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Context of 'Mid-December 2001: Videotape Shows Bin Laden Heading into Pakistan'

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Gary Bernsten.Gary Bernsten. [Source: CNN]Veteran CIA agent Gary Berntsen leads a CIA undercover team, codenamed Jawbreaker, to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan (see September 26, 2001). In a 2005 book, also called Jawbreaker, Berntsen will describe how his team monitored multiple intelligence reports tracking bin Laden on a path through Jalalabad to Tora Bora (see November 13, 2001). He will claim that at the start of December 2001, one of his Arabic-speaking CIA agents finds a radio on a dead al-Qaeda fighter during a battle in the Tora Bora region. This agent hears bin Laden repeatedly attempt to rally his troops. On the same radio, that agent and another CIA agent who speaks Arabic hear bin Laden apologizing to his troops for getting them trapped and killed by US aerial bombing. Based on this information, Berntsen makes a formal request for 800 US troops to be deployed along the Pakistani border to prevent bin Laden’s escape. The request is not granted. Berntsen’s lawyer later claims, “Gary coordinated most of the boots on the ground. We knew where bin Laden was within a very circumscribed area. It was full of caves and tunnels but we could have bombed them or searched them one by one. The Pentagon failed to deploy sufficient troops to seal them off.” Although the area is heavily bombed, bin Laden is able to escape (see Mid-December 2001). [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 43-64; London Times, 8/14/2005; MSNBC, 12/29/2005; Financial Times, 1/3/2006] A Knight Ridder investigative report will later conclude, “While more than 1,200 US Marines [sit] at an abandoned air base in the desert 80 miles away, Franks and other commanders [rely] on three Afghan warlords and a small number of American, British, and Australian special forces to stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping across the mountains into Pakistan.” Military and intelligence officials warn Franks that the two main Afghan commanders cannot be trusted. This turns out to be correct, as the warlords accept bribes from al-Qaeda leaders to let them escape. [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] In 2005, Berntsen will call himself a supporter of Bush and will say he approves of how CIA Director Porter Goss is running the CIA, but he will nonetheless sue the CIA for what he claims is excessive censorship of his book. [London Times, 8/14/2005; MSNBC, 12/29/2005]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Gary Berntsen, Al-Qaeda, Central Intelligence Agency, Thomas Franks

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Radios, weapons, and simple supplies in a Tora Bora cave allegedly occupied by al-Qaeda forces. Radios, weapons, and simple supplies in a Tora Bora cave allegedly occupied by al-Qaeda forces. [Source: Confidential source via Robin Moore]According to author Ron Suskind, the CIA continues to press President Bush to send US troops to surround the caves in Tora Bora where bin Laden is believed to be hiding. It is about a 15 square-mile area. The CIA issued similar warnings a few weeks earlier (see Late November 2001). Suskind relates: “A fierce debate was raging inside the upper reaches of the US government. The White House had received a guarantee from [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf in November that the Pakistani army would cover the southern pass from the caves (see November 2001). Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld felt the Pakistani leader’s assurance was sound. Classified CIA reports passed to Bush in his morning briefings of early December, however, warned that ‘the back door is open’ and that a bare few Pakistani army units were visible gathering near the Pakistani border.… Musharraf, when pressed by the White House, said troop movements were slow, but not to worry-they were on their way.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 74] But again, no US troops are sent, and Pakistani troops fail to arrive in time. Bin Laden eventually will escape into Pakistan (see Mid-December 2001).

Entity Tags: Pervez Musharraf, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

US bombing in Tora Bora, December 14, 2001.US bombing in Tora Bora, December 14, 2001. [Source: Romeo / Gacad Agence France-Presse]According to author Ron Suskind, on this date bin Laden makes a broadcast on his shortwave radio from somewhere within Tora Bora, Afghanistan. He praises his “most loyal fighters” still fighting in Tora Bora and says “forgive me” for drawing them into a defeat. He says the battle will continue “on new fronts.” Then he leads a prayer and leaves Tora Bora. Suskind says, “With a small band, he escaped on horseback toward the north. The group, according to internal CIA reports, took a northerly route to the province of Nangarhar—past the Khyber Pass, and the city of Jalalabad—and into the province of Konar. That day and the next, much of the remaining al-Qaeda force of about 800 soldiers moved to the south toward Pakistan.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 74-75 Sources: Ron Suskind] A radio had been captured by US allied forces some days earlier, allowing the US to listen in to bin Laden’s communications (see Late October-Early December 2001). In another account, a professional guide and former Taliban official later claims to have led bin Laden and a group of about 30 at this time on a four day trip into Pakistan and then back into a different part of Afghanistan. [Newsweek, 8/11/2002] Still other accounts have bin Laden heading south into Pakistan at this time instead (see Mid-December 2001). An article in the British Daily Telegraph entitled “Bin Laden’s voice heard on radio in Tora Bora” will appear the very next day, detailing some of these communications. [Daily Telegraph, 12/16/2001]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

A videotape obtained by the CIA shows bin Laden at the end of the Tora Bora battle. He is walking on a trail either in Afghanistan and heading toward Pakistan, or already in Pakistan. Bin Laden is seen instructing his party how to dig holes in the ground to lie undetected at night. A US bomb explodes in the distance. Referring to where the bomb was dropped, he says, “We were there last night.” The existence of this videotape will not be reported until late 2006. [Washington Post, 9/10/2006] In September 2005, the New York Times will report that, “On or about Dec. 16, 2001, according to American intelligence estimates, bin Laden left Tora Bora for the last time, accompanied by bodyguards and aides.… Bin Laden and his men are believed to have journeyed on horseback directly south toward Pakistan.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/11/2005] Other accounts have him heading north into other parts of Afghanistan around this time instead (see December 15, 2001).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Four prisoners captured at Tora Bora and shown to the media on December 17, 2001.Four prisoners captured at Tora Bora and shown to the media on December 17, 2001. [Source: Getty Images]US-allied forces declare that the battle of Tora Bora has been won. A ten-day ground offensive that began on December 5 has cleared out the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Tora Bora. The Afghan war is now widely considered to be over. However, many will later consider the battle a failure because most of the enemy escapes (see December 5-17, 2001), and because the Taliban will later regroup. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] The Christian Science Monitor later reports that up to 2,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda were in the area when the battle began. The vast majority successfully fled, and only 21 al-Qaeda fighters were finally captured. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] US intelligence analysts later estimate that around 1,000 to 1,100 al-Qaeda fighters and an unknown number of leaders escaped Tora Bora, while Pakistani officials estimate 4,000 fighters plus 50 to 80 leaders escaped (see October 2004). [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] Author Ron Suskind will suggest in 2006 that there were just over 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban in the area, and of those, 250 were killed or captured. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 75 Sources: Ron Suskind] Bin Laden left the area by December 15, if not earlier (see December 15, 2001 and Mid-December 2001). It is believed that al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also escaped the area around the same time. [Knight Ridder, 10/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

In the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry accuses the Bush administration of allowing bin Laden to escape Afghanistan in late 2001 by not sending enough US troops to contain him when he was trapped in the Tora Bora region. The New York Times publishes an op-ed by Gen. Tommy Franks, the former head of US Central Command. Franks writes, “On more than one occasion, Senator Kerry has referred to the fight at Tora Bora in Afghanistan during late 2001 as a missed opportunity for America. He claims that our forces had Osama bin Laden cornered and allowed him to escape. How did it happen? According to Mr. Kerry, we ‘outsourced’ the job to Afghan warlords. As commander of the allied forces in the Middle East, I was responsible for the operation at Tora Bora, and I can tell you that the senator’s understanding of events doesn’t square with reality.… We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.” Franks is a vocal supporter of Bush’s reelection. [New York Times, 10/19/2004] Shortly after Franks’ comments, four Knight Ridder reporters who had been at Tora Bora during the battle revisit the issue. They discover that “Franks and other top officials ignored warnings from their own and allied military and intelligence officers that the combination of precision bombing, special operations forces, and Afghan forces that had driven the Taliban from northern Afghanistan might not work in the heartland of the country’s dominant Pashtun tribe.” [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] Author Peter Bergen asserts, “There is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.” Bergen cites after-action US intelligence reports and interviews with US counterterrorism officials that express confidence bin Laden was at Tora Bora. He notes that bin Laden discussed his presence at the Tora Bora battle in a audio message released in 2003. [PeterBergen (.com), 10/28/2004] In 2005, Gary Berntsen, who was in charge of an on-the-ground CIA team trying to find bin Laden (see September 26, 2001), will claim that he gave Franks definitive evidence that bin Laden was trapped in Tora Bora (see Late October-Early December 2001). [Financial Times, 1/3/2006] In 2006, former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will comment, “Yes, we know [bin Laden] absolutely was there.… And yes, he did escape. And Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but they made a mistake. They did let him go away.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] In late 2006, it will be reported that the CIA possesses a video showing bin Laden walking out of Afghanistan at the end of the Tora Bora battle. It has not been reported if the CIA was aware of this video in 2004 or not (see Mid-December 2001).

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Thomas Franks, Peter Bergen, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Gary Berntsen, Osama bin Laden, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan, 2004 Elections

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