How Bin Laden Got Away

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An anti-Taliban fighter searches the Tora Bora caves after the December bombings

Was Osama bin Laden hiding out in the Tora Bora mountains when the U.S. bombed the cave complex last December? Yes, say "sources close to the al-Qaeda leader" — he even supposedly suffered a shrapnel wound to the shoulder during the bombing. And U.S. officials certainly believed at the time that radio communications among the al-Qaeda men defending the caves pointed to bin Laden's presence. But senior Pakistani intelligence sources tell TIME that reports of his presence in the area during the bombing were part of an elaborate hoax designed camouflage bin Laden's real whereabouts.

An officer of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), speaking on condition of anonymity, tells TIME that bin Laden was last seen on November 17, departing the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan in anticipation of the imminent collapse of the Taliban regime. The officer says bin Laden headed for the Tora Bora area in a convoy of 25 vehicles that included four trucks carrying his family members and personal belongings. He was accompanied by al-Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and other operatives, as well as by senior Taliban officials from eastern Afghanistan including Jalalabad governor Mullah Abdul Kabir.

Pakistani military intelligence believes, however, that bin Laden left Tora Bora before the U.S. began bombing al-Qaeda positions in the area. Reports about his presence in Tora Bora during the U.S. campaign there have never been confirmed, and the Pakistanis believe al-Qaeda may have deliberately created the impression that bin Laden was present in order to camouflage his move to a safer location. ISI members believe bin Laden, in fact, moved from Tora Bora to Nazian, another remote town in the lap of the White Mountains near the Pakistan border, before disappearing altogether.

As to his current whereabouts, the ISI believes bin Laden is still alive and is hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. However, its officers concede that a number of the al-Qaeda rank and file have sneaked into Pakistan and have taken refuge both in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and in some cities. Islamabad claims to have captured 378 al-Qaeda men on Pakistani soil over the past eight months, of whom 327 were delivered to U.S. custody — among them Abu Zubaida, a close aide to bin Laden.

Despite the picture of bin Laden's escape painted for TIME by ISI sources, Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf had earlier speculated that the al-Qaeda leader may have died due to kidney failure. He based his assumption on the premise that bin Laden suffered from a renal condition requiring regular dialysis treatment. President Musharraf had also, of course, earlier speculated that bin Laden may have been killed during the U.S. bombing at Tora Bora.