October 4, 2001
Showdown on the roof of the world
By Pepe Escobar
PESHAWAR - Rudyard Kipling - or Tim "Mars Attacks" Burton - couldn't possibly come up with a more spectacular cliffhanger. Osama "Dead or Alive" bin Laden is still alive, apparently well, and defying American commandos to come and get him. Location: an ultra high-tech, bomb-proof, former Soviet bunker in the Little Pamir mountains.
The Pamirs - known by the surrounding Tajiks as Bam-I-Dunya ("the roof of the world") - are nothing less than the node from which radiates a staggering collection of mountain ranges: the Himalayas and the Karakoram to the south, the Hindu Kush to the west, and the Tian Shan to the Chinese northeast. The Little Pamirs are an offshoot south of the Pamirs.
As with every shadow play involving Osama and the Al-Qaida, it is absolutely impossible to confirm his current location. The Pamir scenario was first revealed by Russian intelligence. It was developed by a Pakistani newspaper. Asia Times Online had it from a highly reliable source close to the Northern Alliance in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
It is not a far-fetched scenario. Osama's fondness for metaphors and strong symbolism is already well established. Not a few people have noted the amazing similarity between a pre-Third World War Nostradamus prophecy ("two iron birds destroying two sculptures ...) and the attacks on the World Trade Center. So there's a strong possibility that Osama may have stored his Batman syndrome and abandoned his favourite hideout: a network of caves in Oruzgan, an absolutely desolate and slightly mountainous province north of flat Kandahar.
Mullah Omar - Amir-ul-Momineen ("leader of the faithful") and Osama's confidante and protector - was born in dusty Tarin Kowt village, in Oruzgan. Everybody thought that Osama and a group of hardcore Al-Qaida operatives were hiding in Oruzgan. But now reports are surfacing about an elaborate shadow play staged for spy satellites, of a convoy of trucks slowly stockpiling provisions in Tarin Kowt. At the same time, more shadow play was in effect around Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan: too much movement close to the famous Osama jihadi training camps, apparently now totally deserted.
It is impossible to ascertain how Osama and some 200 Al-Qaida hardcore faithful could have made it to the bunker from central Afghanistan. The bunker is in the sparsely populated Wakhan corridor - a Silk Road detour travelled by Marco Polo. Technically, it is in Badakhshan province, a finger of Afghanistan advancing between southern Tajkistan and northern Pakistan in the direction of China. The area - a high-altitude no man's land with peaks averaging 5,800 meters - is in theory controlled by the Northern Alliance. A few Marco Polo sheep roam around. It is already bitterly cold, and it will be unbearable by late October.
If Osama is in the Little Pamir, he is very well positioned. In case of emergency, he could plot an escape in three different directions - all of them with a Muslim majority: north to Tajikistan, south to the northern areas of Pakistan, and east to Xinjiang, China's far west.
During the jihad against the Soviets, the Little Pamir was totally controlled by the Red Army. The Soviets used it to store their intercontinental ballistic missiles. Osama knew about the area and the bunker through a bunch of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who fought alongside the jihadis in the mid-1980s. But it was almost 10 years before he would take over the whole area.
Northern Alliance sources confirm that the underground bunker complex is huge, and meant to be totally self-sufficient. There is a kind of extension near the Tajik border and a connection to a way out toward Xinjiang.
To get to the bunker, the Americans would either have to bomb the Pamirs into oblivion - or go mountaineering. The Pentagon will deny it, but Afghan sources swear that a beefy Delta Force contingent is at this very moment on an advance expedition to the bunker. It was landed on the mountains, with loads of special equipment, by helicopters departing from a base in southern Tajikistan.
Thrill-seekers will revel in imagining a bunch of ninjas dodging Marco Polo sheep and slouching toward the roof of the world on a mission to rid said world from Evil incarnate. Next step is the showdown. If and when it happens, it will be fought with ultra high-tech weapons - from penetrating bombs (to "smoke them out") to 2 megawatt lasers (to "hunt them down"). The ninjas will be talking to each other through voice message devices embedded in their helmets or through messages written on a keyboard attached to their wrists. No big deal: Hollywood's been there, done that. But now its another story: Osama's capture - the real thing, not a videogame - could turn out to be the definitive Internet special. Now, live from the roof of the world, it's ... smoke-them-out time.