Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Tora Bora ("black dust") is an area located in the White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, southeast of Kabul and southwest of Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border. It was generally assumed to contain fortified encampments with an extensive network of tunnels, located between two mountain ridges in a region of cliffs and forests which is difficult to reach by land. The phrase "Tora Bora region" is often seen in news reports, but it is not clear if the name was used before the alleged encampments were constructed.
The outposts in use in 2001 were originally built by extending and shoring up natural caves, with assistance of the United States CIA in the early 1980s for use by mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but several may date back to earlier times, as the terrain has long been in use by tribal guerilla fighters.
In 2001 it was in use by al-Qaeda and was suspected to be the headquarters of Osama bin Laden. It was described in newspapers as a suitable lair for a villain out of the James Bond movies: variously as a multi-storeyed cave complex harnessing hydroelectric power from mountain streams, or a lower-rise dwelling with hotel-like corridors capable of sheltering more than 1,000. It supposedly also contained a large cache of ammunition, such as FIM-92 Stinger missiles left over from the 1980s. To complete the James Bond scenario, al-Qaeda were suspected of developing nuclear and biological weapons.
U.S. and allied Afghan militia fought to capture it from al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in December 2001. They could not find any massive 'underground fortresses', only small bunkers and outposts and a few minor training camps (see Time article below), as might be expected from an area that provides good defensive positions, but is not well suited as a base for offensive operations due to logistics constraints. Most of the enemy fighters made good their escape to Pakistan in the rough terrain. Indeed, it is not clear whether the Tora Bora area was ever a dedicated stronghold rather than a convenient route to hide and escape from whatever foreign power was invading Afghanistan - such use of the mountain ranges on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a tradition among local guerilla forces since at least the mid-19th century.
Controversial author Edward Jay Epstein claims  that the idea of a vast 'underground lair' was simply speculation based on unsubstantiated claims by a former Soviet soldier's 1996 article in a Russian military newspaper which was overblown and hyped by international media and U.S. policymakers. Given the unreliability of the source and the fact that no information about the supposed Bin Laden hideout has been corroborated, it seems that Epstein is correct in his analysis.
- John Bowman, Tora Bora, CBC News Online (Dec., 2001)
- Matthew Forney, Inside the Tora Bora Caves, Time (Dec. 11, 2001)
Maps and Pictures:
- Map and picture from Washingtonpost.com (Dec. 10, 2001):
- Maps from Latimes.com (Dec. 7, 2001):
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