McWilliams, a retired State Department officer and Congress's special representative to the mujahedin during the late 1980s. In the last two years the mujahedin veterans have been joined by hundreds of Qaeda members and supporters uprooted from other parts of Afghanistan.

Bin Laden and his followers are living in relative comfort, officials in Kunar believe. Some may be huddled in the caves that honeycomb the mountains, but Major Momand's intelligence sources say others live openly in stone and mud houses built against the steep slopes, hidden by the trees and underbrush. Many of the dwellings have been renovated in the last two years. The Arabs share the mountains with Afghan nomads whose flocks of sheep and goats graze there. Shali Khan, together with his wife and two children, tends a herd of 150 sheep and goats, and often encounters columns of heavily armed Arabs traveling on horseback or on foot. He says he's glad to see them. "These Arabs are good people fighting the jihad," says Khan, who takes evident pride in his pointed mustache, despite his tattered clothes and mended sandals. "They pay me well for my animals and milk."

Bin Laden apparently feels safe enough to receive visitors--with precautions. In May an Afghan named Haroon asked permission to see the Qaeda leader. The young man is active in the Taliban's anti-U.S. resistance, and he had guided bin Laden from the besieged cave complex at Tora Bora to safety in the Shahikot Valley during the U.S. bombing in late 2001 ("How Al Qaeda Slipped Away," Aug. 19, 2002). The month after sending his request, Haroon got a message directing him to a place in the mountains north of his home in Paktia province. From there, he was taken higher into the mountains by a series of guides, each one greeting the next with a whispered password. After three days he was turned over to a group of Arabs. They strip-searched him, placed his ring, watch and shoes in a bag and closely inspected the buttons on his shirt.

He spent the night barefoot in a nearby cave. At sunrise two armed Arabs, their faces covered by scarves, escorted him to an old mud-and-rock house and told him to sit there and wait. Haroon says he felt afraid. Suddenly bin Laden arrived and spoke in Arabic, slowly and quietly, urging the young man to keep fighting. "The deserts of Afghanistan are being irrigated with the blood of mujahedin," he told Haroon. "But the jihad will never dry up." After about 15 minutes the visit ended. "Please don't try to see me again," bin Laden said.

Will he ever be caught? For more than a year, Afghanistan has been sinking deeper into poverty, chaos and despair while the White House focuses on Iraq. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have not wasted the chance to regroup. Now the administration is promising to double Afghanistan's reconstruction aid to $1.8 billion. Even loyal Republicans fear that it's not nearly enough. They know what happened the last time America ignored Afghanistan. The anniversary is next week.