x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Did Pakistan know bin Laden was hiding out near Islamabad?

In the wake of the raid that ended a decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Islamabad is having to fend off suggestions that it may have known bin Laden's whereabouts all along.

The discovery of Osama bin Laden in an affluent garrison town less than 50km from Islamabad exposed Pakistan to embarrassing accusations yesterday that either its government or security service was sheltering the world's most wanted man.

Al Qa'eda's leader may have spent six years living in the three-storey, whitewashed compound just a kilometre away from the Kakul Military Academy, which trains Pakistan's army officers and is one of several military installations in Abbottabad, a resort city of 400,000 people.

Instead of being plucked from a cave along the border with Afghanistan where western intelligence officials had long thought he was hiding, bin Laden was shot by US special forces in a middle-class area just north of the Pakistani capital.

As the dust settled on the helicopter raid that ended a decade-long manhunt, Islamabad was forced to fend off suggestions that it may have known bin Laden's whereabouts all along. The questions mark a new chapter in a turbulent US-Pakistan relationship already strained by drone attacks and Washington's spy activities in the country.

The voices of suspicion came thick and fast from Washington, which said it carried out the raid without informing Islamabad. "There are a lot of people within the Pakistan government, and I am not going to speculate about who, or if any of them had foreknowledge about bin Laden being in Abbottabad but certainly its location there outside of the capital raises questions," said the White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Pakistan had "a lot of explaining to do".

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, insisted in the Washington Post yesterday that the authorities had thought bin Laden was somewhere else. A statement from his government last night described the raid as an "unauthorised unilateral action" and warned Washington not to launch similar operations in the future.

For the ISI, Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the failure to realise bin Laden was living with his family in relative comfort in a town favoured by retired military officials was described as an embarrassment.

An ISI official told the BBC that the compound in Abbottabad had been raided in 2003 when it was under construction because they believed an al Qa'eda operative, Abu Faraj al Libi, was there.

But since then "the compound was not on our radar, it is an embarrassment for the ISI", he said. "We're good, but we're not God."

The official also said that during the US raid bin Laden's daughter, aged 12 or 13, had seen her father shot dead.

Suspicions that Pakistan harbours militants have been a source of mistrust between the CIA and ISI, although the two agencies have co-operated in the arrests of al Qa'eda leaders since the September 11 attacks. Relations between the two agencies had been particularly strained in recent months after a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis in January.

Since then, a Pakistani official has said that joint operations had been stopped, and the agency was demanding the Americans cut down on drone strikes in the border area.

Monday's events in Abbottabad are likely only to deepen the mistrust. "Why had Pakistan not spotted that he is living in a nice tourist resort just outside Islamabad?" asked Gareth Price, a researcher at the Chatham House thinktank in London.

"It seems he was being protected by Pakistan. If that is the case, this will be hard for the two sides to carry on working together."

In Abbottabad yesterday police removed the barricades from the roads leading to bin Laden's last refuge but the Pakistan army barred anyone from entering the building.

The house was built around 2003 by two cousins, Arshad Khan and Tariq Khan, both described by their neighbours as in their 30s, who lived there with their wives and at least seven children. The house was built to ensure privacy. The boundary walls, topped with barbed wire, were almost 5.5 metres high.

Neighbours said both men were very polite and courteous. "They never harmed anyone and mostly kept to themselves", one elderly woman said.

Most residents were sceptical that bin Laden had been living in their neighbourhood. "Who knows if Osama was actually here. Nobody saw who was actually inside the house," said Saleem Jadoon.

While the Pakistani government and its spy agency were busy trying to defend their integrity and competence, militants in Pakistan were attempting to determine who may have provided the US with key intelligence that led to bin Laden's killing. In Karachi, senior militants - including commanders of the Afghan Taliban, and other Afghan and Pakistani groups associated with al Qa'eda - gave a reporter from The National details of bin Laden's movements in Pakistan, although these could not be confirmed.

Suspicion among the militants focused on the estimated 50 to 75 members of the Afghan Taliban and al Qa'eda who militants said had been arrested in Karachi in raids by Pakistani intelligence operatives since mid-February. One prominent suspect suggested by the militants was Tayyab Agha, secretary to the Afghan Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was detained on April 15. Mr Agha was the only one who would have known if and when bin Laden was in Abbottabad, said the militants.

They said bin Laden had stayed in Abbottabad on two occasions before: the first was "three or four years ago", when he stayed for "about a year-and-a-half".

The first time bin Laden travelled from Afghanistan to Abbottabad, in 2006 or 2007, a Pakistani militant escorted him, they said. The militants said the second time bin Laden visited Abbottabad was "about two years ago", when he stayed for "seven or eight months". He arrived in Abbottabad for his third and final visit on last Thursday or Friday, they said - a claim that differs from US accounts.

All three times he went to Abbotabad bin Laden had crossed the border from the Afghan province of Kunduz into Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, they said.

* Reporting by Salman Masood in Abbottabad, Tom Hussain in Islamabad, Amjad Hadayat in Karachi and the Associated Press. Ehsanullah Wazir contributed from Dera Ismail Khan.