x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ex-Pakistani soldier searches for the truth of Osama bin Laden's death

Shaukat Qadir, a former Pakistani infantry officer, examines the events leading up to the execution of Osama bin Laden by US special forces, a move that alienated one of Washington's key allies.

Pakistani police and locals gather outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed during Operation Geronimo in May 2011. Warrick Page / Getty Images
Pakistani police and locals gather outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed during Operation Geronimo in May 2011. Warrick Page / Getty Images

A note from the author: I started my efforts to discover the truth behind Osama bin Laden's execution in July 2011. Eight months have now passed since I commenced that work and I am still not finished. My adventures could easily fill a book, but I do not have the patience to write one, although my research and writing is large enough to qualify to be called a monograph. My thanks to The National for printing these extracts.

On May 2, 2011, I was in Islamabad when, in the small hours of the morning, I got a call from a friend, enquiring as to whether I had heard of the military operation in Abbottabad. I hadn't. I called another friend there, who told me that something was definitely going on: some explosions had been heard in the night and there had been considerable movement of troops since the explosion, but the entire operation appeared very hush-hush.

A couple of hours later, the story broke. We, in Pakistan, followed events with a variety of emotions: shock, dismay, betrayal, shame, disbelief but most of all, a sense of having been let down by our armed forces, our intelligence services, by our allies and especially by the Americans, for the insult they offered us in the accusation that the US couldn't trust us with the information.

Like many others, I was tracking the news as it unwound and numerous contradictions soon became apparent. Nobody seemed to have the real story of what happened that night. Conspiracy theories emerged from a variety of sources. Nobody in either the US or Pakistan seemed to accept the official versions, although the Pakistani people and the media were still baying for the army's blood.

But what, I wondered, was the truth?

•••

The story begins in August 2003, in a small village south of Gandamak in the province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden (OBL) had been ailing physically and mentally for more than a year. Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's number two, had been running the day-to-day affairs, including receiving donations and distributing monies, weapons, and overseeing the drug- and gun-running operations of the organisation.

I have, over the years, made extensive contacts and friends in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. As far back as 2003, my friends there were divided in their opinions as to whether OBL was still alive. However, even then, those who held the view that he was were insistent that he was ill and had become largely irrelevant to Al Qaeda.

Various options of where OBL should be permanently housed were considered by the hierarchy, all of which were within Pakistan. It was decided that OBL should live a secluded family life, without armed guards to protect him (since they would draw attention to him), in a city not too far from the tribal areas, so as to remain in communication.

Mustafa al-'Uzayti, a Libyan, better known as Abu Faraj Al Libi, and at that point Al Qaeda's number three, favoured the location of Mardan, a small cantonment in the heart of the Pashtun-dominated region. Arshad Khan - a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani also known as Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti, who maintained good relations with all of Al Qaeda's senior figures - believed that Mardan was too dangerous a location for OBL to take up permanent residence. Mardan was always under the eye of intelligence agencies because it was known to house some pro-Al Qaeda elements. He suggested Abbottabad as a better option.

Abbottabad is also a military cantonment, but a far larger one than Mardan. It is a small town, nestled in the Orash valley, has a pleasant climate and a picturesque setting. It lies a mere 90 kilometres from Islamabad, and just over 120km from Peshawar.

Al Libi sought OBL's approval for the move to Mardan, who insisted that a house be constructed on purchased land, not rented, and that it be built according to his requirements. Al Libi would later be captured in Mardan in 2005. Just as Al Kuwaiti had predicted, the town was unsafe for a prolonged stay for an Al Qaeda operative.

While Al Libi was being detained, Arshad Khan and his younger brother, Tariq Khan, who was also a member of Al Qaeda (though not as trusted as his elder brother) purchased three adjacent plots in Bilal Town, a wealthy suburb of Abbottabad, totalling approximately 3,000 square metres, and submitted draft plans for approval to the Abbottabad Development Authority. Liberal bribes were paid, and the appropriate permits were granted within days. Work commenced at breakneck speed.

•••

Many questions have been raised by the western media about the house's high barbed wire-topped boundary walls and the sheer size of its compound. How, they wondered, could this house fail to draw the attention of intelligence agencies? But this line of inquiry betrays a lack of knowledge of the Pashtun. Even the moderately wealthy prefer a large dwelling and, for such a house it would be unusual not to have a high perimeter wall.

Similar residences abound in Mardan, Charsadda and even the suburbs of Peshawar, although it would be hard to make the case that this was a "grand residence" or a mansion, as it has sometimes been referred to. For sure, it was a large compound, but the rooms inside the dwellings were fairly small in comparison to other Pashtun residences.

The locals describe Arshad as "affable, friendly, easy going, and easy to get along with". Though nobody saw the male member of the "family" living with the brothers - who was reputedly infirm and was said to be an uncle of the brothers - his veiled wives and children were seen by many, and there was deemed to be nothing remarkable about them. That the children, except Khalid, were not too fluent in Urdu was put down to their Pashtun origin. During all religious and national festivals, home-cooked food was routinely distributed by them to the poor, just as any other upper-middle class Pashtun would do. In other words, there was nothing extraordinary about the whole situation.

People here don't usually pry into their neighbours' backgrounds. However, at some point in late 2007, for some reason, Arshad volunteered that he had made some money off some business ventures in Dubai, before returning home and, due to family disputes in Charsadda, his hometown, he had opted to move to Abbottabad. He said that his current occupation was as a "money changer" dealing in foreign currencies in Peshawar, and that he also had some interests in real estate.

This piece of information, willfully surrendered by Arshad, came to the attention of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sometime around the end of 2007 or possibly in early 2008, and was passed on to their detachments in Peshawar and Charsadda.

Since these were "low priority enquiries", everybody took their time. There was nothing the least bit alarming about this since Arshad is a common first name in Urdu. However, the Peshawar detachment of ISI soon reported that they could not find any money changer or affiliate who lived in Abbottabad and bore his name.

In June 2010, it was established that Arshad travelled every month or so to Peshawar for a day or two to buy medical supplies before returning to Abbottabad. By this time, authorities in all major cities had reported that they could find no trace of Arshad the money changer from Abbottabad. Again, this in itself was nothing particularly worrisome, but clearly it piqued someone's curiosity.

So much so, in fact, that in July 2010, the ISI made a request to the CIA for satellite surveillance of Arshad's Abbottabad residence.

•••

While it is credible that the CIA discovered Arshad's identity, what is incredible is why it should have taken them until 2007 to do so. The CIA did know that Arshad (or Al Kuwaiti as he was also known) was a close confidante of Al Libi, who had been captured and handed over to the CIA two years earlier. But how was Al Libi not questioned regarding Al Kuwaiti's real identity? If he was, is it possible, especially now that we are familiar with the methods of interrogation used at Guantanamo Bay (where he had been taken) that he did not tell them? And to carry this reasoning one step further, if the CIA did finally learn of Arshad's identity in 2007, why should it take two long years to establish where he was residing; and then, another two years to discover that "he was housing a high-value target, probably OBL"?

On the other hand, if my version is correct, two significant CIA falsehoods are relevant to the story: firstly, that like the ISI, the CIA was really unaware of the intimate relations between Al Libi and Al Kuwaiti despite a number of Al Qaeda leaders in their custody who knew exactly who and where Al Kuwaiti was, and secondly, their insistence that the ISI did not provide the lead that ultimately took them to OBL's hideout.

And, the questions I raise lend credence to the likelihood that the CIA was, in fact, telling lies and, in all probability, actually began tracking OBL only in 2010, perhaps after receiving the lead provided to them by the ISI.

•••

Khairee, one of OBL's wives, joined him in Abbottabad in early 2011 after a prolonged absence. She and five of her children had been in custody in Iran since 2003.

In November 2008, Hashmatullah Atharzadeh, a cultural attache at the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, was kidnapped by the Taliban. After lengthy negotiations, his release was arranged in exchange for Suleman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti preacher and a spokesman for Al Qaeda, who rose to prominence when he announced post-9/11 that there would be further attacks on Americans in the US. His Kuwaiti citizenship was subsequently revoked and, by 2002, he was living in Iran under a kind of loose house arrest.

While Ghaith's release and exchange made news, the freeing of Khairee and her five children, who were let go at the same time, did not. Ironically, it is uncertain whether Iranian authorities were even aware of her real identity before March 2010, when another of OBL's sons made a public appeal for the release of his stepmother and his siblings.

She was, at the time, the eldest of OBL's wives, and was known to be extremely jealous of Amal, the youngest. She had good reason to be. We know that by this time, OBL was only sleeping with Amal. But why should Khairee choose to brave another hazardous journey to rejoin a husband she had been separated from for many years and no longer had any relationship with?

According to my sources, she applied to Attiya Abdur Rahman for help (who was then Al Qaeda's chief of operations) after being released by the Iranians in September 2010, but he was so suspicious of her intentions that he had her strip searched and checked for homing devices. Even after that, he kept her incarcerated for months until finally OBL told him to send her to Abbottabad in early 2011.

Or was it the other way round? Did Attiya actually keep Khairee long enough to reassure OBL that she could be trusted? Did the same Shoora that had decided on the need to "retire" OBL also determine that his retirement should be made permanent? Was Khairee being held to reassure OBL while she was being trained in communications? Was there a deliberate "leak" somewhere so as to enable the CIA to track Khairee to OBL's lair?

From here onwards, there is little dispute about what transpired. Whether a "routine request" from the ISI in July 2010 prompted them to investigate, or their own diligent pursuit of Arshad took so long, or whether Al Qaeda was deliberately leading them to OBL, according to the CIA's own version, it took from August 2010 until early April 2011 for Pakistanis working for the CIA to follow Arshad and locate his house. After which, through satellite surveillance, they reached their conclusions and "Operation Geronimo" was successfully undertaken.

•••

My narrative of Geronimo and its aftermath basically does not contradict the official US version as to most of the details of the operation. A little after 11pm on the night of May 1, two MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, accompanied by two Chinooks, took off from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan and headed for Abbottabad. The Blackhawks were carrying two assault teams of US Navy Seals numbering 28 (or 24, depending on which newspaper you refer to), 14 in each helicopter; the Chinooks carried another 30 troops as back-up.

According to the CIA's own version, all they were certain of, even as the raid was launched, was that there was "a high-value target housed in the compound, possibly OBL". Even after identifying Arshad, according to their own version, it took two years to discover his lair, another two years to discover that he was housing a "high-value" target and another nine months thereafter to confirm that the target was, in fact, very high value and, might even be OBL himself. Even when the operation was launched, the CIA was not certain of the identity of their target.

The official explanation for undertaking such a venture, without sharing it with the Pakistan government or military brass was that "we apprehended a possible leak".

Viewing this accusation from a historical perspective, it seems to have little validity. Pakistan's capture and rendering of senior Al Qaeda operatives to the US is almost unparalleled. Starting with Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, another Kuwaiti, believed to be Al Qaeda's operational chief, in 2003, continuing with Al Libi, Umer Patek and even Younas Al Mauritania in August 2011, well after OBL's execution, Pakistan has handed over many dozens of senior Al Qaeda operatives and a similar number of junior ones to the US. Nor was there any love lost between OBL and Pakistan.

Moreover, the US administration could not have been blind to the domestic repercussions in Pakistan resulting from such an attack. The embarrassment that the Pakistani government, but more particularly, that which the army and ISI would suffer, the feeling of humiliation and betrayal that the people of Pakistan would (and did) endure; the surge of anti-Americanism in Pakistan that was guaranteed to follow and, of course, the possible loss of a valuable ally.

•••

The first response was the sound of helicopters flying at around 12.20am on May 2. Both Lt Col Naseem, the commanding officer of the infantry unit, and the OC ISI Det (the officer commanding the intelligence services detachment) assumed that there was only one helicopter and, believing it to be Pakistani, ordered enquiries through their respective channels.

The OC ISI Det, who was also informed of the possibility of the helicopter having landed somewhere, set off to investigate. They came across each other close to the entrance to Bilal Town at about 12.55am, just as they heard a huge explosion.

Alarmed but expecting to be heading for the site of a helicopter crash (one of their own), Naseem called for the fire brigade and the entire party reached the scene at about 1:05am.

This times the event almost exactly: helicopters hovering to drop troops (and going silent thereafter) at about 12.35am and the explosion of the downed Blackhawk, followed by helicopters departing at 12.55am. A grand total of 20 minutes for the whole operation.

By about 1.20am, the officers realised that the helicopter was not a Pakistani one at all and, through their respective channels, conveyed this information to relevant superiors for onward submission.

Closer to 2am, Naseem and the OC ISI Det moved towards the compound. No lights were on, so the officers used torches to light their way. When they approached the compound's annex, they could see a body lying in the entrance at the door to the bedroom on the right hand side. This was when they realised that the operation had been a "hit". They also heard voices murmuring in the left-hand bedroom. Since the main door was locked, Naseem stayed there, while the OC ISI Det circled the house to enter it from a door on the left side which also opened into the left-hand bedroom. There he found Maryam, Al Kuwaiti's wife, and three children huddled together.

In the meantime, Naseem called for reinforcements. The OC ISI Det opened the main door and they both entered the house. The dead body was unarmed and later identified as being that of Tariq Khan. Oddly, he had an AK-47 leaning against the wall next to the door inside his bedroom, whereas he was lying dead outside the room.

Naseem asked the OC Quick Response Force to send a couple of men to guard the annexe, while they moved to the wide-open main door of the house. On entering the house, they heard sounds in the bedroom on the left. They found two bodies, a male and a female, later identified as Arshad and his brother's wife, Bushra, on the floor. Arshad was also unarmed but had an AK-47 in the bedroom opposite. Two adult females, Khairee and Seeham, and 11 of OBL's children and grandchildren, ranging in age from 20 years old down to three, as well as Arshad's four children, were also huddled in a corner.

Khairee, the only one who was fluent in English, asked permission to retrieve some of her clothing. When she was granted that request, she asked that Seeham be allowed to as well.

Going upstairs, Seeham, Khalid's mother, saw her son's dead body on the landing and, merely glancing at him, passed by. However, after collecting her belongings, she paused beside her son's body and said a brief prayer. Seeham spoke only in Arabic, but it was in this moment that she identified her son. Pointing at him, she said, "Khalid bin Laden". It was only then, at almost 3.00am, that the OC ISI Det learnt the identity of the "high-value" target that had been the objective of the raid.

Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer and a columnist for The National.