Pakistan Reveals Efforts to Hunt Down Osama Bin Laden
Jon Boone and Jason Burke for The Guardian
For almost a year, Pakistan‘s security establishment has been in a state of deep fury and embarrassment over the killing of Osama bin Laden. But its annoyance, US diplomats note, has not been directed at how the world’s most wanted man could have lived inside the country for so long, but rather at how a US team could have got in and out of its territory undetected.
So far, there have been no arrests of sympathisers who might have helped Bin Laden move around Pakistan undetected before settling in the town of Abbottabad. Authorities appear more concerned with investigating what they see as a gross violation of sovereignty that badly damaged the prestige and reputation of the powerful Pakistani military.
The only known arrest has been of Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who worked in Abbottabad as part of the CIA effort to try to pinpoint the al-Qaida chief. A Pakistani commission investigating Bin Laden’s death recommended Afridi be charged with “conspiracy against the state of Pakistan and high treason”.
But amid efforts on both sides to improve the terrible state of US-Pakistani relations, bitter recriminations are starting to give way to a modest effort by Pakistan’s intelligence service to put itself a little nearer the centre of events that led to Bin Laden’s killing.
Last week, a security official in Islamabad gave the Guardian details of three hitherto unknown ground missions conducted by joint CIA-Pakistani teams to capture Bin Laden.
One was in the north-western mountainous area of Chitral in 2005, though the target turned out to be a “near identical lookalike”. Two were in 2006, including one in a village called Barabcha on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.
A former US official confirmed there had been some joint operations in the past, particularly in Chitral, but was unaware of the specific incidents.
“The big picture is there have been cases where [the Pakistanis] have moved on information we have given them,” said the former US official in Washington.
According to the Pakistani security official, efforts by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to capture Bin Laden continued even after “the intelligence chief of a western country came to us and gave us a written report Bin Laden was dead” – in 2008.
He also said the al-Qaida operative who eventually led the CIA to Bin Laden was identified as the terrorist leader’s personal courier by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior detained militant in 2003, during interrogation by ISI. That information was passed to US agencies, he said.
This claim contradicts statements by US officials who say that Mohammed, the chief organiser of the 9/11 attacks, downplayed the importance of the courier, then known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and that it took several more years for his true importance to be recognised.
Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier who has launched a personal investigation into the Bin Laden case, has also been boosting the perception of Pakistan’s efforts as he prepares to publish a book on the subject. Based on briefings from intelligence officials, he said ISI had also been interested in Abbottabad in the months before the raid, and had even begun watching the man who would turn out to be al-Kuwaiti.
The agency became suspicious of the man, also known as Arshad Khan, when they ran a check on him after he told locals he had business interests in Peshawar, something that turned out to be false.
Their investigations became urgent when he was seen bulk-buying medicines in Peshawar useful for treating ailments Bin Laden was thought to suffer from.
“When they learned about the medicine, their suspicions were aroused and the passed those suspicions on to the CIA, probably around December 2010,” he said.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst and expert on Islamist militancy, said ISI’s three previous attempts to net Bin Laden “probably looked like wild goose chases from Washington’s perspective”.
“This is an effort by the Pakistanis to try to rebut the very widespread notion in the US that they must have been somehow willing accomplices of Bin Laden’s presence in their country,” he said.
Underlying the distrust between the two ostensible allies is the decision by the US not to share any of the material which the US Navy Seals took away from the house, including huge amounts of data on computer hard drives.
For its part, Pakistan is holding on to tens of thousands of documents taken from the Abbottabad house, although the Pakistani security official described these as mere “scraps” compared with the vast amount of information held by the US.
Some of the Pakistani-held documents are believed to have been seen by European and US intelligence services.
The Pakistani official said close counter-terror co-operation between the two sides was wrecked by the killing on the streets of Lahore of two Pakistani civilians by a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, in January 2011.
“In 2009, there were 150 joint operations between us and the Americans, one every two days,” he said. “Raymond Davis put a stop to everything.”
But Riedel said Washington’s suspicions of Pakistan ran far deeper. There was “near total consensus” within the administration not to share any intelligence on Bin Laden, despite the damage they knew it would do to US-Pakistani relations.
“My judgment is that if we had told the Pakistanis in anything but the last five minutes, Osama would be alive today,” he said. “He would have escaped.”
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of a thinktank that tracks security trends, said it is much too late for Pakistan to try to take credit for tracking Bin Laden. He said the time to “reconcile and share responsibility” was in the immediate aftermath, when Barack Obama publicly thanked Pakistan for its support. “Unfortunately, they badly miscalculated – they thought Osama was a big figure, they were worried about the reaction of al-Qaida and the public in Pakistan,” he said.
But the wave of retaliatory attacks feared by some in Pakistan never happened, underling al-Qaida’s enfeebled state.