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Even in 2002, bin Laden was hiding in plain view

In early February 2002, three of us were stalled in traffic in a small blue Nissan on a tree-lined boulevard outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad: Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste, our driver-translator Bashir and me, a Herald reporter.

I had just spent months in Afghanistan and was relieved to be back in Islamabad, a city where about half the women didn't cover and Italian restaurants sold red wine with pasta.

Carl and I had been getting calls from editors back in the States telling us not to meet people we didn't know for interviews because Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had just been kidnapped in Karachi. So, we were staying close to the hotel, running out only for dinner and supplies. On this trip we were heading to a nearby shop for shampoo and toothpaste.

As the car stopped in traffic, Carl yelled, "Look! There's Osama bin Laden!"

We couldn't believe our eyes. There, in front of us was the most wanted man in the world, the face on countless posters offering a reward of $25 million for information on his whereabouts. There was no mistaking him. Towering over the men with him, he was lanky with olive skin and that scraggly long beard, those sad brown eyes and that splayed nose.

The three of us began screaming, "It's Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden!"

He wore a white shalwar kameez, the loose long shirt and pantaloons that are traditional clothing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a white turban. He walked slowly with a cane, flanked on each side by a man holding on to him.

They emerged from the wrought-iron gates at the red brick mosque, crossed to the wooded median on the boulevard, took a right turn and walked in our direction.

Carl cursed. He hadn't brought a camera because it was such a speedy trip and security at our hotel would take forever searching his camera when we returned.

Traffic cleared, cars behind us honked, and Bashir drove on through the neighborhood where stores displayed adoring images of bin Laden's face in the center of a red heart.

Back at our hotel we called our international editor in Washington, D.C., and told him whom we'd spotted.

He reminded us of what we already knew: U.S. intelligence said bin Laden was somewhere in the tribal territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had probably seen someone who looked just like him.

But two years later, in March, 2004, after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested in nearby Rawalpindi, U.S. intelligence analysts said that in early February 2002, bin Laden was believed to have gone to the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The mosque keeper, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was described as a big supporter of al-Qaida and bin Laden.

"It was him!" Carl and I told each other, back in Miami.

Monday, seeing him hiding in plain sight all those years ago seemed a lot less improbable.

Even in 2002, bin Laden was hiding in plain view 05/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 11:32am]
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