This week, Seymour Hersh, America’s most famous and controversial investigative journalist, caused an uproar with his allegations that the U.S. government account of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was a lie. According to his version of events, published in the London Review of Books, bin Laden was not only living under the protection of the Pakistani military but the raid that nabbed him was planned and executed with Pakistani consent.
Critics, White House officials in particular, have strongly condemned the allegations, accusing Hersh of conspiratorial excess. Hersh relies on anonymous sources and unnamed insiders, they say, and builds a narrative of events that are impossible to verify. Nonetheless, based on my own experiences reporting in Pakistan, his story does ring true.
And here’s why:
In November 2009, one and half years before the Navy SEAL operation that killed him, I was told by a Pakistani militant that Osama bin Laden was in a safehouse in Abbottabad, a garrison city 100 km north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad. The militant, a former member of the Lashkar e Taiba (LeT), one of Pakistan’s most powerful jihadi groups with close ties to the Pakistani military, was absolutely certain.
“Osama bin Laden is here,” he told me while we were driving through the town on our way to the capital. “The ISI are protecting him. The senior LeT commanders are close with the ISI. They all know he’s here.”
I didn’t believe him. Abbottabad is one of Pakistan’s most important military cities, home to the Pakistan Military Academy, the equivalent of West Point. Much of its population is made up of retired military officers.
But nine months later, according to Hersh’s account, a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer would walk into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and tell the CIA station chief more or less the same thing: Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
I’ve kept that bit of information to myself these past few years. Even while I was back in Abbottabad covering the killing of bin Laden in May 2011, I said nothing about it, partly because by then my source, the former LeT fighter, had disappeared.
So why am I revealing this now?
I think it’s important, after Seymour Hersh’s revelations, to revisit what happened in the lead-up to an event that possibly changed the course of history.
At the time, the event certainly felt like theatre. There was a great deal of circumstantial evidence that clashed with the official narrative being put forth. The Pakistani military denied they had any knowledge of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad; the Americans denied they had carried out the raid with Pakistani consent. According to President Barack Obama’s version of events, detailed in a press conference hours after the operation, this was a monumental act of derring-do, carried out by the world’s premier military using elite soldiers and top-secret technology. It was a Hollywood script (and would later become one, the 2013 Academy Award-nominated Zero Dark Thirty) complete with easily identifiable heroes and villains. None of it sat very well with me.
This is what I knew: a mid-level militant from a group with known ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services knew bin Laden was in Abbottabad. If he knew, it’s fair to say the Pakistani military knew. Locals I spoke to in the neighbourhood of the compound where bin Laden was staying all told me it was an ISI facility. The white Potohar jeeps they saw almost daily were a dead giveaway: “The ISI bought thousands of those cars in the late 1990s for its officers,” an ISI insider told me at the time. “It’s a running joke in Pakistan: if you see a white Potohar in your rearview mirror, be careful, the ISI is on your tail.”
Other ISI contacts were dumbfounded: how could a U.S. Navy Seal team manage to fly into one of the most heavily guarded garrison cities in Pakistan, carry out an assault lasting nearly an hour—in a quiet residential neighbourhood two kilometres from an elite military college—and then fly out without any response from the Pakistani military?
Someone had to have known, I was told repeatedly, and that someone had to be at the highest level of the military command. The U.S. had to have had Pakistani blessing for the operation.
What Hersh provides is more detail. More importantly, he offers us the opportunity to question the widening gap between what our leaders are doing and what they tell us they are doing. According to his view, we are living through an era of scripted events, engineered realities designed to achieve political goals. If his view is true – and there is mounting evidence that it is – then it deserves our attention.