What did Pakistan’s military and intelligence agents know about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and when did they know it?
In May 2010, in the aftermath of the attempted bombing of Times Square by a jihadist with ties to the Pakistani Taliban, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview to 60 Minutes and made a startling claim about the government in Pakistan. “I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill, those who attacked us on 9/11.”
Why would Clinton say this? Did the U.S. government have intelligence—an inside source, communications intercepts—that Pakistani officials knew where bin Laden was hiding? Or was America’s top diplomat just engaging in idle speculation about a nation often described as a key ally in the war on terror?
One hint: She had made similar comments before.
A year later, two days after a team of Navy SEALs had killed bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, CIA director Leon Panetta was even more blunt. In an interview with Time magazine’s Massimo Calabresi, Panetta explained why the United States went in on its own: “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets.”
That is a stunning statement. If Clinton would not accuse officials at the “highest levels” of the Pakistani government of al Qaeda sympathies, Panetta did. The CIA director does not deal with anyone other than officials at the highest levels of partner governments. So Panetta wouldn’t withhold information simply out of concern that there are al Qaeda sympathizers or agents seeded among the midlevel ranks of Pakistan’s military and ISI intelligence agency. He was concerned that the leaders of these institutions might alert the targets.
It was a reasonable concern for two reasons: the surprising location of bin Laden’s compound and the long history of support for jihadists from within the Pakistani security apparatus.
In August 2010, the U.S. intelligence community tracked Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier known to be very close to bin Laden, to a large compound in Abbottabad, just 40 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. The one-acre property immediately stood out. It was eight times larger than most of the surrounding lots, and it was contained by high walls topped with barbed wire—some rising to more than 15 feet. There were no obvious telephone or cable lines. From a nearby safe house, the CIA monitored the activities of the residents. Among other oddities, they burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection. A seven-foot wall on the third floor was high enough to allow a tall man to get some fresh air without being seen by his neighbors. But even after the intelligence community concluded that bin Laden was probably living there—a 60-80 percent likelihood, the CIA estimated—the location raised doubts.
Abbottabad is home to the Kakul Military Academy, often described as Pakistan’s West Point. As a result, many military officials retire there, to be close to their friends from the army. It frequently hosts high-ranking military officers and visiting foreign dignitaries. A week before the U.S. assault on bin Laden’s compound, the head of Pakistan’s military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, spoke at a ceremony on the grounds of the academy. In February 2010, General David Petraeus paid a visit to Kakul.
So as CIA analysts learned everything they could about the property, one question kept coming up: Is it possible that the world’s most wanted man is hiding in the shadows of one of Pakistan’s best-known military garrisons without the knowledge of that country’s top officials? They looked—and listened—for signs that official Pakistan was helping those ensconced in the compound. They did not find any.
Still, as Panetta’s comment suggests, the absence of that evidence did not allay suspicions that high-ranking Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden’s presence. And no wonder.
Bin Laden’s links to Pakistan dated to the 1980s, when he was a liaison between Saudi intelligence, Pakistani intelligence, and the so-called Arab Afghans who traveled from the Middle East to fight the Soviets. While the war against the Soviets was fought in Afghanistan, the Arab Afghan network bin Laden led was based in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda was headquartered for several years in Sudan in the 1990s, during which time bin Laden refashioned the Arab Afghan network into an international terrorist network. But after the Sudanese government expelled the terror master, al Qaeda relocated to Afghanistan, almost certainly with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence—the ISI.
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