WASHINGTON — A commander for Osama bin Laden during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union who helped the al-Qaida leader escape American forces at Tora Bora is being held by U.S. authorities, a government document says.
The document represents the first definitive statement from the Pentagon that bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was at Tora Bora and evaded his pursuers.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney asserted during the presidential election that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora when U.S. and allied Afghan forces attacked there in December 2001. They dismissed assertions by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, that the military had missed a chance to capture or kill bin Laden while al-Qaida made a last stand in the mountainous area along the Pakistan border.
'Assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden'
The document, provided to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information request, says the detainee held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora.” While not identified by name or nationality, he is described as being “associated with” al-Qaida and having called for a holy war against the United States.
In an indication that he might be a higher-level operative, the document says the detainee “had bodyguards” and collaborated with regional al-Qaida leadership. “The detainee was one of Osama bin Laden’s commanders during the Soviet jihad,” it says, referring to the holy war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
The document is what the Pentagon calls a “summary of evidence” and was presented against one of 558 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay on Dec. 14 for a hearing to determine whether the prisoner was correctly held as an “enemy combatant.” The assertion about his efforts and bin Laden’s escape is made as a statement of fact; it does not indicate how the information was obtained.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daryl Borgquist, a spokesman for the Combatant Status Review Board for which the document was prepared, said Tuesday he could not elaborate on the Tora Bora statement, or its sources, because the statement was derived from classified information.
In mid-December 2001, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, told reporters there had been “indicators” of bin Laden’s presence at Tora Bora in early December. “And now indicators are not there,” Stufflebeem said. “So maybe he still is there, maybe he was killed, or maybe he’s left.”
A political issue
While campaigning for president last fall, Kerry said Bush had erred in relying on Afghan warlords to hunt down bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in December 2001, contending on Oct. 22 that the president had “outsourced” the job.
Cheney said Oct. 26 that Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, had “stated repeatedly it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora. He might have been there or in Pakistan or even Kashmir,” the Indian-controlled Himalayan region.
Franks, now retired, wrote in an opinion column in The New York Times on Oct. 19, “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001.” He added that intelligence assessments of his location varied, but bin Laden was “never within our grasp.”
On several occasions Bush cited the column as evidence that bin Laden could have been in any of several countries in December 2001. “That’s what Tommy Franks, who knew what he’s talking about, said,” Bush said on Oct. 27.
Bin Laden remains at large. For many months, officials have said they believe he probably is hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Last week Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to endorse that view, saying bin Laden’s whereabouts are unknown.
Another suspect allegedly left U.S. after 9/11
Among documents stating the U.S. government’s evidence against other detainees at Guantanamo Bay is a September 2004 assertion that an unidentified detainee, described as a member of al-Qaida, had traveled from the United States to Afghanistan in November 2001 — two months after the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The document does not elaborate on the detainee’s U.S. connection but says he arrived in Afghanistan via Bahrain and Iran. He was “present at Tora Bora,” crossed the Afghan border into Pakistan in December 2001, and surrendered to Pakistani authorities, the document says.
The detainee also was arrested by Saudi authorities for questioning in the 1996 terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 members of the U.S. Air Force, the document says.
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