In the prologue to his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Ghost Wars, journalist Steve Coll wrote, “In history’s long inventory of surprise attacks, September 11 is distinguished in part because of the role played by intelligence agencies and informal secret networks in the preceding events. As bin Laden and his aides endorsed the September 11 attacks from their Afghan sanctuary, they were pursued secretly by salaried officers from the CIA. At the same time, bin Laden and his closest allies received protection, via the Taliban, from salaried officers in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. This was a pattern for two decades. Strand after strand of official covert action, unofficial covert action, clandestine terrorism, and clandestine counterterrorism wove one upon the other to create the matrix of undeclared war that burst into plain sight in 2001.”
On May 1, that same “matrix of undeclared war” was evident once again after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, a military garrison city 50 km north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Its military installations, including Pakistan’s top military academy, make it about as sensitive a place as exists in a country ruled by generals. Finding bin Laden there, and not somewhere in an obscure cave, suggests what Coll already made clear in his seminal book: despite repeated denials, elements within the ISI, the intelligence branch of the military, had continued to provide protection for bin Laden.
Pakistani authorities will obviously not admit to that. But retreat into ignorance will not be enough to appease the world this time, especially the U.S., which has poured billions into Pakistan’s military and civilian coffers over the past decade. What Pakistani officials actually knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts has become a topic of intense scrutiny in Washington. Members of Congress are demanding answers, and threatening to cut funding to the country if solid evidence emerges that bin Laden received protection from elements within the security services.
Such evidence may never emerge. The ISI is good at what it does, especially when it comes to keeping its contacts with terrorists secret. Over years of clandestine support for jihadist groups during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, it has learned how to operate in the Pakistani-Afghan border region without drawing attention to itself. It has groomed a vast network of agents and sources, while ensuring that nothing traces back to the organization itself.
But a growing cadre of former Pakistani military officers have begun to voice their disbelief over claims that the ISI had no idea bin Laden was at the Abbottabad compound. “I would think it’s probably complicity at some level,” Talat Masood, one of those officers and now a security analyst, told Britain’s Independent newspaper on May 4. “Otherwise it would be impossible. I’m puzzled and ashamed.” Senior ISI sources told Maclean’s that he is not alone. “Officers are in shock,” one brigadier-level officer says. “Someone had to have known, but it would have to be at the highest level. Only a handful of the top brass would be in on this, and that has made lower-grade officers extremely upset. The entire organization is now under threat because of the foolishness of a few.”
Another officer suggests that the clues were there all along. “If bin Laden was there,” he says, “there is no way the ISI would leave him on his own. He would have handlers living with him. The two men who were living there fit the typical description of ISI handlers. They ran errands and mixed into the household with their families. They had fake Pakistani identity cards and drove a white Potohar jeep. The Potohar is a dead giveaway: the ISI bought thousands of those cars in the late 1990s for its officers. It’s a running joke in Pakistan: if you see a white Potohar in your rear-view mirror, be careful, the ISI is on your tail.”
The evidence, of course remains circumstantial. But perhaps another way to approach the question of whether the ISI protected bin Laden is to ask another: what use could bin Laden have been to the intelligence agency? Quite a bit, as it now appears, in terms of two of the ISI’s main goals: exerting a presence in Afghanistan to counter archrival India’s growing influence in Kabul, and bringing to heel domestic extremist groups and their terror campaign within Pakistan itself.
In Afghanistan, there is little doubt that the ISI hoped bin Laden would provide it with the leverage it needed over groups the ISI deemed central to its regional objectives. The most prominent, of course, was the Quetta Shura, or Afghan Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Afghan Taliban was close to bin Laden, sheltering him during the latter part of the 1990s when they were in power and the Saudi jihadist was first showing signs of his global agenda, funding terrorist training camps along the Pakistani border. Indeed, the influence the global terrorist had on the Taliban was illustrated at a September 1998 meeting between Mullah Omar and then-chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Of bin Laden, Omar is reported to have said, “Why are you persecuting and harassing this courageous, valiant Muslim? Instead of doing that, why don’t you put your hands in ours and let us go together and liberate the Arabian Peninsula from the infidel soldiers?” The Pakistani ISI chief at the time, Naseem Rana, was reported to be present at that meeting.
After 9/11 and the U.S.-led coalition’s subsequent removal of the Taliban regime, the Afghan Taliban decamped to the border regions of Pakistan. Aiding and providing a hideout for the renowned bin Laden, now the object of an intense U.S. manhunt, could have helped the ISI exert influence over the Afghan Taliban, making it a proxy as the extremists continued their campaign against the Indian-influenced regime in Kabul.
Within Pakistan itself, how could sheltering bin Laden have helped the ISI? Over the past 10 years, the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan, inspiring homegrown militant groups, the Pakistani Taliban among them, that have mounted a domestic terrorist campaign. Indeed, after bin Laden’s death, and accusations that officials in Pakistan knowingly helped him, politicians seized on their country’s suffering like a mantra. “Pakistan has lost some 30,000 men, women and children and more than 5,000 armed forces personnel,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliamentarians a week after bin Laden was killed.
But while military operations against domestic militants continue in the tribal areas, there have been peace deals with some. These same deals have raised eyebrows, and now questions about possible connections to bin Laden.
The timing here is crucial: the Pakistani military first began making deals with the country’s own extremist groups around 2004. None of them held—until a September 2006 deal with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a militant commander based in North Waziristan. Bahadur is also a close ally of the ISI-connected Haqqanis, a network of militants against whom the Pakistani military has been reluctant to move, with ties as well to al-Qaeda and its Arab fighters as well as Mullah Omar, who were all instrumental in convincing him to sign the deal and abide by it (although it briefly broke down in 2007).
2006 was also the year that bin Laden reportedly moved into the compound in Abbottabad, after allegedly being in hiding in the mountainous border areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border. Circumstantial, to be sure—but the timing is suspicious.
Once Bahadur fell in line, he began working to bring other Pakistani militants onside, especially Baitullah Mehsud, then leader of the Pakistani Taliban (he was later killed). The effort was unsuccessful, although in early 2009 Mehsud did agree to join Bahadur and Mullah Nazir, another powerful militant commander in North Waziristan with whom Bahadur had formed an alliance, in an umbrella group, the Council of United Holy Warriors. Weak from the outset, it may now be defunct. But, interestingly, it declared Osama bin Laden as its ideologue, Mullah Omar as its supreme commander, and excluded the Pakistani military from its list of primary enemies, which included the U.S. and its NATO allies, Israel, and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president.
Bin Laden’s hand in such machinations may, of course, never be revealed. But it is clear that he—and possibly through him, the ISI—had some leverage over the Haqqanis, the Afghan Taliban and Bahadur.
Other questions revolve around an extraordinary recording bin Laden released in January 2006, breaking a lengthy silence just as he was settling into his Abbottabad safe house. In it, for the first time, he offered the U.S. a truce, contingent upon American forces leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the U.S. administration, under George W. Bush, rejected the offer, and it is difficult to judge its sincerity. But was the ISI involved in convincing bin Laden to make that offer? What’s clear is that the time of bin Laden’s move into the Abbottabad compound was one of intense behind-the-scenes activity in Pakistan—and that the terrorist leader could have been a strategic asset for the ISI.
None of this, of course, is enough to establish with absolute certainty that elements within the ISI protected bin Laden. But the agency has been clearly shaken. And, meanwhile, Washington’s campaign against terrorists continues, with indications that the U.S. has begun to aggressively pursue Mullah Omar, while President Barack Obama has stated that he reserves the right to order more covert operations similar to that conducted against bin Laden, targeting other senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. That campaign could raise further questions about the ISI, and its connections to extremist groups. The “matrix of undeclared war” may have burst into the open again with the killing of bin Laden, but it seems that war is far from over.