Outfoxing the Fox
To catch a caveman like Osama bin Laden, who's at home in some of the earth's most remote mountains, what you really need is a great outdoorsman.
HE HAS NOT BEEN inside, officially, for almost six years. He has not let himself be seen in public since November 10, 2001, when he gave a speech at a meeting of tribal leaders in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In 2003, an Iranian source said that he had been seen arriving at a house for guests of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in a small town west of Tehran. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry vehemently denied this, calling the purported sighting “a fantasy.” Informed speculation places him farther east, in the mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These mountains are a continuation of the Himalayas, a jumbled geological crash site caused by India running into Asia. Most ways through this near-wilderness have been made only by the feet ofhumans and pack animals. Here he and his companions probably live in a cave, or caves. For security, they may move often and at night. Very likely, he has been somewhere in these mountains all or most of the time since he left his last known residence, a house outside the Afghan city of Kandahar, on September 10, 2001. Whatever else you can say about him, by now Osama bin Laden, if he’s still alive, is the ultimate outdoor guy in the world.
For the rigors of this demanding life he has been fortified by his piety and the expectation of heaven. In the past he has said that one day of fighting in Afghanistan is the equivalent of a thousand days praying in a mosque. A former bodyguard has said that bin Laden can live on nothing more than bread, dates, and water. His off-road vehicle of choice is a black Toyota Land Cruiser with dark-tinted windows. But aside from tales of his asceticism and a few incidental details, information about his outdoor existence these past six years is hard to come by. What, for example, is he doing for drinking water? Rivers in these mountains carry 20 times more water in summer than in winter because of glacial runoff; in the winter he must melt snow, but in summer, does he strain out the glacial scourings with a water filter? Everyone who’s been in Afghanistan mentions the dust. How is he keeping it out of his computers and fax machine and satellite TV system and video camera, those fragile products ofWestern technology he loves and uses skillfully in jihad? Does he carry them in Hefty bags? The wind in these mountains howls in summer as well as winter; what does he do about chapping? And for some reason, I particularly wonder what kind of boots he wears.
When I find photos of bin Laden, I go over them almost pixel by pixel looking for clues. His standard working attire is a waist-length camo jacket of green, black, and brownan out-of-place jungle color scheme, not like our own military’s desert tans. (The garment may be partly ceremonial as well as functional.) Under the jacket he wears a shalwar kameez, a knee-length traditional long shirt, off-white, slit a foot or two up from the bottom on both sides, with loose trousers of the same material. His turban is white, and one end of it drapes over his left shoulder almost to his waist; perhaps when he needs to, he wraps that trailing end across his face against the dust. In winter pictures, he has geared up for the cold with a blanket, no doubt wool, of a light reddish purple color, which is thrown around the shoulders and hangs down to below the knee.
The question of his boots remains a mystery. Most photos of him are not full length, or else he’s sitting or crouching in such a way that his feet are hidden under his robes. In a full-length photo I found, his footwear is just barely visible at the bottom. But in one of those swerves reality likes to pull, what he has on his feet appears to be carpet slippers.
They are shaggy and bright blue.
I THINK ABOUT bin Laden a lot; I’m not sure why. The habit may be a sign of mental instability. On the other hand, it’s possible that most people don’t think about him enough. One reason for my interest is that I can’t get over how someone who drinks snowmelt has shaken up the entire world.
Another reason, of less geopolitical import, is that bin Laden is six years younger than I am. I was born in 1951, he in 1957. When I was a senior in high school, he was a seventh-grader. It still gravels me that a little seventh-grader could get away with all he’s done.
As near as I can figure, bin Laden became “bin Laden” by going outdoors. That’s his secret. I believe the outdoor part of his personality is also deeply connected to Islam, which strikes me as a more “outdoor” kind of religion, but here I’m speculating with less knowledge than usual. It’s enough to say that Osama is one of about 50 bin Laden siblings and half siblings. He was the 17th son. I don’t think theories of birth order as a determinant of personality go up into the double digits, but I doubt there’s much good about being number 17. It’s a prime number, for what that’s worth.
In any event, there were and are a heck of a lot of bin Ladens. His father, Mohammed, thepatriarch, had many wives, was one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia, owned a construction company, etc. His children could travel wherever, attend Harvard and USC and other Western universities, live inEurope or the United States. The number-one son, Salem, took over the construction company after Mohammed’s death, and some years later died himself in a plane crash in or near San Antonio. Recently Osama’s own son, Omar, who is a scrap-metal dealer in Jedda, was in the gossip columns for marrying an Englishwoman 24 years his senior.
How to stand out from all these other bin Ladens? As a boy, Osama loved the camping trips in the desert that his father took the family on regularly in order to get back to the basics. Most kids hate to go camping with their dads, and as a dad myself I can see how Mohammed might have appreciated Osama’s enthusiasm. Osama rode around the desert on camels and pursued the local wildlife. Once, with the sons of Prince Fahd, a Saudi royal and friend of his father who sometimes joined in the outings, Osama caught a dhub. The dhub, a lizard with a spiky tail, can grow to three feet long. As a prank, Osama and friends then brought the dhub back to camp and surprised their fathers with it. Anyone who has ever camped out can imagine the hilarity. The important thing, it seems to me, was that Osama’s father (not to mention Prince Fahd) noticed him. If the other bin Ladens enjoyed luxury and traveling to the West, Osama preferred more extreme terrain, and would go east. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden was 22, at loose ends. He had gone to college in Jedda but hadn’t graduated. At the news of the Soviet invasion, he took off to help in the fight of the Afghan mujahedeen against the Communist occupiers. This was the single crucial moment in his life. A video clip I’ve watched a lot shows the young bin Laden walking near a hillside during the Soviet-Afghan War. He is just a kid. He has a cool, easy stride. He carries a radio and appears to be planning something; in the war he acted mostly as a financier and logistics person. If you were his parent, the quiet happiness on his face would gladden your heart. You would tell your friends, “He’s in Afghanistan, he’s getting a lot of fresh air waging jihad against the Russians, and he loves it!”
Fast-forward to bin Laden the rising international star of jihadthe year is 1996. He has been kicked out of Saudi Arabia and Sudan and is back in Afghanistan. Nothing works for him like being in the middle of nowhere. If his first stint in the wilds of Afghanistan formed him, this later one would make him a mega-personality. The mountains there remain an ungoverned, troublesome place that no empire yet has been able to hammer straight. In his aerie, bin Laden wrote a poem berating and threatening thenU.S. secretary of defense William Perry, and he signed it, “From the Peaks of the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan.” In 1996 he went all the way and formally declared war on America. Nobody paid him much mind, which must have irritated him. How often does a lone person declare war on a superpower?During this second major Afghan phase, perhaps with more time on his hands, he issued the video and audio statements that are his best known. Books of his statements translated into English arehard to find, and this is too bad, because he has said some goofy things. I’ve read many of the statements and highlighted some excerpts, such as:
We fight the governments that are bent on attacking our religion and on stealing our wealth and on hurting our feelings.
When an armed person enters a chicken’s home, it attacks, and it is only a chicken.
Death is truth and ultimate destiny, and life will end anyway. If I don’t fight you, my mother must be insane!
On Clinton’s adultery: Is there a worse kind of event for which your name will go down in history and be remembered by nations?
It is far better for anyone to kill a single American soldier than to squander his efforts on other activities.
He says that when he dies, he wants to die in battle, and he hopes his grave will be “an eagle’s belly, its resting place in the sky’s atmosphere ” After he engineered the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998, the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at a training camp where he was supposed to be; when the missiles hit he was not there. Even with the smartest missiles, finding one person hidden in almost trackless mountains is a challenge. From some further remoteness in Afghanistan he issued a “Missed me!” statement. People all over the Islamic world cheered him. The failed cruise-missile strike won him international fame.
SOMETIME BACK IN THE NINE-ties, I noticed an FBI “Wanted” poster of bin Laden hanging on the wall of the post office in North Bergen, New Jersey. I pointed it out to my friend Bill, who lives in North Bergen, and we both vowed to keep a sharp eye out for bin Laden. I memorized some of the vital statistics listed on the poster. According to the FBI, bin Laden’s complexion was “olive”; I found that improbable. It also said that he weighed 140 to 160 pounds, and his height was between six feet four and six feet six. I tried to picture that. If he was 140 and six-six, he wasn’t just skinnyhe was a bean pole! Later I wrote an article for a national magazine saying that bin Laden is so thin,if he drank tomato juice he would look like a thermometer. I put in some other “thin” jokes as well. That article was on the newsstands on September 11.
Recently, although I am semi-literate on the computer, I figured out how to use Google Earth. It provides satellite photos of any place on the planet. Sometimes when I’m wondering what bin Laden is up to today, I go to Google Earth and take a look at Afghanistan and Pakistan. I zoom in onKandahar, where he used to live, and then go up to Kabul and see what the downtown traffic congestion is like there. From Kabul I go north into the Hindu Kush Mountains, and then southeastward to Paktia province, where bin Laden supposedly fought hand to hand with a Russian during the Afghan resistance and captured an AK-47, and then I go north again to the Tora Bora hills, where bin Laden and associates escaped from American and other forces in December of ’01. Those sure are some bleak and stony and dusty mountains they’ve got in that part of the world! (As a friend of mine said back in ’02 when we were bombing that country, “We’re only making Afghanistan look more like Afghanistan!”)
The resolution in the satellite photos, unfortunately, is blurry as you get in closer. To date I have not been able to spot a single cave. Close up, the ground is just a smear of browns, greens, and shadows. Still, I get a small rush thinking that somewhere in that actual landscape, our man and his cronies may be sitting on sleeping mats on the dirt floor of a cave, drinking tea and watching CNN. When I’m done with my search, I type in the address of my house in Montclair, New Jersey, and enjoy the roller-coaster swoop as the camera backs out of the mountains, crosses a sea, then Africa, then an ocean, then approaches the East Coast, then stops above my roof. The photo is blurry, as in Afghanistan, but I know what I’m seeing well enough to note that when the satellite went over, only one of our cars was in the driveway.
On the walks I take in my neighborhood and beyond, I sometimes go up to Eagle Rock, the highest point in the vicinity. Eagle Rock affords a good view of Manhattan, about 15 miles to the southeast. At the part of the overlook directly facing the lower end of the island and the hole in the sky where the Trade Center towers used to be, local groups have put up memorials. On one of the lists I read the names of people from Montclair who died: Caleb Arron Dack, Michael L. Collins, Emeric Harvey, Scott M. Johnson, Howard L. Kestenbaum, David Lee Pruim, Michael James Stewart, and Robert M. Murach.
I did not know any of them, though Scott Johnson went to our church. Then I read the other names, perplexed and sad for them all. The thought that a man who lived in those stony, faraway mountains could put into motion a plan that would kill thousands of people here isno adjective is sufficient. Inconceivable. Reaching from there to here and striking what he aimed at wasn’t only like making a basket from the other end of the court, it was like making it from the farthest corner of the parking lot through an open window of the gymnasium.
In July, the Senate voted to increase the reward for bin Laden’s capture from $25 million to $50 million. Though that sounds like a lot, actually it’s nothing. If Edward E. Whitcre Jr., chief executive officer of AT&T, were to catch bin Laden, the reward though bring him not quite a million dollars more than he received in total compensationlast year. Kenneth D. Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, would hav eto catch bin Laden twice to just barely out-earn his ’06 net, Barry Diller of IAC/InterActiveCorp would have to bag the fugitive six times to better what Forbes listed as his ’06 net, and Steven Jobs of Apple would have to nab bin Laden a whopping 13 times, or more than once a month, to exceedwhat he received in stick options and other income during ’06. In the opinion of a biographer, Osama bin Laden “arguably has changed American society as much as, perhaps more than, any single foreigner in contemporary times.” Even if that’s an exageration, $50 million for catching Osama stacks up as small change; it makes one wonder if we really understand what’s going on.
Naturally, THE unavoidable question arises: Why is bin Laden still at large? Even setting aside geopolitical questions like the distraction of the Iraq war or the danger of destabilizing Pakistan,you would think he would have suffered a betrayal or some simple bad luck by now. (And it is said that he has heart and kidney problems, which may defeat him before his enemies do.) In October of 2001, U.S. Special Forces began arriving in Afghanistan to hunt for him. These were mostly white guys with recently grown beards (to make them blend in better and be less distinguishable for snipers), aviator sunglasses, high-tech military everything, Rolex Submariner diver’s watches, mementos from the NYPD and the FDNY, and so on. The reasons they didn’t catch him appear to have been bureaucratic obtuseness and too many cooks for the broth. In the confusion of bombing raids, undependable Afghan allies, and insufficient troop support, focus on the target= wavered.
After bin Laden was positively located in the Tora Bora hills by intercepted radio transmission in December of ’01, the bombs flew, a general called for backup, backup was denied, key Afghans apparently folded, and bin Laden got away. Predator drone aircraft searched and searched the cold mountains for him, glycol de-icer weeping from their wings. In time a Predator would find and kill one of his top associates in Waziristan; but no drone managed to scare up bin Laden.
Had the Special Forces guys come upon bin Laden, the chances of him being taken alive would have been small, given their preference for VOA (“Violence of Action”). To my perhaps naive and sheltered sensibility, catching him alive seems the coolest thing to try. Catching bin Laden alive seems like the world’s most fabulous feata task given to a hero who wants to win a princess’s hand in a fairy story, just as bin Laden himself is a figure from old-time lore, someone you could have explained to Richard the Lionheart, or Saladin. Catching him is a quest, a situation of personality against personality. The occasion does not call for numbers or bureaucracy. We had too few troops in Iraq, but in the search for bin Laden we may be using too many.
There are of course a whole lot of skilled outdoor people in America who could catch bin Laden. Military guys, hunters, mountain climbers, people who read this magazine. I can think of a few excellent candidates myself. In fact, I know just who I would pick: the Rinella brothersSteve, Matt, and Danny. (Steve has an article in this issue, on page 178.) I’ve hunted with Steve and Matt, and they’re incredible. See a deer on a ridgetop and they’re gone across the prairie like a pair of hunting hounds. Two-for-a-dollar convenience-store hot dogs and cold coffee are their usual fare; water, bread, and dates in the Afghan backcountry would be a step up for them, nutritionally. I say take everybody else off the hunt, drop the Rinella brothers in the Hindu Kush or Waziristan, and wait a while. If that doesn’t work, there’s always diplomacy.
Our problem in the so-called War on Terror, it seems to me, is that we’re not fantasizing enough. The other side is having fun with their just-crazy-enough-to-work plans and their jihad insanity. Meanwhile our job is reacting to and absorbing the terror. But we’re on the same planet they’re on. We can climb as high, endure as long, sleep as cold, live as hard. Nowadays our fantasies are played out only in preposterous action films, no more realistic than a video game. But imagine rappelling down the cliff face, swinging into the cave mouth, and somehow coming up with a prize so huge the world would remember your name permanently. The president has said he’s not that concerned about bin Ladena ridiculous assertion. I mean, there’s deathless glory to be had!
If I went after bin Laden, I think what I’d like to do first is surprise him. Maybe drop a three-foot dhub on his sleeping bag, for the sake of nostalgia; or else I’d just be waiting by the trail to the men’s room behind the cave one morning when he came by. I’d be reading a copy of Modern Romance magazine, and I’d address him in flawless Arabic, because I know he’s picky about language. (I don’t speak Arabic, so a crash course on the flight over would be required.) I’d ask him a few tough questions, such as whether the fact that killing noncombatants is unavoidable in wars makes it, as a deliberate act, acceptable. I’d finally find out what those blue slippers are he’s wearing. Then the drop net, a quick shot with a tranquilizer dart, into the support chopper, and we’re out of there.