A Trip Inside bin Laden's Caves

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Haji Zahir is one of three local commanders intent on winning the $25 million bounty on Osama bin Laden. Accompanying Zahir's fighters on their hunt, I rummaged through what was probably the last of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. It was in the Milawa Valley section of Tora Bora, in the shadow of the majestic White Mountains. Just below it lie a series of man-made caves stuffed with arms and weapons, while above it is a ridge with more caves where bin Laden was thought to be hiding.

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Strewn across the terraced slopes that climb the valley were torn strips of Arabic training manuals, bits of a Chinese-Arabic dictionary, some shreds of clothing, a set of parallel exercise bars and a shooting target printed by the National Rifle Association. Trees blown from the earth lay with their roots twisted into clumps like charred driftwood. Bomb craters 50 ft. across and 20 ft. deep were filled with rubble and crossbeams. That the caves still existed was a wonder. They had been bombarded for days. Yet clearly anybody who had taken refuge inside the caves would have survived the sorties.

The caves weren't five-star accommodations with internal hydroelectric power plants and brick-lined walls--the kind sometimes imagined in the computer-generated images of the press. Such commodious quarters might exist higher in the White Mountains, but the ones I saw were simply rough bunkers.

Bin Laden, his wives and and 13 children first moved to this part of Afghanistan in 1996, after being thrown out of Sudan. The network of man-made caves, which the Russians had found impenetrable during their disastrous occupation of Afghanistan, was the perfect place to wage war but a rotten place to raise a family. There were no "facilities," bin Laden complained to his host, the warlord of the nearby city of Jalalabad. Bin Laden later moved into a compound in Jalalabad that had internal plumbing.

Still, the caves are a remarkable refuge. I entered my first one by walking through a narrow 20-ft. passage chiseled into a 60[degree] mountain slope--the effect was of walking through a deep cavern open to the sky. I stepped over two rows of sandbags that blocked the passage and came to a 3-ft. opening. I ducked into the mouth and dared go no farther. Not even Haji Zahir's fighters would follow, and several were making boom noises and gesturing about flying body parts. Everybody expected booby traps or mines.

After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a chamber of about 8 sq. ft., high enough for a tall man to stand. The floor was dirt and rubble, but there were signs of habitation. I saw two empty white boxes decorated with palm trees and the words "Sherjah Dates." Scattered on the floor were a few green metal boxes of ammunition with Russian writing on them. Another cave next to it was about the same size and filled with ammunition--mostly rocket-propelled grenades and bullets for Kalashnikovs.

Having taken the territory, Haji Zahir's men withdrew from the valley, leaving several of their own dead. But that night the al-Qaeda fighters sneaked back and slipped written messages into the stiff hands of the corpses. A commander named Anatullah found them a day later as his men carried the bodies out on woven beds. "We are Muslims, you are Muslims," he recalls the words on the notes. "Don't fight us. We are waiting for American troops to attack, and then you will see who wins."