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Life on the run with Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden may be on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, but Washington’s Enemy No. 1 leads the life of a simple man in Afghanistan, praying and studying the Koran - surrounded by a hundreds-strong personal guard. An MSNBC special report.
/ Source: contributor

Osama bin Laden, the shadowy Saudi billionaire accused of masterminding attacks on U.S. embassies and military facilities, leads the life of simple man here in Afghanistan, praying and studying the Koran - surrounded by hundreds of zealously loyal, well-armed guards. An contributor, who remains anonymous for security reasons, surveyed one of bin Laden’s hiding places. Here is his report.

TUCKED AWAY in an orchard of orange and olive trees - concealed from the ordinary passersby - is the nerve center of bin Laden’s worldwide guerrilla network, an organization that U.S. prosecutors has blamed for the deaths of hundreds, including dozens of Americans.

Sources in Afghanistan, who spoke to MSNBC on the condition that their identities would be protected, said bin Laden’s three wives and 13 children live in this complex. Bin Laden himself comes and goes without warning, trying to stay a step ahead of the constant threat of attack from U.S. and many other foreign powers his Islamic guerrilla crusade has alienated over the years.


Bin Laden’s main compound is located about a mile from Farmada, a dusty hamlet near Jalalabad. At the entrance to the village, the road climbs slightly up to a Taliban checkpoint at a small bridge. During a recent visit to the compound, members of bin Laden’s personal guard told MSNBC sources that their boss was in Jalalabad at an “undisclosed location.”

The same checkpoint controls access to bin Laden’s well-protected compound, situated on the left of the road. Access to bin Laden’s house is restricted by the Ningahar Canal, which runs along two sides of the facility.

At the compound, and when he moves from hideout to secret hideout in Afghanistan, bin Laden leads a Spartan life. According to sources who know his habits, bin Laden’s day begins just before daybreak with prayers facing Mecca. Then bin Laden moves on to a breakfast of dates, bread and honey. For lunch and dinner, he tries to avoid the greasiness of traditional Afghan dishes. Bin Laden practices martial arts and strenuously follows his prayer schedule, even when he is on the move.


Keeping on the move is a necessity for bin Laden. The U.S., after all, is merely the biggest of his enemies. Bin Laden has also allegedly supported Islamic insurgencies and assassination attempts in Algeria, Jordan, Chechnya, Tajikistan and Egypt. From India to Russia to Israel, intelligence services have good reason to track him.

InsertArt(1206470)Washington has accused bin Laden of planning the August 1998 car bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, that killed over 200 people, including 12 Americans, and injured scores more. In retaliation, the U.S. fired cruise missiles at suspected guerrilla camps in Afghanistan and a Sudanese factory suspected of producing chemical weapon elements.

The U.S. also has charged him and his associates in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, attacks on U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia and with plots to blow up airliners over the Pacific.

Since the Tomahawk missile strikes against his Afghan bases last August, though, bin Laden’s relations with the Islamic Taliban militia that rules Afghanistan have deteriorated. Once welcomed as a “guest,” he now appears to be closely watched by Taliban agents. A pariah itself, the Taliban regime is known to have talked with the U.S. about a deal involving bin Laden’s arrest in exchange for coveted diplomatic recognition last year. Though it never happened, bin Laden is now shunned by ordinary Afghans, who view his presence as one of the many curses to afflict Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion.


Taliban officials maintain that bin Laden, born into a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, has run out of funds after Washington froze his bank accounts and sources of funding. Sources close to bin Laden told MSNBC that his daily expenditures top $50,000 - a sum needed to sustain his life on the run, which includes “safe” houses, military training facilities, communications facilities and a 250-strong praetorian guard. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that sum may be overstated, but the fact remains his overhead is huge.

Bin Laden’s small inner entourage consists of cooks, “mullah” religious advisors, and a physician, Dr. Zawahiri, who is one of his most trusted and longtime companion.

Bin Laden’s personal guard is predominantly Sudanese, but also includes zealous followers of Iraqi, Saudi, Pakistani, Tunisian and Egyptian nationality. The guards are said to be loyal, highly motivated and equipped with sophisticated weaponry.

In the parking area outside the Farmada compound, several trucks housed part of the guards’ mobile arsenal - rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft cannons, assault rifles and a mounted multiple-rocket launcher. Sources close to bin Laden said he also travels with “Blowpipe” and “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles - the latter supplied by the CIA in the 1980s to bin Laden and other Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of the country. There was no way of telling whether the Stingers were operable. The CIA claims that the missiles, which require a separate battery pack to fire, are all inoperable by now.


Bin Laden maintains his own messaging network because Afghanistan lacks any semblance of communications infrastructure. Bin Laden also fears foreign governments, notably the U.S., are monitoring his conversations. For normal communications, he uses satellite phones. But when there is an urgent message, bin Laden summons messengers from among his guard. They cross into neighboring Iran, Pakistan or Turkmenistan and use a simple telephone line to transmit information.

He is in touch with his worldwide contacts on a regular basis, sources said.

Taliban leaders, seeking to distance themselves from bin Laden, maintain that the suspected terrorist is not living on Taliban-controlled territory. But several senior Taliban commanders told MSNBC that most Taliban officials are simply not privy to bin Laden’s whereabouts and where his inner sanctum meets. In order to escape notice, bin Laden and his guards travel in ubiquitous Toyota pickups flying the white Taliban militia flag. The flag is a symbol of one of the Taliban’s most dreaded squads and accords him virtual immunity at most checkpoints.

Bin Laden rarely appears in the international media. An interview recently aired on a Qatar-based satellite channel actually was recorded last year soon after U.S. cruise missiles struck near his compound in Afghanistan, sources told MSNBC.

CALLING FOR SUPPORT In that interview, bin Laden repeated his call on Muslims to attack American “targets.”

”[Americans] violate our land and occupy it and steal the Muslims’ possessions, and when faced by resistance they call it terrorism,” he said, repeating his opposition to the stationing of some 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which has revoked bin Laden’s citizenship.

At the beginning of June, the U.S. announced that it has placed bin Laden on its 10 Most Wanted List and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

During its cruise-missile retaliation against bin Laden last fall, the U.S. targeted an alleged bin Laden camp in the village of Tora Bora, a four-hour journey from Farmada by car and on foot. A recent visit to the camp, which is secreted away in caves in the surrounding hills, uncovered no signs of training or associated military activity.

Locals said that after the cruise missile attack, they complained to Taliban officials that bin Laden’s camps were a threat to their safety. The Taliban closed down the camps after the locals threatened to do it themselves if the militia did not protect them.