of London - November 29th, 2001
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 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 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"
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
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.