Outlook India

Why is Pakistan Wary of Admitting 
its Role in the Osama Hunt?

 
 

At around 00:35 am on May 2, the power supply to the picturesque garrison town of Kakul, in Abbottabad district, was cut off abruptly. Some 40 minutes later, give or take 10 minutes, say the town’s residents, they heard the clatter of helicopters. In the sky were four American choppers, two Black Hawks and two Chinooks, ferrying a special contingent of US Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) forces. Two choppers, it’s said, remained hovering even as a ferocious firefight ensued, prompting curious residents to step out of their houses to investigate what the din was about. They claim Pakistani security personnel shooed them back, telling them in Pashto that a deadly military operation was under way.

Forty minutes later, they heard a loud explosion—the Americans had decided to detonate a chopper which couldn’t take off because of a technical snag. Hours later, one was to hear the details of the operation from TV—the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was over; he had been killed as he resisted capture; and his body had been whisked way, ultimately to be buried in the Arabian Sea. Five others had died in the operation, and another 18, including women and children, were subsequently found in the mansion, their hands and feet bound.

Was it a sheer coincidence that the power supply to Kakul had been switched off prior to the operation? Was the presence of Pakistani security personnel in the town routine? Such questions acquire a certain urgent salience as America tweaks its narrative of the operation—Osama had resisted but was not armed; and then again, he hadn’t indicated surrender and was therefore shot dead.

 

On the evening of May 2, an ISI source told Outlook that the American choppers didn’t fly out to Abbottabad all the way from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, as claimed, but had in fact taken off from the Tarbela Aviation Base of the Pakistan army, quite close to Abbottabad city. Too startling, one would think, until renowned journalist Najam Sethi reiterated the same in his TV programme, Aapas ki Baat.

 

 

 

 

“It’s unlikely US raiders would’ve eluded the radars of 3 PAF bases en route from Jalalabad to Kakul,” says an ex-brigadier.

 

 

 

 

 

Intrigued, Outlook decided to quiz Brigadier (retd) Ikram Sehgal on the issue. His response was: “From Jalalabad to Kakul would have taken the American raiders over three bases of the Pakistani air force (PAF), including the very active army helicopter base at Tarbela. Having myself flown extensively in the area, I find it hard to believe that the PAF radar units, fixed and mobile, failed to pick up all this aerial activity. Also, from Jalalabad to Abbottabad and back, with 40-45 minutes of hovering time at the target location in Kakul area, is quite an extended time for the choppers to go without refuelling, even with a disposable fuel tank.” The Americans, however, say one of the choppers was precisely for the purpose: refuelling mid-air.

So as the details of the operation spilled out and ISI operatives began to talk off the record, a few more questions arose, flowing logically from the fog of details: Did Pakistan have prior information about the operation? What kind of intelligence did Pakistan share with the Americans that enabled them to track down Osama in his Abbottabad hideout? Why is Pakistan reluctant to admit all this? Primarily from the accounts of ISI sources and also from official briefings, Outlook has pieced together a narration to answer these questions.

Osama’s arrival in Abbottabad

It’s said that Osama and his family arrived in the Kakul mansion, located close to the Pakistani military academy there, in January 2006, around the time Al Qaeda issued his taped audio message after a gap of 15 months. Built amidst a lush green field and spanning over six kanals (3,630 sq yards), the three-storey main complex has eight huge bedrooms. The compound also has a smaller residential quarter, which is where another Al Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, arrested in 2005, had hid in 2003. His disclosure in custody had prompted the ISI to sweep the Kakul mansion months later. No fugitive was found.

By 2005-2006, the Osama trail had turned cold. From the interrogation of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, the Americans realised that Osama’s favoured mode of communication was through human couriers. The identity of the one he most favoured was ultimately revealed by another Bay detainee, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, who had been arrested from Pakistan in 2007. We now know the man as Sheikh Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was gunned down along with Osama. But then nobody knew his area of operation.

The Spiders

The breakthrough in the courier’s identification came through the Spiders, a nomenclature for those retired Pakistani army officers who, using their connection with the Afghan militants forged during the heyday of Taliban, supply information to the Americans in return for hefty payments. The Spiders had supplied information about a terror suspect and the Americans began to monitor him. It was while listening to one of his telephonic conversations in July 2010 that the Americans realised that the man he was speaking to was none other than al-Kuwaiti. Through Kuwaiti’s phone coordinates—not of Kakul though—the Spiders began to track him down, ultimately tracing him to the compound where Osama was eventually killed. The Spiders then tipped off the Americans that it seemed a third family, apart from al-Kuwaiti and his brother’s, was residing there.

The Americans relayed this information to Pakistan, whose officials treated it with disdain, saying the military garrison of Kakul was under constant surveillance and there was no possibility of Osama hiding here. The trail turned cold again.

The Bali Bomber’s arrest

The lucky break in Operation Geronimo came in January this year, courtesy Pakistan. Its intelligence operatives had put under surveillance Abbottabad resident Tahir Shehzad, who had been observed meeting an Arab, supposedly al-Kuwaiti. On January 23, Tahir travelled to Lahore, constantly shadowed by spooks. On reaching Lahore, he met two French nationals, Sharaf Deen and Zohaib Afzal—one of them a white French who had converted to Islam—at a venue close to the international airport. Believing a terror plot was afoot, the sleuths arrested the three on the spot.

 

 

 

 

Pak is mum on its role due to fear of reprisals, and to allow the US enough reason to pull out from Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

Their interrogation in turn yielded the crucial information that Javanese Arab Umar Patek, who was accused of masterminding the 2002 Bali bombing, was hiding in Abbottabad. On January 29, Patek and his wife were arrested from the Abbottabad residence of Pakistani national Abdul Hameed, following a bloody gunbattle with the Pakistani security forces. His interrogation prompted the Pakistanis to undertake what the Americans had suggested in August 2010—a vigil on the suspicious compound where al-Kuwaiti and his brother lived, the couriers with whom Patek too had been in touch. Close monitoring suggested there was indeed a third family living in the house. The comings and goings there—the milkman leaving his delivery outside the complex gate, the high compound walls, the surprising absence of a telephone connection and the daily incineration of garbage, among other things—suggested that a high-value target was in residence there. Obviously, no one knew or believed it could be Osama.

Yet this information wasn’t passed on to the Americans, nor were the arrests of Patek, Tahir and the French nationals made public. The reason was the raging controversy over the arrest of Raymond Davis, a former American soldier who had killed two Pakistanis on January 27. As the war of words between the US and Pakistan raged, Islamabad in pique chose to withhold from the Americans the information gathered from Abbottabad. Once Davis was released on March 16, and the US-Pak tension abated, Pakistan relayed to the Americans the presence of the high-value target residing in Kakul.

Hectic April

On April 12, ISI chief Shuja Pasha flew to Washington to meet CIA chief Leon Panetta, and inexplicably cut short his visit, returning home the same day. Then International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander Gen David Petraeus visited Islamabad on April 25 and met army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani at, of all places, the Chaklala air base. The two took a short trip to an undisclosed location on an aircraft. The same night, Gen Petraeus had participated, through teleconferencing, in a White House meeting chaired by President Obama. Analysts say it was this meeting that Obama referred to in his May 1 speech in which he announced Osama had been killed. On April 26, a meeting of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, which consists of key army commanders, was convened. Though not a regular member of the body, Pasha was among the participants, invited, sources say, to help assess the consequences of a possible killing of Osama. Following the May 1-2 operation, Pasha confirmed to Asia Times Online that the ISI had been aware of the Abbottabad raid. This statement hasn’t yet been denied. As Washington briefed journalists and issued statements, the ISI too began to leak information, claiming that it was Pakistan which had supplied information on the high-value target holed up in Abbottabad. This was subsequently reiterated officially.

So then, why is Pakistan wary of admitting to its role in the Osama hunt? Government sources insist that this stems from Pakistan’s fear of a blowback for its role in the killing of Osama. They remind you of the 2007 Operation Sunrise at Lal Masjid, which the army had launched to break the siege of Islamists who had held seminary students hostage. The high death toll then saw Pakistan reel under a spate of suicide bombings subsequently. Besides, say sources, Islamabad wanted Obama to be provided sufficient reason and justification to pull back American forces from Afghanistan. They say this will enable Pakistan to consolidate its growing clout over the Kabul regime. Like Fisk, many here confidently predict, “It will soon be back to business”.

That is just another chapter in the Great Game.


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©Jules Stewart 2010