On a clear night in early May 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. A secret Pakistani investigation of the operation, leaked to Al Jazeera, concludes that the operation was a “great humiliation” for Pakistan, the worst since the 1971 war with India. The U.S. had carried out a “hostile military mission deep inside Pakistan” without informing Islamabad, and the Pakistani security establishment had no idea bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, or in fact anywhere in Pakistan.
Based on months of investigation by a four-man tribunal led by a former Supreme Court judge, the report’s conclusions are at once predictable and startling. No individual is signaled out for blame. No names of those guilty are mentioned. After interviewing over 200 individuals, including bin Laden family members and senior ISI intelligence officers, however, the commission concludes the events of May 2011 were not a “stand-alone failure” of the ISI, the army or even the government. Rather, they are indicative of a society and especially an elite that is both incompetent and penetrated by extremist jihadis. The failure to find bin Laden is placed directly on ISI, which at best was guilty of an “extent of incompetence, which to put it mildly, was astonishing, if not unbelievable” or at worse “a grave complicity” at levels of command the commission could not identify. The failure to detect the U.S. intelligence operations in Abbottabad that preceded the SEAL raid, or to react to the raid itself until it was over, are blamed on a security bureaucracy that the commission concludes needs massive and systematic restructuring. In short, it is a devastating report, which is probably why Pakistan has yet to officially release it, six months after it was finished.
On the move
High value target number one, bin Laden, was surrounded by his family in the Abbottabad villa he was hiding in for six years. Three of his wives, eight of his children and five of his grandchildren were with him. According to the report, he fled Afghanistan’s Tora Bora in late 2001 and moved to the Pakistani city of Kohat, near Peshawar, where his family joined him. They had hidden in Karachi after 9/11, and then moved to the Swat Valley, where bin Laden met with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), the tactical mastermind of the 9/11 plot, at least once. KSM was captured by CIA in Pakistan’s military capital Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003, inside a closed military zone, less than a mile from the Army General Headquarters. They had not told ISI they were looking for KSM when they staged the raid. The capture prompted bin Laden to move to Haripur for two years while a special hideout was built for him in Abbottabad. Other bin Laden family members joined him there over time.
He moved into his new hideout in August 2005. Abbottabad is just 30 miles north of the country’s capital, Islamabad, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Rawalpindi, on the famous Karakoram Highway that follows the ancient Silk Road from South Asia over the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to China. It is also home to Pakistan’s premier Kakul military academy, which was less than a mile from bin Laden’s compound.
Abbottabad is named after British army officer and colonial administrator Sir James Abbott, who founded the city as a British army cantonment in January 1853. Abbott fought in the British East India Company’s wars against the Sikhs in the middle of the 19th century and was very fond of the city he founded. Apparently, so was bin Laden.
The CIA traced him there by following the trail of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, his Pakistani courier, who had worked with bin Laden in planning the 9/11 attacks and was his emissary to the outside world. Al Kuwaiti was a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman born and raised in Kuwait, who spoke fluent Arabic and Pashto and could move between two cultures easily. In 2010, U.S. intelligence community traced him to Abbottabad and a three-storey house that seemed different from most other homes in the city. It was surrounded by an 18-ft-high wall topped by barbed wire, had no electronic signatures (phone or Internet), and seemed custom-built to hide someone. Screens and interior walls blocked vision into the compound from outside. The Pakistani commission found it to be a “very peculiar design”.
No Evidence For Complicity
The Pakistani commission closely examined the construction of the safehouse from 2003 on. It discovered that it was the result of “a whole series of illegal and irregular transactions based on false documents and false identities” that should have attracted the attention of local authorities and ISI. The commission is justly mystified that “the entire neighbourhood, local officials, police and security and intelligence officials all missed the size, the strange shape, the barbed wire, the lack of cars and visitors, etc etc, over a period of six years,” an incompetence that “beggars belief”. It does not rule out complicity by some ISI elements but says it was unable to find any hard evidence.
The commission concludes al Qaeda practised good tradecraft in concealing its leader’s hideout for six years. But bin Laden could not hide without a support network beyond al Kuwaiti and his brother. Phone numbers found in the house by the SEAL team suggest al Kuwaiti was in touch with a terrorist group, which, as laid out in The New York Times in a June 2011 report, was Harkat ul Mujahideen, with whom bin Laden had worked since at least the late 1990s. It was created in the 1980s by ISI to fight India, and has loyally worked with it for decades. Its leader, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, lives openly in an Islamabad suburb.
The report is not as specific as the Times one, but it also concludes that al Kuwaiti and his cell were “embedded in an enabling environment” of the Pakistani jihadi community that facilitated their activity and assisted the hideout. It recommends that Pakistan investigate as a “matter of great concern if this “environment” included ISI personnel.
A Question With No Answers
The report is right to focus on the issue of the larger environment. Al Qaeda does not operate in Pakistan in a vacuum, but because it has a friendly environment. Bin Laden’s allies were men like Lashkar-e-Toiba leader Hafeez Saeed and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Both remain close allies of ISI. The commission rightly concludes that the problem is deeply entrenched in the country’s history. It says “the dark era of General Zia-ul-Haq left Pakistan with a poisoned legacy of a criminal, violent, ideological and anti-national infrastructure of extremism”.
American presidents since Bill Clinton have been warning Pakistan that harbouring and patronising terror would sooner or later lead to disaster. It has, and Pakistan is now a daily victim of the Frankenstein Zia created. The commission notes that U.S.-Pakistani relations have been “on a roller coaster” since they began in the 1940s but reached a nadir in 2011. It concludes that from its start, the Obama administration did not trust ISI and the army leadership. The commission devotes a paragraph to studying the works of this author on Pakistan, citing my line that Pakistan is “the most dangerous country in the world” as evidence of Obama’s deep distrust of the generals.
The tone of the bilateral relationship has improved somewhat since 2011, but the substance has not. The commission’s report reminds us that we still don’t have a good answer to the central mystery of Abbottabad–how did the most wanted man in history hide in the front yard of the Pakistani army for six years undetected? The report puts the burden primarily on ISI’s “gross incompetence” but doesn’t rule out the possibility of complicity. Perhaps we’ll never know, but the commission report is a useful and important addition to the search for an answer.