May 4, 2011
Of all the unanswered questions raised by the death of Osama bin Laden, one of the most salient for the U.S. national security community is how the world's most wanted man could have lived for so long just miles from Islamabad and "more or less hiding in plain sight," as one senior intelligence official described it Monday.
The spot where bin Laden died was about 800 yards from a Pakistani military school, called the country's West Point. John Brennan, the president's Chief Counterterrorism Adviser, said from the White House that it was "inconceivable" that bin Laden wasn't relying on a Pakistan-based support system.
But Pakistan was supposed to have been a valued, if at times nettlesome, ally in the fight against the al Qaeda terrorist network. Intelligence and military officials in that country "have a lot of explaining to do," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin said Monday.
Pakistan has received billions of dollars in military and foreign aid from Washington over the years, though many senior U.S. national security officials have long been resigned to the fact that the country is playing a double game in the fight against terrorism and in the fight for stability in Afghanistan. And it is not just al Qaeda. The militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba that attacked Mumbai in 2008, received support from Pakistan's intelligence service, according to investigators.
U.S. intelligence officials say that the compound where bin Laden made his last stand cost upwards of $1 million to construct and was many times larger than other structures in the area. That's a lot of money in a country where the annual per capita income is around $1,000.
All of which raises the thorny question of which Pakistani officials knew about the compound built in 2005, and what they knew about who lived behind its 12-foot cinder block walls. U.S. intelligence officials say they suspect that the compound was built specifically to hide bin Laden.
So it comes as no surprise that the Pakistani government was not notified about the raid ahead of time, U.S. officials say. "The Pakistanis did not know about our interest in the compound, but they did provide some information that was useful," a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Bin Laden was long thought to be hiding in the remote tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States and its NATO allies have launched countless raids and air strikes in that region with the aim of killing al Qaeda's top leadership, a strategy that has succeeded in killing many fighters but also many civilians. Those civilian casualties have in turn raised ire against the United States and caused the Pakistani government to lose some legitimacy in the eyes of its own citizens.
In the end, however, it is not so surprising that bin Laden would meet his end in Pakistan. There have been several other high-profile al Qaeda members that have made their last stands there, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi and Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad. In early April, Umar Patek, a militant linked with the Indonesian al Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, was arrested in Abbottabad.
Meanwhile, the senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban, including its chief Mullah Omar are understood to be living in Quetta, Pakistan, with at least tacit backing of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence.
In a larger sense, the discovery of bin Laden in urban Pakistan raises other questions about what U.S. intelligence officials knew, or thought they knew, about the founder of al Qaeda. In 2005, the year that construction began on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, the CIA shuttered its bin Laden Unit, known as Alec Station. In doing so, intelligence officials stressed the degradation of the al Qaeda organization and the new and dangerous development franchise groups. The next year, President George W. Bush said that bin Laden's trail had gone cold and that he was "just a person who's been marginalized."
But that assessment was based on the assumption that bin Laden was hiding in a remote area far from a communications infrastructure that could allow him to oversee al Qaeda operations worldwide. Despite the fact that the Abbottabad compound had no internet or telephone connections (an unusual feature that piqued the interest of CIA analysts) it was just a scant two hour's drive to the Pakistani capital. "It raises questions about how much bin Laden has been involved in al Qaeda in the years since 9-11. How much of what we thought we knew was wrong?" asks one senior counterterrorism official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Aside from killing bin Laden, one of the raid's key successes may be the exploitation of documents, computers, and other intelligence items that the Navy SEAL team may have picked up at the scene. Senior intelligence officials said Monday that those materials were being scrutinized for leads. Also, two women and an unknown number of children survived the 40-minute gun battle in Abbottabad. While both of the women were wounded, they could also provide useful information about how bin Laden could have laid so low for so long and who helped him along the way.
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