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What Pakistan knew about Bin Laden

ISI ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden.

By: New York Times | Published:March 20, 2014 1:10 am
 It operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. It operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden.


Shortly after the September 11 attacks, I went to live and report for The New York Times in Afghanistan. I would spend most of the next 12 years there. In December 2006, I flew to Quetta. After our first day, we noticed that an intelligence agent on a motorbike was following us, and everyone we interviewed was visited afterward by ISI agents.

We visited a neighbourhood called Pashtunabad, home to several members of the Taliban, who live in houses behind high walls, often next to mosques and madrasas they run. One of the madrasas, the Jamiya Islamiya, is a brick-and-concrete building three storeys high, with classrooms that can accommodate 280 students. At least three of the suicide bombers we were tracing had been students here. Senior figures from Pakistani religious parties and provincial-government officials were frequent visitors, and Taliban members would often visit in the dark, in fleets of SUVs.

A female journalist would not be permitted inside, so I passed some questions to the Pakistani reporter with me, and he and the photographer went in. After returning, they told me that words of praise were painted across the wall of the inner courtyard for the madrasa’s political patron, a Pakistani religious-party leader, and the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.

“The madrasas are a cover, a camouflage,” a Pashtun legislator from the area told me. Behind the curtain, hidden in the shadows, lurked the ISI.

On our fifth and last day in Quetta, four plainclothes agents broke through the door of my hotel room. They snatched my laptop from my hands, went through my clothes and seized my notebooks and a cellphone. When one of the men grabbed my handbag, I protested. He punched me twice, hard, in the face and temple.

The officer told me that I was not permitted to visit Pashtunabad and that it was forbidden to interview members of the Taliban. As they were leaving, I said my photographer colleague, whom they had detained at his hotel earlier, had to stay with me. “He is Pakistani,” the officer said. “We can do with him whatever we want.”

Benazir Bhutto had long warned that a conglomeration of opponents wanted her dead and were all linked in some way. They were the same forces behind the insurgency in Afghanistan: Taliban and Pakistani militant groups and al-Qaeda, as well as the Pak military establishment, which included top generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

The chief state prosecutor in Bhutto’s murder trial, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, told me there was “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” that Musharraf did not provide her with adequate security because he wanted to ensure her death in an inevitable assassination attempt. Ali succeeded in having Musharraf arrested and was pushing to speed up the trial when he was shot to death on his way to work in May 2013.

Ali had no doubts that the mastermind of the plot to kill Bhutto was al-Qaeda. “It was because she was pro-American, because she was a strong leader and a nationalist,” he told me. A Pakistani security official who interviewed some of the suspects in the Bhutto case and other militants told me the decision to assassinate Bhutto was made at a meeting of the top council of al-Qaeda.

It took more than three years before the depth of Pakistan’s relationship with al-Qaeda was thrust into the open and the world learned where Osama bin Laden had been hiding, just a few hundred yards from Pakistan’s top military academy. In May 2011, some 30 hours after Navy SEALs shot him dead, I was fascinated to see where and how he hid.

People knew that the house was strange, and one local rumour had it that it was a place where wounded Taliban from Waziristan recuperated. I was told this by Musharraf’s former civilian intelligence chief, who had himself been accused of having a hand in hiding Bin Laden in Abbottabad. He denied any involvement, but he did not absolve local intelligence agents, who would have checked the house.

Soon after the Navy SEAL raid, a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. The information came from a senior US official, and I guessed that the Americans had intercepted a phone call of Pasha’s or one about him in the days after the raid. “He knew of Osama’s whereabouts, yes,” the Pakistani official told me. The official was surprised to learn this and said the Americans were even more so. Pasha had been an energetic opponent of the Taliban and an open and cooperative counterpart for the Americans at the ISI. “Pasha was always their blue-eyed boy,” the official said.

The haul of handwritten notes, letters, computer files and other information collected from Bin Laden’s house during the raid revealed regular correspondence between Bin Laden and a string of militant leaders who must have known he was living in Pakistan, including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Mullah Omar of the Taliban. Saeed and Omar are two of the ISI’s most important and loyal militant leaders. Both are protected by the agency. Both cooperate closely with it, restraining their followers from attacking the Pakistani state and coordinating with Pakistan’s greater strategic plans. Any correspondence the two men had with Bin Laden would probably have been known to their ISI handlers.

In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood.

Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.

America’s failure to fully understand and actively confront Pakistan on its support and export of terrorism is one of the primary reasons President Hamid Karzai has become so disillusioned with the United States. As American and NATO troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the Pakistani military and its Taliban proxy forces lie in wait, as much a threat as any that existed in 2001.

In January 2013, a spokesperson for the notorious Haqqania madrasa in the northwestern town of Akora Khattak told me, “It is a political fact that one day the Taliban will take power. The white flag of the Taliban will fly again over Kabul, inshallah.”

Pakistani security officials, political analysts, journalists and legislators warned of the same thing. The Pakistani military was still set on dominating Afghanistan and was still determined to use the Taliban to exert influence now that the United States was pulling out.

Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press reported in September that militants from Punjab were massing in the tribal areas to join the Taliban and train for an anticipated offensive into Afghanistan this year. In Punjab, mainstream religious parties and banned militant groups were openly recruiting hundreds of students for jihad, and groups of young men were being dispatched to Syria to wage jihad there. “They are the same jihadi groups; they are not 100 percent under control,” a former Pakistani legislator told me. “But still the military protects them.”

The US was neither speaking out against Pakistan nor changing its policy toward a government that was exporting terrorism, the legislator lamented. “How many people have to die before they get it? They are standing by a military that protects, aids and abets people who are going against the US and Western mission in Afghanistan, in Syria, everywhere.

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