|Osama bin Laden (top), Hafiz Muhammad Saeed
March 19: The ISI ran a special desk assigned to handle Osama bin Laden, and the US had direct evidence that the then chief of the Pakistani spy agency knew of the 9/11 mastermind’s presence in Abbottabad, according to a New York Times article adapted from a book by one of its correspondents.
The article, written by Carlotta Gall who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the paper from 2001 to 2013, said Bin Laden conducted regular correspondence with a string of militant leaders, including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba and accused of plotting the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.
“Soon after the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s house, 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 United States 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. But in the weeks and months after the raid, Pasha and the ISI press office strenuously denied that they had any knowledge of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” according to the article adapted from The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, which will be published next month.
Navy SEAL commandos shot Bin Laden dead in May 2011 in the Abbottabad house.
According to the article, the haul of hand-written notes, letters, computer files and other information collected from Bin Laden’s house “revealed regular correspondence between Bin Laden and a string of militant leaders who must have known he was living in Pakistan, including Saeed 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…. Any correspondence the two men had with Bin Laden would probably have been known to their ISI handlers.”
Quoting an inside source, the article said “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”.
The journalist, now covering North Africa for The New York Times, recounted how she came across the information.
“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,” she said.
Gall added: “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.
“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 super-secret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.”
Referring to the building where Bin Laden was hiding, the article said: “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.
“All over the country, Pakistan’s various intelligence agencies — the ISI, the Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence — keep safe houses for undercover operations.
“They use residential houses, often in quiet, secure neighbourhoods, where they lodge people for interrogation or simply enforced seclusion. Detainees have been questioned by American interrogators in such places and sometimes held for months…. Because of Pakistan’s long practice of covertly supporting militant groups, police officers — who have been warned off or even demoted for getting in the way of ISI operations — have learned to leave such safe houses alone.”
The article also referred to a reported meeting between Bin Laden and a militant commander who still remains at large in Pakistan because he is too valuable for the ISI to lock up or eliminate.
“In 2009, Bin Laden reportedly travelled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to meet with the militant leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar…. Akhtar is considered one of the ISI’s most valuable assets. According to a Pakistani intelligence source, he was the commander accused of trying to kill (Benazir) Bhutto on her return in 2007, and he is credited with driving Mullah Omar out of Afghanistan on the back of a motorbike in 2001 and moving Bin Laden out of harm’s way just minutes before American missile strikes on his camp in 1998.
“After the September 11 attacks, he was detained several times in Pakistan. Yet he was never prosecuted and was quietly released each time by the ISI.”
According to the article, Akhtar requested Bin Laden to ensure al Qaida’s help in mounting an attack on the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
But Bin Laden rejected Akhtar’s request for help and urged him and other militant groups not to fight Pakistan but to serve the greater cause against America. “He warned against fighting inside Pakistan because it would destroy their home base: ‘If you make a hole in the ship, the whole ship will go down,’ he said,” the article said.
“Bin Laden said that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Indian Ocean region would be al Qaida’s main battlefields in the coming years, and that he needed more fighters from those areas. He even offered naval training for militants, saying that the United States would soon exit Afghanistan and that the next war would be waged on the seas,” according to the article.