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How bin Laden got away

A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerfulmilitary machine.

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All 1,000 of the regional tribal leaders rose to their feet and shouted "Zindibad, Osama!" ("Long Live Osama!").

The Al Qaeda chief placed his right hand over his heart, the ethnic Pashtun sign for being honored, while 15 of his elite guards flanked him.

In the last public speech given at the Jalalabad Islamic studies center on Nov. 10, Osama bin Laden painted the battle lines black and white. "The Americans had a plan to invade, but if we are united and believe in Allah, we'll teach them a lesson, the same one we taught the Russians," he said, according to two tribal leaders who attended the speech.

Mr. bin Laden, with that speech, was laying his plans to stay a step ahead of the US campaign. He would travel to his favored fortified redoubt in Tora Bora, as the US expected him to, but he would also pave a way out. After his rousing speech, he bestowed cash gifts on key people who could later help him escape.

The US-led war in Afghanistan was going exceedingly well up to that point. The Taliban regime had been pushed from the northern half of the country; the capital of Kabul and much of the rest of Afghanistan would fall within the next few days.

It was a war like no other. In an evolutionary leap powered by Information Age technology, US ground soldiers were mainly employed as observers, liaisons, and spotters for air power - not as direct combatants sent to occupy a foreign land. The success of the US was dazzling, save for the fight for Tora Bora, which may have been this unconventional war's most crucial battle. For the US, Tora Bora wasn't about capturing caverns or destroying fortifications - it was about taking the world's most wanted terrorist "dead or alive."

In retrospect, it becomes clear that the battle's underlying story is of how scant intelligence, poorly chosen allies, and dubious military tactics fumbled a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden as well as many senior Al Qaeda commanders.

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