National Geographic : 2004 Dec
By Tim McGirk Photographs by Reza aqir Shah sprays machine-gun fire across the black hills of Tora Bora, shooting at phantoms of al Qaeda. The shots echo through a forest of twisted holly trees, zigzagging up through the ravines to the granite peaks, as if searching for a reply. But there is no response, only the wind. Shah lowers his machine gun, smoke curling from the barrel. It's the first time the Afghan militiaman has gone back to Tora Bora since the fierce battle between al Qaeda fighters and the U.S. military in December 2001, and there is an equal measure of bravado and fear in his macho display. "We fought al Qaeda here for two weeks in the snow," says Shah, who is wearing U.S. Army issue camouflage trousers under a ragged gray coat. He points to a nearby bomb crater, 15 feet deep, left by one of the U.S. warplanes, and says, "See that hole? An American soldier tossed a piece of concrete in there from the World Trade Center, because he thought al Qaeda was all finished. I told him I didn't think so." 8 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2004 Shah leads me across the boulders of a nar row creek and up a hill into the Tora Bora caves. There are dozens of caves honeycombed into the hillside, all empty now, save for a few car tridges left over from the U.S. siege of three years ago. Next we venture back outside to the ruins of a mud-brick house, pulverized by bombs. I find fragments of an artillery shell, a prayer cap. "This was where Osama lived," says Shah. I sit in the rubble, peel an orange, and check the coordinates on my GPS. North 34.07.080 by East 70.13.209. According to eyewitnesses, some time before the siege of Tora Bora began in early December 2001, bin Laden stopped here for the night, gave a pep talk to hundreds of his fighters, and vanished. As this article goes to press in early October 2004, the world's most wanted man has not been seen since, although rumors are flying that U.S. forces or their Pakistani allies have captured him and will produce him just before the U.S. pres idential election. Where could he have gone? Since 9/11 I've asked that question nearly every day as I covered breaking news from my home in Islamabad, Paki stan. In search of an answer, I've trailed bin Laden along the smugglers' crossroads near Afghan istan's desert border with Iran, through the Trust No One Unending feuds, shifting loyalties among Pashtun tribes, and the presence of some 20,000 U.S. troops convince Afghan militia leader Gul Mohammad to keep an AK-47 at hand. Bribes to tribal elders helped al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden flee from caves at Tora Bora (above).