Ribat Qila is at the point of a triangle where Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet. It is a forbidding place, a desert ringed by crimson and black mountains, where laws can be bent or broken for a few rupees, and safe passage across any frontier is easily secured. The men who pass fleetingly through Ribat Qila are smugglers, heroin traffickers, bandits and, lately, al-Qaeda fugitives.
Is Osama bin Laden among them? It seemed possible last week. This dust-blown speck on the map became the target of frantic media interest after Pakistani intelligence leaked news to reporters that U.S. special forces were hunting for him around this area, and that members of bin Laden's family were somewhere across the border in Iran. An Afghan commander in Kandahar claimed that two of bin Laden's sons--al-Qaeda members said to keep within close range of their father--were caught sheltering with the Zehri tribe of Baluchistan and were now in the hands of U.S. interrogators. Washington denied repeatedly that bin Laden's sons had been caught.
Still, the reports from the region were too intriguing to be left unexplored. My 400-mile journey from the southwestern Pakistani town of Quetta to Ribat Qila took 13 hours by pickup truck, the last part of it on a dirt track, slaloming between huge boulders. Off in the distance was an ancient Mogul army outpost, half-submerged by drifts of sand.
The Pakistani frontier posts weren't in much better shape. An officer told me he had heard on the radio that the Americans were trying to capture bin Laden, but he wasn't able to help much. Even if bin Laden were to ride past on a camel, his soldiers could not catch him because they had no vehicles. Some posts have just a single hand-cranked army telephone.
A few hundred yards beyond the last Pakistani outpost at Koh-i-Taftan, a dirt track veers off the main road toward a side door into Iran. It's strictly Smugglers Only. According to traders at Koh-i-Taftan, getting through it requires hiring an adam farosh--a smuggler who has the connections to bribe an Iranian border guard. Sultan Mohammed, 24, a shopkeeper, says, "Many Arabs left Pakistan for Iran from this point. Sometimes, once or twice a week, you'll see a lone Arab being escorted into Iran." Knowing the Americans are looking for Arabs, the Iranian border guards charge them extra for the crossing--about $120. For Pakistanis and Afghans, it's $30 or $40.
It's conceivable that bin Laden slipped across the Iranian border when the U.S. forces were closing in. The Iranian side is just as vacant of authority as the Pakistani and Afghan frontiers. But it's also possible that if bin Laden was in the vicinity, he remained in the mountains around Ribat Qila. A five-year drought has emptied the area, and abandoned mud houses litter the wasteland. Sometimes I'd see a 4-by-4 parked outside an isolated house, and my guide would tell me it probably belonged to a smuggler. Who knows? It could easily have been al-Qaeda's.