U.S. knows hiding places

America helped design, build tunnels used by bin Laden

Russia captured one in '80s

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 09, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

As the United States deploys satellites, high-tech aircraft and commandos to hunt for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, American officials should know a great deal about some of his likely hiding places.

That's because the United States conceived and paid for them, according to Yossef Bodansky, a terrorism consultant and biographer of the Saudi-born terrorist leader who is believed to be behind the devastation of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.

"We know about six possible locations, complexes of caves and tunnels, because we helped design and build them back in the '80s," Bodansky said yesterday. "They were built to withstand everything short of a nuclear blast. A lot of thought and a large amount of money went into making them virtually impregnable."

Bodansky said Americans might not have been present when the steel-reinforced complexes were built for CIA-financed Muslim guerrillas then battling Soviet troops. U.S. officials preferred to work through Pakistani military intelligence so as to be able to deny publicly that they were fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union.

But he said American engineering advice and money went into the construction of the complexes, situated to make approach by ground troops difficult and guarded by stone barriers to prevent "smart" guided missiles from penetrating the entrances. Only one was ever captured by Soviet forces -- in 1987, "at a huge cost in blood" -- and the remaining underground bases have probably been reinforced since then, Bodansky said.

Bodansky's account of the U.S. role in financing the bunkers was confirmed by another expert on Afghanistan, Thomas E. Gouttierre, who now runs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

President Bush and other top officials have stated repeatedly that their campaign against terrorism is a long-term effort not targeted at one individual. But they have simultaneously emphasized the evidence linking bin Laden and his organization, al-Qaida, to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Most nongovernment experts believe that the U.S. anti-terror campaign will have to capture or kill bin Laden to remain credible.

"The goal is not to get just him -- it's to tear up the network worldwide," said Michael S. Swetnam, president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of a book on bin Laden published this year. "But you have to get him, because he's become such a symbol of terrorism."

Bin Laden is protected by a guard of several hundred fighters, about 30 of whom have been with him since the 1980s and have taken a vow to kill him rather than allow enemy troops to take him alive, Bodansky said.

In recent years, bin Laden is believed to have moved frequently between the tunnel complexes, various training camps and possibly safe houses in villages or in the city of Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban militia that rule Afghanistan and a target of the air strikes that began Sunday. The reinforced tunnels -- some natural caves, some dug in the 1980s -- are mostly located in eastern Afghanistan in a crescent around Jalalabad, in forbidding mountainous terrain rising from about 8,000 to 15,000 feet. Some may also be near Kandahar in the south.

On its Web site, the CIA posted a statement Friday declaring that the CIA had "never employed, paid, or maintained any relationship whatsoever" with bin Laden. Outside experts said that was technically correct, though the agency covertly spent more than $3 billion supporting the anti-Soviet mujahedeen alongside whom bin Laden fought.

The 17th of 52 children born to a Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden, 44, is believed to have three wives and about 15 children. The lifestyle of the man who grew up in splendor and inherited a fortune of at least tens of millions of dollars is now spartan, his only luxury a library of Islamic books.

"I don't think he's seen much running water since the mid-'90s," when he left Sudan for Afghanistan, Bodansky said.

Bin Laden is said to like riding horses, Swetnam said, and holds a degree in engineering and business management. But Bodansky said most of bin Laden's time is probably spent conferring with al-Qaida aides or "studying and writing," laying out the theological justification for his jihad, or holy war, against America. Despite their malign purpose, Bodansky said, "his writings are beautiful -- rich, logical and well-researched."

Like Bodansky, Gouttierre, who lived and worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan in the 1990s, said he has never met bin Laden. But Gouttierre did see the terrorist's convoy pass by the noisy, crowded bazaar in Kandahar one day in 1999.

Gouttierre said the convoy consisted of a half-dozen sport-utility vehicles with blackened windows and armed guards riding on top and on the sides.

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