Osama bin Laden’s wives have now told their story of the last decade of the al Qaeda’s leader’s life on the run. They were arrested by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) after the U.S. Navy SEALs left his hideout last May with his dead body. The wives’ tales have been released by the ISI through a trusted former Pakistani army general’s account for obvious reasons. The ISI wants to draw attention away from its own possible complicity in hiding bin Laden and toward other issues. But the details in the wives’ story actually only increase the question marks about possible ISI complicity.
High-value target No. 1, bin Laden was surrounded by his family in the villa in which he hid for six years inside the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Three of his wives, eight of his children, and five of his grandchildren were with him. The ISI has debriefed them all, and now it has allowed a retired Army officer access to the interrogation reports and to the hideout itself. It wants to portray bin Laden’s decade on the run after the fall of Afghanistan in the best possible light, suggesting he was ill and inactive, surrounded by family quarrels. Since the current director general of ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is about to be replaced, this may also be Pasha’s attempt to clear his own name from the charge that he was either totally incompetent for not finding bin Laden for years or complicit in hiding him.
The key character in the story is bin Laden’s last and youngest wife, a Yemeni girl named Amal that he married in 1999 just before the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor in Yemen. Amal was with bin Laden almost all of the rest of his life and was probably his favorite. In the ISI’s interrogations, she says he fled from Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001 and moved to the Pakistani city of Kohat, near Peshawar, where he met with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the tactical mastermind of the 9/11 plot, at least once. KSM was captured in Pakistan’s military capital, Rawalpindi, on March 1, 2003. Bin Laden moved around Waziristan, Pakistan’s lawless frontier district in 2003, then to the Swat valley north of the capital of Islamabad for a few months. In 2004 he settled into a house in Haripur only 20 miles from the capital before moving to the Abbottabad hideout in 2005. There he was about 30 miles from the capital, an hour’s drive. So he was in Pakistan for almost 10 years, mostly in settled urban centers, not caves in the remote tribal boondocks.
Amal also claims he had a kidney transplant in 2002. The story is vague as to where the operation took place, some accounts say Karachi, others suggest outside of Pakistan. So he was in a hospital somewhere in Pakistan or traveling abroad right when the ISI was supposed to be hot on the chase. Amal suggests that life in the house became more difficult in early 2011, when bin Laden’s eldest wife, a Saudi named Khairiah Saber, arrived in the compound after living in Iran since 2001. Khairiah, along with one of bin Laden’s sons and several of his closest lieutenants, had gone west into Iran after the fall of Kandahar instead of east into Pakistan like most of al Qaeda. After a decade of house arrest, the Iranians let the al Qaeda exiles go in late 2010 under mysterious circumstances. Their release may have been an exchange for an Iranian diplomat al Qaeda had kidnapped or it may have been part of a gradual rapprochement between Tehran and al Qaeda (or both). Apparently, the two ladies did not get along.
The picture that emerges is of a busy household and of a hideout that was well known to the al Qaeda core leadership, enough that the boss’s lost wife could find her way to it. Other information that has come out in the last month also shows that bin Laden communicated from the hideout with the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the so-called Army of the Pure that terrorized Mumbai in November 2008, killing six Americans, and with Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, NATO’s main enemy in Afghanistan. Both are very close to the ISI. The head of Lashkar-e-Taiba openly mourned bin Laden after his death and has been traveling around Pakistan since late last year holding massive rallies calling for jihad against America and India. The ISI is sponsoring his campaign. The Taliban also mourned bin Laden’s death last May.
Abbottabad is not your normal Pakistani city. It was founded by Sir James Abbott in January 1853 to be a garrison city for the British East India Co.’s army. It is still a military town. Three regiments call it home, as does Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, the Kakul Military Academy, which is less than a kilometer from bin Laden’s hideout. It is so well guarded that in 2009 Pakistan held its first ever counterterrorism training exercise with China in Abbottabad because it was super secure. The head of Afghan intelligence has said he told then–Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2006 that his sources believed bin Laden was somewhere near Abbottabad. Musharraf brushed him off.
In 2007, a former Pakistani ambassador and I were attending a conference in Doha. I asked where the ambassador thought bin Laden was hiding. The ambassador said probably in a safe house built by the ISI inside a military compound. After the SEALs found bin Laden, the country’s biggest English-language newspaper published an op-ed that said that the Army knew he was there for years. So many Pakistanis have suspected ISI complicity for years.
But we really still don’t know whether the ISI was clueless or complicit. Pasha says clueless. The wives’ accounts make that harder than ever to believe. One thing is certain: the commission that the Pakistani government formed to investigate the issue will not tell us the truth. Pakistan is charging the wives with illegal entry into the country and has destroyed the hideout. Many in the civilian government are scared to ask the Army for the truth. They know one journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was murdered by the ISI last summer for getting too close to the answer.