Friday, May 13, 2011

The Myth of Bin Laden Lair

The Lair of Bin Laden is a fictoid that originated in the highly-enterprising British press on November 27th, 2001. The chronology is as follows. On November 26th, the New York Times carried a story based on the account of an a ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kutsenko, who had served in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties in which he claimed that there had seen an elaborate cave complex in Zhawar with "iron doors" that contained " a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order." The historic story then added "Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990's."

On November 27th, the London-based Independent came up with its own fairly similar troglodyte story, except that it had moved the underground fortress from Zhawar to Tora Bora, where the manhunt for bin Laden was about to begin, and advanced it in time from the nineteen-eighties to the present.
The Independent headlined: "Al-Qa'ida almost 'immune to attack' inside its hi-tech underground lair." In the story, its correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry, in Jalalabad, described a vast redoubt burrowed deep under a mountain, with labyrinthian tunnels sealed by with iron doors. "It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydro-electric generator. Its walls and floors in the rooms are smooth and finished and it extends 350 yards beneath a solid mountain." It was therefore tunneled almost as deep as the World Trade Center was high. It was also " so well defended and concealed that – short of poison gas or a tactical nuclear weapon – it is immune to outside attack. And it is filled with heavily armed followers of Osama bin Laden, with a suicidal commitment to their cause and with nothing left to lose."
It further claimed that fortress was built " reportedly employing expertise from Mr bin Laden's Saudi construction businesses" and housed "as many as 2,000 Arab and foreign fighters." The story's putative unidentified witness— the lone deep throat— explained, "It's like a hotel, with doors on the left and the right."
The idea that Osama and his followers had entombed themselves in an unassailable fortress under a mountain immediately embedded itself into the imagination of the American press. The Associated Press put The Independent story on its services, which went to hundreds of major newspapers and broadcasting stations. ABC News re-headlined the story "Bin Laden Hide-out Resembles Hotel: Witness," depicting "The cave complex ... filled with bin Laden's fanatical followers." Yahoo noted in its Internet service "Bin Laden has reputedly built a fortress 1,150 feet (350 meters) beneath the mountains, equipped with water, electricity and ventilation and guarded by hundreds or thousands of fighters ready to die for their leader." CBS, expanding the story, reported that an Afghan "commander thinks bin Laden is in a cave fortress known as Tora Bora. The massive hideout was built by the U.S. to house forces fighting the Soviet Army in the 1980s. The complex - nicknamed "bin Laden's ant farm," is burrowed deep into Gree Khil peak -- soaring 13,000 feet above the village of Tora Bora. It is virtually impregnable -- a latticework of tunnels, storage rooms for arms and munitions, and accommodations for up to a thousand fighters. Ventilation shafts bring fresh air 1,200 feet inside the mountain. A nearby river provides hydroelectric power to the complex... at least 2,000 of bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters are believed to be hiding there," In the Los Angeles Times Professor Mark C. Taylor added to his essay on an ancient troglodyte Hittite city in Turkey that "This city and others like it provide the prototype for the underground fortresses where Bin Laden and his followers are presumed to be hiding;" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put the underground city in context, saying "The bitter and brutal end game between Osama bin Laden and U.S.-led forces is being played out in a mountain fortress the CIA helped build... equipped with ventilation and hydroelectric power." This bunker-fortress, the story continued, "provides bin Laden with significant advantages... it is considered invulnerable even to bunker-busting bombs and impregnable to conventional military attack." The Times of London meanwhile illustrated its story with an artist's rendering of the underground fortress, which dwarfed even Hitler's infamous "eagle's nest" fortress.

The story probably reached its high point on NBC's Meet The Press on December 2nd when Tim Russert, the host of the program, provided Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the artist's rendering of bin Laden's fortress. The interview proceeded:
Russert: The Times of London did a graphic, which I want to put on the screen for you and our viewers. This is it. This is a fortress. This is a very much a complex, multi-tiered, bedrooms and offices on the top, as you can see, secret exits on the side and on the bottom, cut deep to avoid thermal detection so when our planes fly to try to determine if any human beings are in there, it's built so deeply down and embedded in the mountain and the rock it's hard to detect. And over here, valleys guarded, as you can see, by some Taliban soldiers. A ventilation system to allow people to breathe and to carry on. An arms and ammunition depot. And you can see here the exits leading into it and the entrances large enough to drive trucks and cars and even tanks. And it's own hydroelectric power to help keep lights on, even computer systems and telephone systems. It's a very sophisticated operation.
Rumsfeld: Oh, you bet. This is serious business. And there's not one of those. There are many of those. And they have been used very effectively. And I might add, Afghanistan is not the only country that has gone underground. Any number of countries have gone underground. The tunneling equipment that exists today is very powerful. It's dual use. It's available across the globe. And people have recognized the advantages of using underground protection for themselves.
A few weeks after the "Meet the Press" interview, US special forces and their Afghan allies occupied Tora Bora. They painstakingly searched Gree Khil mountain and the surrounding area. They found no underground fortress, no hydro-electric power plant, no 2000-room hotel, no ant farm, no iron doors, no ventilating shafts. The troglodyte Lair of Bin Laden turned out to be mythic.
Post script:  Bin Laden, along with a number of his wives and children had been living in an above-the-ground home in in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011, when he was killed by US Navy Seals in a "targeted operation."