US military commanders were told that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in early December 2001 but failed to send troops to block his escape, according to a new account by the CIA officer who ran the agency’s operations in the country.
Gary Berntsen, a CIA veteran who headed a paramilitary team called “Jawbreaker” during the Afghan war, said in a book published last week that one of his Arabic-speaking operatives found a radio on a dead al-Qaeda fighter during the Tora Bora battle and heard the terrorist leader repeatedly try to rally his troops.
“After the Spectre [gunship aircraft] cleared the area, Bilal heard a voice he recognised from dozens of tape recordings,” Mr Berntsen wrote, using a pseudonym for an Arab-American former Marine who was part of the CIA team. “It was Osama bin Laden telling his troops to keep fighting.”
Later on the same captured radio, “Bilal” and a second CIA agent, another American of Middle Eastern origin, reported hearing Mr bin Laden apologising for getting his men trapped in the mountains and killed in large numbers by American bombing, Mr Berntsen wrote. The book, titled Jawbreaker, was heavily edited by CIA censors.
Mr Berntsen also wrote that on the recommendation of a former Special Forces officer who was part of his team as a CIA contractor, he made a formal request for 800 US army Rangers to be deployed along the Pakistani border to prevent Mr bin Laden’s escape, a request that was never granted.
The issue of whether senior US commanders failed to capture Mr bin Laden at Tora Bora because of an over-reliance on unreliable Afghan warlords became an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign when Democratic challenger John Kerry accused the Bush administration of allowing the al-Qaeda leader to escape by not sending American troops to the battlefield.
At the time, retired general Tommy Franks, the former head of US Central Command who ran the Afghan campaign, denied that the military knew of Mr bin Laden’s presence and accused Mr Kerry of relying on “distortions of history”.
“We do not know to this day whether Mr bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001,” Gen Franks wrote in the New York Times during the presidential race. “Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr bin Laden was never within our grasp.”
Mr Berntsen disputes this account, saying he told senior commanders of Mr bin Laden’s presence and arguing that Afghan allies who had militia fighters in the region allowed Mr bin Laden to escape with about 200 Saudi and Yemeni fighters into Pakistan.
“He was either badly misinformed by his own people or blinded by the fog of war,” Mr Berntsen wrote of Gen Franks’s claims and his insistence that Afghan militia were up to the task. “I’d made it clear in my reports that our Afghan allies were hardly anxious to get at al-Qaeda in Tora Bora.”
Media reports have cited accounts of Mr bin Laden’s presence at Tora Bora, but Mr Berntsen is the highest-ranking former official to publicly confirm that senior US commanders had been told the al-Qaeda leader was there during the battle.