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The Tora Bora tunnel kingdom that wasn't: lessons in fake news

Bin Laden's underground mountain network with hydroelectric power and 1,000 fighters has been forgotten since it dominated the news in 2001 — because it never existed. SOLOMON HUGHES drops a bunker buster on a classic incidence of war propaganda

THE anniversary of September 11 is prompting media reminiscenses about the War on Terror — so let’s also look back at media’s misinformation in that war.

Bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorists were based in Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Islamist Taliban government.

In October 2001, US and British planes began bombing Afghanistan aiming at both al-Qaida and Taliban “targets” because the Taliban had not agreed to hand over Bin Laden to the US.

On November 29 2001 the Times produced this graphic illustration of “Bin Laden’s fortress.” According to the newspaper, Bin Laden was inside a kind of James Bond villain’s underground lair in the Tora Bora mountains. To be clear, this diagram is the work of The Times, reproduced here for news comment.

According to the accompanying story, “The Tora Bora fortress where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding is a self-contained complex with its own electrical heating system, huge stocks of ammunition and accommodation for more than 1,000.”

The story was very influential, but completely untrue. Many variations on the “Tora Bora bunker” appeared in the international media, but there was no such fortress. Instead, troops who finally reached the supposed “fortress” found only shallow, scattered natural caves that had housed perhaps 200 fighters. There was no trace of the hardened “Nato-standard” bunkers with hydroelectric power and stocks of Stinger missiles.

It’s hard to be completely sure how this fiction came to be presented as fact, but it seems this propaganda began with tales from US authorities that were magnified by a sensationalist press hungry for pro-war stories.

In 1998 when Bin Laden grabbed world attention by declaring a terrorist “holy war” the US press said he was “operating from damp caves infested with scorpions and rats” in Afghanistan.

But when the US launched the war against Afghanistan, his accommodation was upgraded. US officials had described al-Qaida as Bin Laden’s “loose-knit web.” Chasing a loose-knit group run by men in scorpion-infested caves would properly involve some kind of police action to hunt the guilty.

But US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld wanted to respond to 9/11 by “going massive” with a display of US military strength. Bin Laden’s cave needed some home improvements for the war to make sense.

On October 12 Rumsfeld told reporters the US was dropping massive “bunker busting” bombs and “ground penetrating” munitions on Afghanistan. This bombing only made sense if Bin Laden was in a bunker. So Rumsfeld started spinning stories about secret underground bases. He said that many US enemies “have done a lot of digging underground” and claimed they spotted many new “tunnel entries” in Afghanistan.

In 2001 the US was still nervous about putting “boots on the ground” — their war relied heavily on aerial bombing. The ground war was left to the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban Afghan warlords and small numbers of Western special forces. The US wanted to demonstrate power with a huge bombing campaign against an undeveloped nation.

Journalists started raising the great number of Afghan civilians killed in the bombing raids — the “cave hideouts,” which were mostly just the fox holes, trenches and shallow shelters of regular war, had to be talked up.

The talk got wilder on November 26: the New York Times had a big story about al-Qaida “caves and tunnels,” calling them “Heavily fortified ‘ant farms’” — after the popular US toy where kids keep ants nests between two sheets of glass to look at the insects’ tunnels and chambers.

The New York Times report was mostly about the Zhawar base, which the mojahedin had used in their fight against the Soviets in the 1990s. The Zhawar base was a genuine fortified tunnel system, but one that was hundreds of kilometres from Tora Bora. Zhawar had been built with the help of CIA money and visited by US journalists in the 1990s, when the mojahedin were the West’s good guys in Afghanistan.

The New York Times article was based on articles by Colonel Lester Grau, who worked as a researcher at the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, at the Fort Leavenworth base. Colonel Grau in turn relied on a description of Zhawar from a Russian officer which Grau lifted from the Russian edition of Soldier of Fortune, a sensationalist military magazine.

The description of Zhawar, a reinforced cave system containing a bakery, hospital, library, mosque and “a service bay” that could contain a tank was probably inflated, but not completely untrue.

The New York Times article merely implied Tora Bora was like Zhawar. But the next day the Times simply published their diagram of Bin Laden’s underground lair, clearly based on the hyped-up description of Zhawar, but simply claiming it was Tora Bora. From there, diagrams and descriptions of this base spread across the media, from British newspapers like the Observer and Independent to all the big US newspapers and TV stations.

All the official talk of bunkers and bases met a sensationalist media which loves those “cut-away” diagrams of military-looking things and a propaganda wave of “factoids” was launched. Newspapers talked of military engineers preparing to drill into the caves and inject gas to chase out Bin Laden.

The fake story even circled back to Rumsfeld, who was asked to comment on the Times diagram on the US news on December 2, where he agreed it was for real, saying, “Oh, you bet. This is serious business.”

Except, of course, it wasn’t. The final assault on Tora Bora found no such base, while Bin Laden actually escaped to Pakistan instead of bunkering down inside a hollowed-out mountain.

The non-existence of the secret base could have been a moment for self-reflection: if one of the major stories justifying “bunker busting,” “thermobaric” and “cluster” bombs turned out to be an absurd fake, then perhaps we should be careful of war propaganda.

But the British media doesn’t reflect on its own fake news — so we just rushed headlong into another series of fake stories in the War on Terror, about Saddam’s underground bunkers filled with weapons of mass destruction.

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