Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THE HUNTED AND THE HAUNTED

The United States tries to close in on Osama bin Laden, as thousands of Afghan refugees fearful of air strikes attempt to flee their impoverished land

JAMES DEACON October 8 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THE HUNTED AND THE HAUNTED

The United States tries to close in on Osama bin Laden, as thousands of Afghan refugees fearful of air strikes attempt to flee their impoverished land

JAMES DEACON October 8 2001

THE HUNTED AND THE HAUNTED

The United States tries to close in on Osama bin Laden, as thousands of Afghan refugees fearful of air strikes attempt to flee their impoverished land

JAMES DEACON

Julian Beltrame

William Lowther

Tom Fennell Michael Snider

Sally Armstrong

Raphael Sugarman

Shahid-ur-Rehman

They were, in some ways, the lucky ones. Thousands of desperate and impoverished Afghans, only a tiny percentage of those trying to flee their country, made their way across Pakistan’s sealed border in the past two weeks to arrive at refugee camps near Peshawar and Quetta. It was a mixed blessing. They came to camps already swollen with tens of thousands of Afghans who fled their strifetorn country over the past two decades. There was little shelter and less food for the newcomers. And as if disease and heat and hunger weren’t bad enough, an earthquake rumbled through the Peshawar Valley last week. It measured 5.5 on the Richter scale, enough to shake tents and rattle pans. But for the Afghans who’d been chased from their homes by the latest rumblings of war, it was yet another ominous reminder that their exhausting trek through the mountain passes may have taken them out of the line of fire, but not out of trouble.

So many casualties, from the humanitarian disaster of displaced refugees to the smouldering wreckage of New York City’s World Trade Center—before the big guns of war have even fired. When will they? Last week, the U.S. military continued to position its forces to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks that, according to the latest count, killed 6,431 people in the United States. But Washington struck a note of restraint. “We don’t believe in just demonstrating that our military is capable of bombing,” said U.S. deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “The whole world knows that.” Instead, reports last week suggested American and British special forces are already conducting secret forays into Afghanistan. Their mission: to pinpoint the hiding place of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and then apprehend or kill the man believed responsible for the slaughter.

Around the world, the focus was on thwarting other such attacks. In a nationwide sweep, U.S. authorities have interrogated more than 480 people. Elsewhere, police and intelligence services rounded up dozens suspected of involvement in networks that helped plan the U.S. actions—or were in the process of mounting additional acts of terror. In London, Scotland Yard arrested an Algerian pilot, 27year-old Lotfi Raissi, who is alleged to have taught four of the men who on Sept. 11 hijacked the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania.

Another 38 people with suspected ties to bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network were arrested in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Yemen and Belgium. Many are alleged to have plotted attacks on a NATO facility in Belgium and on the American Embassy in Paris. The UN Security Council, meanwhile, unanimously approved a U.S.-sponsored resolution requiring all nations to act forcefully against terrorists.

U.S. authorities were following leads that terrorists might try to attack nuclear power stations, poison water supplies, or spread deadly biological or chemical agents using airborne crop dusters. Two crop-dusting firms in Saskatchewan reported suspicious inquiries about use of their planes. U.S. officials released photos | of 19 suspected hijackers—although one I was in fact of a man alive and well in Saudi Arabia—hoping to elicit more tips on their pre-strike activities. And officials showed reporters a letter—author unknown— found in the belongings of at least three of the hijackers. Written in Arabic, it offered everything from religious justifications for the acts to advice on coping with fears. “The letter,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft, “is a stark reminder of how these hijackers grossly perverted the Islamic faith to justify their terrorist acts.”

At Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, thousands of volunteers arrived to help in any way they could. By weeks end, even before the last upright shards of the towers had been taken down, Americans had raised more than $500 million for the victims’ families. Still, that’s nowhere near the staggering cost, estimated at $40 billion, of rebuilding the office towers, local streets and subway lines; the cleanup alone is expected to take at least a year.

FINAL INSTRUCTIONS

A letter, written in Arabic and linked to hijackers on three of the four planes that crashed on Sept. 11, was released by the FBI. Its author is unknown. Translated excerpts:

“Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest, everlasting life....”

ON THE NIGHT BEFORE THE ATTACKS:

“Pledge allegiance to death and renew the intention. Know the plan well from all aspects. Expect a reaction or resistance from the enemy.” ON THE FATEFUL MORNING:

“Check all of your items-your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, all your

papers. Check your safety before you leave____

Make sure nobody is following you. Make sure that you are clean, your clothes are clean, including your shoes."

But rebuild they will, officials said— both infrastructure and public confidence. The latter was very much on Ottawa’s agenda as well, as the Canadian government moved last week to counter criticism of its tepid response to the attacks. With Canada under fire for being a lax entry point for undesirables, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan said she’d ordered tough new measures for screening refugee claimants, and also intends to “fast-track” the development of fraud-resistant identification cards for immigrants.

Ottawa also ordered the assets frozen of any of the 27 suspected terrorist groups named by President George W Bush, and was set to announce a bailout package for the devastated air industry. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Anne McLellan was preparing to introduce a sweeping anti-terrorism bill that would facilitate the extradition or prosecution of anyone suspected of terrorist activities anywhere in the world, give police broader wiretapping authority and criminalize terrorist fundraising activities. “We know that the world changed on Sept. 11,” she said.

Those and other measures, including beefing up the Canadian military for a possible role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, could cost billions. The federal treasury will be further depleted by increased unemployment insurance payments because of massive layoffs in the airline and related industries. Still, Finance Minister Paul Martin rebuffed pressure from opposition critics to bring in an emergency fall mini-budget to deal with the current crisis. While not dismissing the idea, Martin said the government will only act “when all the information is in.”

The American military is using a similar philosophy. Moderates in the White House have so far restrained the hawks, arguing that an effective, long-term assault on terrorism is only possible with the support of Muslim nations. And Muslim countries will only back an attack on bin Laden and his supporters when there is clear evidence of their guilt. President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, where 90 per cent of the 201 million people follow Islam, pledged to support the allied action. But Hasyim Muzadi, head of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim group, warned of a war between Islam and Christianity if Washington acts before making its case against any terrorists.

Of all Muslim nations, U.S. officials are particularly ardent in courting Pakistan, the only country that, as of last week, still maintained formal relations with the Taliban. The Pentagon wants to have about 10,000 Rangers and paratroopers ready for rescue missions if patrols and small squads sent in to seek bin Laden clashed with large Taliban forces. Areas of Pakistan near Afghanistan’s southern border would provide ideal sites for helicopter bases, which in turn could be easily supplied from the aircraft carrier battle groups now in the northern Arabian Sea. “We could go after bin Laden without Pakistani bases,” says retired admiral George Worthington, “but we’d be 90-per-cent more effective with Pakistan’s help.”

Washington has offered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of debt relief, among other incentives, to get Pakistan to allow U.S. ground troops in the country. But while the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has agreed to help with intelligence gathering and logistical support, at weeks end he was still balking at accepting American troops. Their presence would further inflame fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan, who support the Taliban and bin Laden and might attempt to overthrow the military government. Washington is sensitive to the problem, not least because of the potential dangers of Pakistani nuclear weapons getting in the wrong hands.

But even if the U.S. had all its troops where it wanted them, Washington has not located bin Laden. And the Pentagon has yet to complete its list of targets for bombing and cruise missile attacks— because of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, satellite and spy plane pictures are insufficient. Planners need human intelligence to locate the targets, and the only outside organization that really knows what’s going on inside Afghanistan is Pakistan’s spy agency, the Interservice Intelligence. “If you want to do anything in the region, you have to have the ISI on your side,” says one former CIA official. “These guys speak the languages, wear the clothes and walk the streets. No one knows Afghanistan like the ISI.”

There is evidence that, as the Taliban waits for war, nerves are beginning to fray. Taliban militiamen once strutted around the Pakistani city of Quetta, near the southern Afghanistan border, bullying the thousands of refugees even though they were in another country. Now, they’ve become nearly invisible. Moreover, recendy arrived refugees claim Taliban members are fleeing, too, shedding their trademark black turbans and shaving their long shaggy beards—the de rigueur symbol of Taliban loyalty. They say even the mayor of the impoverished southern city of Kandahar tried to make a run for the border. He was caught with a suitcase stuffed with U.S. dollars and husded back to Kandahar by a truckload of Taliban soldiers. His fate is unknown.

The new arrivals tell harrowing tales of getting their families out of what they fear will be U.S. bombing zones—and their sons out of the clutches of the Taliban army. Students in ultra-fundamentalist Taliban schools are being snatched up by their parents and husded into villages presumed to be out of harm’s way. Over cups of sweet green tea, refugees spit out the

name Osama bin Laden, calling him a criminal and saying even the fundamentalists have stopped supporting him.

Although the border was officially closed more than a week ago, thousands of refugees continue to reach Quetta. Some trek over the mountains to avoid border posts; those with a litde money bribe the notoriously corrupt border guards. As the exodus continues, resource-strapped aid organizations are strained beyond their limits. “When we needed a bullet, they gave us thousands,” says Homayoun Acheckzai, director of Guardians, a humanitarian group in Quetta. “When we needed one land mine, they gave us millions. Now we need a piece of bread, and they give us nothing.”

Poverty, hunger and desperation—and back in Kandahar, a symbol of a double standard. One of bin Ladens many homes

is off the main street, just down the road from the infamous Hall of Honour where men have their hands chopped off for stealing and women have been stoned to death for sexual improprieties. When bin Laden’s son was married late last year, Kandahar residents, who would be jailed for playing music, taking photos or having a party, listened while music blared, video lights blazed and guests partied through the night of the nuptial. The opulent house stands behind a tall fence with locked gates, empty now, its owner hiding somewhere in the rugged mountains—a most-wanted man.