The bitter truth about American SEALs Abbottabad raid
July 27, 2019: Contrary to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s July 23, 2019 claim in Washington that Pakistan’s key spy agency had provided the Americans with a lead that helped them find and take out Osama Bin Laden, the truth remains that the then Director General of the Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, had admitted his intelligence failure in the Abbottabad incident during an in-camera joint session of the Parliament where he had offered his resignation for letting down the nation. However, he was spared and allowed to continue as the ISI chief.
While countering the Pakistani Prime Minister’s claim, the former CIA Director General David Petraeus said on July 24, 2019 that he was convinced that the Pakistani intelligence agencies did not know Osama was in Pakistan. Petraeus said during counter-insurgency campaigns, Pakistani authorities could never close in on North Waziristan where terror outfits such as the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and others had their headquarters. “The United States learnt later on that Osama bin Laden was not in that area but near the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. I figured out later that I had probably flown right over his compound in a helicopter as I went to address the cadets at the military academy one time”, he said while referring to the Pakistan Military Academy.
A day earlier, Imran Khan, in an interview with the Fox News during his recent visit to Washington, had referred to the May 2011 American raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and said that he never felt more humiliated than he did on May 2, 2011 when the American commandos took him out without informing Pakistan. “Never did I feel more humiliated than I did when OBL was taken out in Pakistan”. “Here was a country which was an ally, which did not trust us enough to tell about the raid. We do not want to be humiliated like this again.” Imran further claimed that the initial help in tracking down Osama was provided by the Inter-Services Intelligence.
Imran’s Khan claim about the ISI help in tracking down Osama, and that too in Washington, was significant as Islamabad had so far denied that it had any information about the hideout of the al-Qaeda chief before he was killed in a covert raid by the American Navy SEAL commandos in the Bilal Town area of the garrison city of Abbottabad. The truth remains that the former DG ISI and Imran Khan’s mentor in politics, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha had presented himself for “full accountability” during the joint session of the parliament on May 13, 2011, saying there was an intelligence failure and he was ready to face the consequences including resignation, if the parliament so demands.
The proceedings of the unusual, and heated closed-door session were made public by the then information minister and the incumbent advisor of Prime Minister on Information, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan. While quoting the then DG ISI, she said the United States used stealth technology on its helicopters that could not be detected by the radars. “It was due to the technological superiority that they managed to get in”. Firdous added that Lt Gen Pasha had offered his resignation twice. Lt Gen Pasha and the then Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani were called before the extraordinary 11-hour session to answer to the failures of the military and the ISI that allowed a special team of American commandos to enter and leave Pakistan in a stealth helicopter operation which remained undetected.
It was perhaps the only time in Pakistan’s history that senior military officials, considered to be above the civilian law and a power unto themselves, were made to appear before the Parliament. Unusually vibrant criticism by some politicians and the Pakistani press after the raid compelled both the mighty generals to try to repair the reputation of the military and the intelligence agency, which the Pakistan Army controls. A resolution that was passed at the session said Pakistan would revisit its relationship with the United States with the view to ensuring that the national interests is fully respected. Pasha informed the parliament that after the OBL raid, it has already been decided that the ISI would not allow the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct operations in Pakistan without the full knowledge of the ISI. The spy chief did the talking. General Kayani attended the session, along with the heads of the air force and the navy, but did not speak.
The senior military officials faced a volley of questions during the joint session, particularly from opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who said that if the ISI was admitting its failure, then the responsibility too should be fixed more specifically. Chaudhry Nisar also sought a guarantee from the military leadership that no such incident would occur in the future. The PML-N parliamentarians came down hard on the Army and even exchanged hot words with other parliamentarians, mainly because of the fact that they were sitting in the opposition and the PPP was the ruling party at that time. However, eight years after the infamous OBL raid, mystery continues to shroud the American stealth operation in Abbottabad, amid claims and counter claims by the United States and Pakistan.
While the Pakistani claim of providing a tip to the Americans about Osama seems disputed, Pulitzer prize winning US journalist Seymour Hersh had claimed on May 10, 2015 that a former Pakistani intelligence official had informed the Americans about the Abbottabad hideout of al-Qaeda chief. Hersh claimed in his story published in the London Review of Books that the May 2, 2011 raid by the US Navy SEALs was planned by the Americans with full knowledge and cooperation of the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which at that time were headed by General Ashfaq Kayani and Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Hersh further claimed that the operation that ultimately led to Osama’s death, in fact began with a walk-in.
Seymour Hersh’s reports stated: “In August 2010, a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA station chief at the US Embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find Osama bin Laden in return for the [head money] reward that the United States had offered in 2001. Although the CIA did not believe him, the intelligence agency’s headquarters sent a polygraph team which finally began to believe the Pakistani intelligence official only after he had passed the test. The former intelligence official and his family were subsequently smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in Washington [before the Osama hideout was raided]. He [the former Pakistani intelligence officials] is now a consultant for the [American] CIA”.
Hersh’s revelations had actually belied the official version of the US intelligence sleuths that a call dialed the cell phone of Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti alias Arshad Khan (who was a trusted courier of Osama) eventually helped track the fugitive al-Qaeda chief, four years later. Kuwaiti was killed in the May 2011 Abbottabad raid along with his other courier brother, and Osama. Several international media reports had claimed after Osama’s killing that the CIA had learned of his Abbottabad whereabouts in August 2010 when an informant linked with Pakistani intelligence walked into a US Embassy and claimed that Osama was living in a house in Abbottabad.
Well-known American investigative journalist Richard Miniter had claimed in his book published in August 2012 that a senior officer from Pakistan’s spy agency had helped the United States in providing vital information in locating Bin Laden. The book, “Leading from Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors Who Decide for Him”, claimed: “When the CIA revealed that an ISI officer had contacted the CIA in Islamabad and offered information about bin Laden, a debate followed. Was this a secret sign that the head of the ISI himself was pointing out bin Laden’s hiding place or was the officer actually the patriot who hated extremism that he claimed to be? Whatever the motivation, the CIA found Osama bin Laden’s hiding place within a month of the officer’s visit”.
Going by some other accounts of the story, after confirming that the information about Osama’s location was somewhat accurate, the CIA set up a safe house in Abbottabad in September 2010 with a view to monitor bin Laden’s compound. Once it was clear that the information from the walk-in source was accurate, the then CIA chief Leon Panetta set up a reporting chain from the CIA’s Pakistan station direct to him, a highly unusual move that involved bypassing the normal official channels. By January of 2011 there was a high degree of certainty that bin Laden was in the house. In early February 2011, Leon Panetta suggested that the US should move on bin Laden. But some other senior American officials wanted to avoid the “boots on the ground” strategy at all costs. Panetta was in favour of an invasion. Yet President Obama balked on the advice of Valerie Jarrett, a close aide.
It may be recalled that the New York Times had claimed in a March 2014 report that the US had direct evidence about former ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha knowing Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad at the time. The newspaper had also quoted former ISI chief Lt Gen Ziauddun Butt, saying Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. While the military circles had strongly refuted the NYT report as a pack of “white lies”, it was hard for the international community to believe that the world’s most wanted terrorist was living unnoticed for five years in a vast compound in Abbottabad without any support system.
The Osama compound in Abbottabad was demolished by the Pakistani authorities on February 28, 2012 because it was an embarrassing reminder of their incompetence and their alleged complicity. It may be a coincidence, but the compound was razed the day a US-based global intelligence firm [Stratfor] had reported while citing WikiLeaks, that middle to senior-level officials in the Pakistani establishment knew the arrangements made for bin Laden at his Abbottabad safe house. “Mid-to-senior level ISI and Pak military, with one retired Pak military general, had knowledge of the OBL arrangements and safe house,” wrote Fred Burton, Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence in an e-mail which was leaked by WikiLeaks to his company’s regional director for South Asia, soon after the May 2, 2011 Abbottabad raid.
Stratfor, which provides analysis of world affairs to major global corporations, military officials and government agencies, was given access to classified information papers collected from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. The information leaked by the WikiLeaks through Stratfor suggested that up to 12 officials in the ISI knew of the Osama’s safe house. In fact, General Ashfaq Kayani (October 2004-October 2007), Lt Gen. Nadeem Taj (October 2007-October 2008), and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha (October 2008–March 2012), in that order, headed the ISI during the period between 2005 and May 2, 2011, when Osama bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad. Interestingly, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, who was a close relative of General Pervez Musharraf, was the head of Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad before being elevated as director general of the ISI. Also, General Kayani had visited the Kakul Academy on April 23, 2011, nine days before Osama’s killing.
In his February 17, 2012 article titled “What did Pakistan know about bin Laden, senior American journalist and novelist David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post that any probe on Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan should focus on several issues, including how the al-Qaeda chief came to Abbottabad in 2005 and what the Pakistani officials knew about his whereabouts. “Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani was ISI chief at the time, but the dominant figure was President [General] Pervez Musharraf. The commander of the PMA (Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul) in Abbottabad from 2006 was Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, who succeeded Kayani as head of the ISI in 2007”. Ignatius further referred to former ISI chief General Ziauddin Butt’s claim that the Abbottabad compound was used by Intelligence Bureau and noted that a report in the Pakistani press had quoted him as saying that Osama’s stay at Abbottabad was arranged by Brigadier (retd) Ijaz Shah, during 2004-2008, on General Pervez Musharraf’s instructions. General Ziauddin Khawaja, also known as Ziauddin Butt, headed the ISI from 1997 to 1999.
General Ziauddin Butt repeated his claim in the February 2012 issue of the Newsweek magazine, in an online interview conducted by Bruce Riedel. Riedel quoted Lt Gen Butt as saying: “General Musharraf knew that Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad and his IB chief Ijaz Shah had hired the bungalow for the fugitive Al-Qaeda leader.” Being a four-star general, who was the first head of the Army’s Strategic Plans Division [that controls the country’s nuclear weapons], Ziauddin Butt claimed that Brig Ijaz Shah was responsible for setting up bin Laden in Abbottabad besides ensuring his safety and keeping him hidden from the outside.
But well-informed intelligence circles in the garrison town of Rawalpindi concede that the vital information about the bin Laden compound was actually provided to the Americans by none other than an ISI official – Brigadier Usman Khalid. The retired Brigadier, who has already been granted American citizenship along with his entire family members, persuaded Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, to conduct a fake polio campaign in the Bilal Town area of Abbottabad to help the Central Intelligence Agency hunt down Osama.
Whatever the truth may be, the fact is that ever since the Abbottabad operation was carried out, Pakistan’s official version keeps changing; the state had initially acknowledged that Islamabad was in the know, but later appeared to backtrack. Because of the veil of secrecy over this matter, the truth has failed to emerge, which is why clarity is needed from the authorities about what exactly happened in the Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2, 2011, especially after the rebuttal of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claim by former CIA Director General David Petraeus — that the Pakistani intelligence agencies did not know that Osama was hiding in Pakistan.
In its July 27, 2019 editorial note, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn has very rightly suggested that to dispel the confusion about the OBL raid, the state must release the Abbottabad Commission report. “Unfortunately, whenever it comes to matters of national importance, the trend in Pakistan has been for the state to drag its feet, form a commission, and then forget about the matter. In the aftermath of major national crises, this is the pattern that has been followed. For example, the state was forced to publish the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report — on the East Pakistan debacle — only after it was published in an Indian paper. In this age of right-to-information laws, leaks and whistleblowers, it is very difficult to keep the lid on unpleasant events. The fact is that when the state is silent on such issues, it gives rise to speculation, and worse, conspiracy theories. While redactions can be made to cover matters that the state considers essential to national security, the Abbottabad Commission report and other similar documents need to be made public to dispel rumours and establish the facts. Once the verified details of such matters are in the public domain, they can be discussed at various forums so that lessons can be learnt and similar mistakes avoided. Officialdom needs to shed its hidebound thinking and commit itself to transparency and accountability in order to move forward”.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and “The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.” He has also served as the Group Editor and Chief Operating Officer of several English and Urdu newspapers and Television channels respectively.