ESCAPE FROM AFGHANISTAN

Other Sections of the Timeline:

The Complete Timeline parts 1 and 2 (excluding Day of 9/11)
The Abridged Timeline (a good place to start)
Introduction and credits, help needed, and links
The latest update

Articles
The Two Ziad Jarrahs
Sept. 11's Smoking Gun: The Many Faces of Saeed Sheikh
Alhazmi & Almihdhar: The Hijackers Who Should Have Been Caught
They Tried to Warn Us
Is There More to the Capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed Than Meets the Eye?
An Interesting Day: George Bush Jr. on 9/11
The Failure to Defend the Skies on 9/11

Summaries

9/11 Paymaster Saeed Sheikh
9/11 Mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
ISI Director Mahmood Ahmed
Nabil al-Marabh
Would Be Hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui
Hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar
Escape from Afghanistan
Foreign Intelligence Warnings
Randy Glass

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Subdivisions
Part 1: 1979 - 2000
Part 2: Jan. 2001 - 9/11
Part 3: Day of 9/11
Part 4: 9/11 - Dec. 2001
Part 5: Jan. 2002 - present
Day of 9/11
Flight 11
Flight 175
Flight 77
Flight 93
Bush on 9/11

 

When the US originally said it would attack Afghanistan, the reason given was to capture and bring to justice the perpetrators of 9/11, and the Taliban who harbored them. The actual facts look quite different - only al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef was killed, and none captured (the Taliban's former Ambassador to Pakistan is the highest ranking captive so far from Afghanistan [Observer, 1/6/02]). Remarkably, the US missed chance after chance to capture both the leadership and rank and file fighters of these groups. Was it a string of bad luck or incompetence, or did the US not want to capture bin Laden and others?

That may sound hard to believe, but consider: if the US decisively defeated al-Qaeda and rounded up all its leaders, the war on terrorism would be over, and many other objectives that the war on terrorism help bring about, as outlined by the Bush team before 9/11, would be much more difficult to obtain. Would the US be able to win support for a war on Iraq, for instance, if the war on terrorism was considered already won?

 

September 15, 2001-April 6, 2002: On September 15, 2001, President Bush says of bin Laden: "If he thinks he can hide and run from the United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken." [Los Angeles Times, 9/16/01] Two days later, he says, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, I recall, that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'" [ABC News, 9/17/01] On December 28, 2001, a few weeks after the Afghanistan war ends, Bush says, "Our objective is more than bin Laden." [AP, 8/19/02] Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech describes Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" and fails to mention bin Laden (see January 29, 2002). On March 8, 2002, Bush still vows: "We're going to find him." [Washington Post, 10/1/02] But only a few days later on March 13, Bush says, "He's a person who's now been marginalized.... I just don't spend that much time on him.... I truly am not that concerned about him." Instead, Bush is "deeply concerned about Iraq." [White House, 3/13/02] The rhetoric shift is complete when Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Myers states on April 6: "The goal has never been to get bin Laden." [Department of Defense, 4/6/02] In October 2002, the Washington Post notes that since March 2002, Bush has avoided mentioning bin Laden's name, even when asked about him directly. Bush sometimes uses questions about bin Laden to talk about Saddam Hussein instead. In late 2001, nearly two-thirds of Americans say the war on terrorism could not be called a success without bin Laden's death or capture. That number falls to 44 percent in a March 2002 poll, and the question has since been dropped. [Washington Post, 10/1/02] Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, later points out: "There appears to be a real disconnect" between the US military's conquest of Afghanistan and "the earlier rhetoric of President Bush, which had focused on getting bin Laden." [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02]

September 17-18 and 28, 2001: On September 17, ISI Director Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed heads a six-man delegation that visits Mullah Omar in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It is reported he is trying to convince Omar to extradite bin Laden or face an immediate US attack. [Press Trust of India, 9/17/01, Financial Times, 9/18/01, London Times, 9/18/01] Also in the delegation is Lt. Gen. Mohammad Aziz Khan, an ex-ISI official who appears to be one of Saeed Sheikh's contacts in the ISI (see January 1, 2000-September 11, 2001). [Press Trust of India, 9/17/01] On September 28, Ahmed returns to Afghanistan with a group of about 10 religious leaders. He talks with Mullah Omar, who again says he will not hand over bin Laden. [AFP, 9/28/01] A senior Taliban official later claims that on these trips Mahmood in fact urges Omar not to extradite bin Laden, but instead urges him to resist the US. [AP, 2/21/02, Time, 5/6/02] Another account claims Mahmood does "nothing as the visitors [pour] praise on Omar and [fails] to raise the issue" of bin Laden's extradition. [Knight Ridder, 11/3/01] Two Pakistani brigadier generals connected to the ISI also accompany Mahmood, and advise al-Qaeda to counter the coming US attack on Afghanistan by resorting to mountain guerrilla war. The advice is not followed. [Asia Times, 9/11/02] Other ISI officers also stay in Afghanistan to advise the Taliban (see Late September-November 2001).

September 21, 2001: A secret report to NATO allies says the US privately wants to hear allied views on "post-Taliban Afghanistan after the liberation of the country." However, the US is publicly claiming it has no intentions to overthrow the Taliban. [Guardian, 9/21/01]

Late September-Early October 2001: According to a later Mirror article, leaders of Pakistan's two Islamic parties negotiate bin Laden's extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden would be held under house arrest in Peshawar and would face an international tribunal, which would decide whether to try him or hand him over to the US. According to reports in Pakistan (and the Telegraph), this plan has both bin Laden's approval and that of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. However, the plan is vetoed by Pakistan's president Musharraf who says he "could not guarantee bin Laden's safety." But it appears the US did not want the deal: a US official later says that "casting our objectives too narrowly" risked "a premature collapse of the international effort [to overthrow the Taliban] if by some lucky chance Mr. bin Laden was captured." [Mirror, 7/8/02]

October 7, 2001 (B): The US begins bombing Afghanistan. [MSNBC, 11/01] Note that shortly after 9/11 former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik claimed that in July 2001 he was told by senior US officials that a military action to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan would "take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest" (see July 21, 2001). Is it coincidence that the attacks begin exactly when the US said they would, months before 9/11?


The Afghan village of Darya
Khanah is bombed on October
27, 2001. [AP]

October 19, 2001: US Special Forces begin ground attacks in Afghanistan. [MSNBC, 11/01] However, during the Afghanistan war, US ground soldiers are mainly employed as observers, liaisons, and spotters for air power to assist the Northern Alliance - not as direct combatants. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02]

Early November 2001: It is later reported that many locals in Afghanistan witness a remarkable escape of al-Qaeda forces from Kabul around this time. One local businessman says: "We don't understand how they weren't all killed the night before because they came in a convoy of at least 1,000 cars and trucks. It was a very dark night, but it must have been easy for the American pilots to see the headlights. The main road was jammed from eight in the evening until three in the morning." This convoy was thought to have contained al-Qaeda's top officials. [London Times, 7/22/02] With all of the satellite imagery and intense focus on the Kabul area at the time, how could such a force have escaped the city unobserved by the US?

Early November 2001 (B): Starting in late October, US intelligence reports begin noting that al-Qaeda fighters and leaders are moving into and around the Afghanistan city of Jalalabad. By early November, bin Laden is there. Knight-Ridder newspapers report: "American intelligence analysts concluded that bin Laden and his retreating fighters were preparing to flee across the border. But the US Central Command, which was running the war, made no move to block their escape. 'It was obvious from at least early November that this area was to be the base for an exodus into Pakistan,' said one intelligence official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. 'All of this was known, and frankly we were amazed that nothing was done to prepare for it.'" The vast majority of leaders and fighters are eventually able to escape into Pakistan. [Knight-Ridder, 10/20/02]

November 9, 2001: The Taliban abandon the strategic northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, allowing the Northern Alliance to take control. [AP, 8/19/02] The rest of Northern Afghanistan is abandoned by the Taliban in the next few days, except the city of Kunduz, to which most of the Taliban flee. Kunduz falls on November 25, but not before most of the thousands of fighters there are airlifted out (see Mid-November-November 25, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/21/02]

November 13, 2001: Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, falls to the Northern Alliance. The Taliban abandon the rest of the country over the next few weeks. [BBC, 11/13/01] As the New Yorker reports, "The initial American aim in Afghanistan had been not to eliminate the Taliban's presence there entirely but to undermine the regime and al-Qaeda while leaving intact so-called moderate Taliban elements that would play a role in a new postwar government. This would insure that Pakistan would not end up with a regime on its border dominated by the Northern Alliance." The surprisingly quick fall of Kabul ruins this plan. [New Yorker, 1/21/02]

November 14, 2001: The Northern Alliance capture the Afghan city of Jalalabad. [Sydney Morning Herald, 11/14/01] That night, a convoy of 1,000 or more al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters escape from Jalalabad and reach the fortress of Tora Bora after hours of driving and then walking. Bin Laden is believed to be with them, riding in one of "several hundred cars" in the convoy. The US bombs the nearby Jalalabad airport, but apparently not the convoy. [Knight-Ridder, 10/20/02, Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02] As with an earlier convoy (see Early November 2001), how could the US not notice this target, especially given intense focus in the area at the time?


Mohammed Atef [Al Jazeera]

November 15, 2001 (B): Al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef is believed to have been killed in a US bombing raid on Afghanistan. Atef is considered al-Qaeda's military commander, and one of its top leaders. [State Department, 11/16/01, ABC News, 11/17/01] He is apparently the only top level al-Qaeda or Taliban leader killed or captured in the Afghan war.

Mid-November 2001: Ismail Khan, governor of Herat province and one of Afghanistan's most successful militia leaders, later claims that his troops and other Northern Alliance fighters held back at the request of the US from sweeping into Kandahar at this time. The reasoning was that the US didn't want the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance to conquer Pashtun areas. But Khan maintains "we could have captured all the Taliban and the al-Qaeda groups. We could have arrested Osama bin Laden with all of his supporters." [USA Today, 1/2/02] British newspapers at the time report bin Laden is surrounded in a 30-mile area, but the conquest of Kandahar takes weeks without the Northern Alliance and bin Laden slips away. [CNN, 11/18/01] Did the US not want the Northern Alliance to conquer this area in the hopes that a moderate version of the Taliban could remain in power (see November 13, 2001)?

Mid-November-November 25, 2001: At the request of the Pakistani government, the US secretly allows rescue flights into the besieged Taliban stronghold of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan to save Pakistanis fighting for the Taliban and bring them back to Pakistan. [Independent, 11/26/01] Pakistan's President "Musharraf won American support for the airlift by warning that the humiliation of losing hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of Pakistani Army men and intelligence operatives would jeopardize his political survival." The flights are denied by the US and generally ignored in the US media. [New Yorker, 1/21/02] For instance, on November 16, when asked about rumors of planes escaping Kunduz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says, "Well, if we see them, we shoot them down." [State Department, 11/16/01] Pakistan denies that there were any Pakistani military in Afghanistan at all. But New Yorker magazine reports, "What was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus." A CIA analyst says, "many of the people they spirited away were in the Taliban leadership" who Pakistan wanted for future political negotiations. US intelligence was "supposed to have access to them, but it didn't happen," he says. According to Indian intelligence, airlifts grow particularly intense in the last three days before the city falls on November 25. Of the 8,000 remaining al-Qaeda, Pakistani and Taliban, about 5,000 are airlifted out and 3,000 surrender. [New Yorker, 1/21/02] Letting the Pakistanis go is surprising enough. Was the rest really an accident or deliberate so the war against terrorism didn't end too soon?

November 16, 2001 (B): According to Newsweek, approximately 600 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters escape Afghanistan on this day. Many senior leaders are in the group. They had walked a long trek from bombing in the Tora Bora region. There are two main routes out of the Tora Bora cave complex to Pakistan. The US bombed only one route, so the 600 escaped unattacked using the other route. Hundreds continue to use the escape route for weeks, generally unbothered by US bombing or Pakistani border guards (see Early December 2001). US officials later privately admit they lost a golden opportunity to close a trap. [Newsweek, 8/11/02] On the same day, the media reports that the US is studying routes bin Laden might use to escape Tora Bora [Los Angeles Times, 11/16/01], but the one escape route isn't closed, and apparently bin Laden and others escape into Pakistan using this route weeks later (see Early December 2001). High-ranking British officers will later privately complain that "American commanders had vetoed a proposal to guard the high-altitude trails, arguing that the risks of a firefight, in deep snow, gusting winds and low-slung clouds, were too high." [New York Times, 9/30/02]

November 25, 2001: US troops land near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Afghanistan. [AP, 8/19/02] Apparently, as the noose tightens around Kandahar, new Afghanistan head Hamid Karzai makes a deal with the Taliban, giving them a general amnesty in return for surrender of the city. Taliban's leader Mullah Omar is allowed to escape "with dignity" as part of the deal. But the US says it won't abide by the deal and Karzai then says he won't let Omar go free after all. Taliban forces begin surrendering on December 7. [Sydney Morning Herald, 12/8/01] But Omar does escape.

November 25, 2001 (B): It is believed bin Laden makes a speech before a crowd of about 1,000 followers in the village of Milawa, Afghanistan. This village is on the route from Tora Bora to the Pakistani border, about eight to 10 hours by walking. In his last known public appearance, bin Laden encourages the followers to leave Afghanistan, so they could regroup and fight again. [Knight-Ridder, 10/20/02] It is believed he leaves the country a few days later (see Early December 2001). [Telegraph, 2/23/02]


The Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.
[Washington Post]

November 28, 2001: A US Special Forces soldier stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina later (anonymously) claims that the US has bin Laden pinned in a certain Tora Bora cave on this day, but fails to act. Special Forces soldiers sit by waiting for orders and watch two helicopters fly into the area where bin Laden was believed to be, load up passengers, and fly toward Pakistan. No other soldiers have come forward to corroborate the story, but bin Laden is widely believed to have been in the Tora Bora area at the time. [Fayetteville Observer, 8/2/02] Newsweek separately reports that many locals "claim that mysterious black helicopters swept in, flying low over the mountains at night, and scooped up al-Qaeda's top leaders." [Newsweek, 8/11/02] More incompetence, or a pattern of letting bin Laden escape? Perhaps just coincidentally, on the same day this story is reported, the media also reports a recent spate of strange deaths at the same military base in Fayetteville. Five soldiers and their wives have all died since June 2002 in apparent murder-suicides. At least three were Special Forces soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan. [Independent, 8/2/02] Could it be these soldiers knew too much about escapes and/or human rights atrocities?


Ayman al-Zawahiri [Al Jazeera]

Early December 2001: The Telegraph later reports on the battle for Tora Bora around this time: "In retrospect, and with the benefit of dozens of accounts from the participants, the battle for Tora Bora looks more like a grand charade." Eyewitnesses express shock that the US pinned in Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, thought to contain many high leaders, on three sides only, leaving the route to Pakistan open. An intelligence chief in Afghanistan's new government says: "The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it. And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters had the Americans acted decisively. Al-Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet." [Telegraph, 2/23/02] It is believed up to 2,000 were in the area when the battle began. The vast majority successfully flee, and only 21 al-Qaeda fighters are captured in the end. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02] The US relies on local forces "whose loyalty and enthusiasm were suspect from the start" to do most of the fighting. [Knight-Ridder, 10/20/02] Some of the local commanders drafted to help the US had ties to bin Laden going back to the 1980s. [New York Times, 9/30/02] These forces actually help al-Qaeda escape. An Afghan intelligence officer says he is astounded that Pentagon planners didn't consider the most obvious exit routes and put down light US infantry to block them. It is later widely believed that bin Laden escapes along one of these routes on November 30 or December 1, walking out with about four loyal followers. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02, Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02] Al-Qaeda's number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also escapes the area. [Knight-Ridder, 10/20/02] Is this part of a pattern of incompetence, or did the US want bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders to escape?

December 17, 2001: Northern Alliance forces declare that the battle of Tora Bora, with a ground assault begun on December 5, has been won. However, in retrospect, the battle is considered a failure because most of the enemy escapes (see Early December 2001). The Afghan war ends with the elimination of the last major pocket of Taliban/al-Qaeda resistance. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/02]

December 24, 2001: The Guardian reports many in Afghanistan intelligence say former top Taliban officials are living openly in villas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At least four top leaders who had been caught have been simply released. One intelligence source claims to know the exact location of many, and says they could be rounded up within hours. A former Taliban minister now working with the Northern Alliance also claims, "Some are living in luxury in fine houses, they are not hiding in holes. They could be in jail by tonight if the political will existed." The US claims it is working hard to find and catch these leaders. [Guardian, 12/24/01] Yet even a year later no more leaders have been caught in Afghanistan.

December 30, 2001: The new Afghan Interior Minister Younis Qanooni claims that the ISI helped bin Laden escape from Afghanistan: "Undoubtedly they (ISI) knew what was going on." He claims that the ISI is still supporting bin Laden even if Pakistani president Musharraf isn't. [BBC, 12/30/01]

January 6, 2002: The US locates former Taliban head Mullah Omar and 1,500 of his soldiers in the remote village of Baghran, Afghanistan. After a six-day siege and surrounded by US helicopters and troops, Omar and four bodyguards supposedly escape the dragnet in a daring chase on motorcycles over dirt roads. His soldiers are also set free in return for giving up their weapons, in a deal brokered by local leaders. Yet it remains unclear if Omar was ever in the village in the first place. [Observer, 1/6/02]

April 17, 2002: The Washington Post reports that, "The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and that failure to commit US ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al-Qaeda," allowing bin Laden to escape. The newspaper claims that while the administration has failed to acknowledge the mistake publicly, "inside the government there is little controversy on the subject." [Washington Post, 4/17/02] The next day, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld denies this, and states he didn't know at the time of the assault, "nor do I know today of any evidence that he was in Tora Bora at the time or that he left Tora Bora at the time or even where he is today" (see Early December 2001). [USA Today, 4/18/02]

Late July 2002: US Special Forces apprehend Mullah Akhter Mohammed Osmani, a top general and one of the six most-wanted Taliban, in Kandahar. He is flown to a detention center north of Kabul for interrogation, but is released a few weeks later and escapes to Pakistan. Contradicting the statements of many soldiers in Kandahar, the Defense Intelligence Agency says it "has no knowledge that Mullah Akhter Mohammed Osmani was ever in US custody in Afghanistan. Given Osmani's high profile and our interest in detaining him, misidentification by experienced personnel is unlikely." [Washington Times, 12/18/02] The incident is one of many examples of the US failing to capture top al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan (see Early November 2001, Mid-November-November 25, 2001, November 16, 2001, November 28, 2001, and Early December 2001).


The real Mullah Omar on the left, and Mulvi Hafizullah on the right. Note Omar is blind in one eye and Hafizullah is not.

October 6, 2002: Newsweek reports that the US has dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets across Afghanistan offering $25 million for the capture of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and bin Laden. However, the picture of Omar is actually that of an Afghan villager named Mulvi Hafizullah, who is now afraid to leave his house for fear of being killed for the reward money. [Newsweek, 10/6/02]

December 9, 2002: US commanders have rejected as too risky many special operations missions to attack Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. After Army Green Beret A-Teams received good intelligence on the whereabouts of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, commanders turned down the missions as too dangerous. Soldiers traced the timidity to an incident in June 2002 called Operation Full Throttle, which resulted in the death of 34 civilians. [Washington Times, 12/9/02]