Osama bin Who?

A decade of denials and downplaying from Pakistani leaders.

SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images; Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images; FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images; Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images; FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces on Sunday in the resort town of Abbottabad, just two hours from the Pakistani capital. This ended a nearly decade-long manhunt for the 9/11 mastermind as well a decade of dubious denials from Pakistani leaders that he could possibly be in their country.

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States

“Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani rejected a NATO official’s claim on Monday that al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden is living comfortably in a house in the northwest of Pakistan, saying there was no basis to it. ‘This is speculation because if he knew it, it would be actionable intelligence and we would act on it.'”

Speaking to CNN on Oct. 20, 2010, Ambassador Haqqani also slammed those insinuating that there might be some link between Pakistan’s intelligence services and al Qaeda: “If anybody who thinks that Pakistan or any other state, for that matter, has any interest in protecting bin Laden, who has brought nothing but mayhem to the world, is smoking something they shouldn’t be smoking.”

Following the news of bin Laden’s capture, Haqqani defended Pakistan’s inability to locate the terror chief, even as he resided right under its military’s nose, by referring to one of the United States’ most notorious law enforcement failures:  “If Whitey Bulger can live undetected by American police for so long, why can’t Osama bin Laden live undetected by Pakistani authorities?” he wondered.

Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan

“The Americans tell me they don’t know, and they are much more equipped than us to trace him. And our own intelligence services obviously think that he does not exist any more, that he is dead…. The question is whether he is alive or dead. There is no trace of him.” – Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to reporters, April 28, 2009.

President Zardari often downplayed the existence of Osama bin Laden, claiming that his country had no information regarding the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader. And it appears that even when U.S. intelligence assets finally did amass information regarding bin Laden, they weren’t inclined to share: Though in his late-night speech President Barack Obama thanked the government of Pakistan for their assistance in the killing of Osama bin Laden, Pakistan’s intelligence services were not kept in the loop regarding the impending operation. Obama telephoned Zardari shortly after the operation was completed, but the president has not yet commented publicly on bin Laden’s killing.

Yousuf Raza Gilani, prime minister of Pakistan

“I doubt the information which you are giving is correct because I don’t think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan.” – ­Press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Dec. 3, 2009

Gilani’s statement came in response to a suggestion by Brown that Pakistan’s government was not doing enough to hunt down senior al Qaeda leaders. Gilani followed up on the remarks in an interview with the Guardian saying, “If they [the U.S. and British intelligence services] have any credible or actionable information, they can share it and we can act on it.” Gilani, however now seems happy to jump on the bandwagon, called bin Laden’s killing a “great victory” for Pakistan. “We will not allow our soil to be used against any other country for terrorism,” said Gilani.

Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistani army chief

“[U.S. Sen. Joe] Lieberman then asked about the status of the search for Osama bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahiri. It was unjust to criticize Pakistan for not locating these men, asserted Kayani, and he would place Pakistan’s track record in pursuing and capturing al-Qaida operatives up against any other country’s.”State Department cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad on Jan. 11, 2008, obtained by WikiLeaks.

Since Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) falls under the authority of the country’s military leaders, top army official Ashfaq Parvez Kayani presumably would have known as much about bin Laden’s whereabouts as anyone in the Pakistani government. But if he did have an inkling as to where the terrorist leader was hiding, he wasn’t telling anyone in the U.S. government, preferring instead to talk loosely about the army’s “successes” against al Qaeda. Adding to the embarrassment, the New York Times reports that just last month, Kayani had visited a military academy in Abbottabad, the town in which bin Laden was found and killed on May 1. There, Kayani “proclaimed that Pakistan had ‘cracked’ the forces of terrorism, an assessment that was greeted with skepticism in Washington.”

Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan

“I think now, frankly, he is dead for the reason he is a … kidney patient…. I don’t know if he has been getting all that treatment in Afghanistan now. And the photographs that have been shown of him on television show him extremely weak…. I would give the first priority that he is dead and the second priority that he is alive somewhere in Afghanistan.” –Interview with CNN. January 18, 2002

Throughout his tenure, the former Pakistani president repeatedly denied or downplayed reports that bin Laden was hiding in his country. Musharraf’s oft-stated opinion was that whether or not bin Laden was still at large “doesn’t mean much” — the threat to his regime from Taliban-linked militants in the country’s northwest was much greater. In a 2010 interview after he had left office, Musharraf wouldn’t say for sure whether he would have handed bin Laden over to the United States, calling it a “difficult question of answer” because of the “great sensitivities” surrounding the al Qaeda leader.

Responding today to the news of bin Laden’s death, the former president called it a “positive step,” but criticized the United States for violating Pakistani sovereignty in the operation. “It’s a violation to have crossed Pakistan’s borders,” he said. 

Rehman Malik, interior minister of Pakistan

“Representative Giffords asked Malik whether he had information about the whereabouts of Osama [b]in Laden. Malik responded that he ‘had no clue,’ but added that he did not believe that [b]in Laden is in the area. Bin Laden sent his family to Iran, so it makes sense that he might have gone there himself, Malik argued. Alternatively, he might be hiding in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or perhaps he is already dead, he added.”State Department cable, Sept. 7, 2009, meeting between Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik and U.S. congressional delegation.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who would herself become the victim of a brutal shooting in January, tried to pin down Pakistan’s interior minister about bin Laden’s whereabouts in a September 2009 meeting, according to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. Malik deflected the inquiry, suggesting that bin Laden might have moved on or was already dead.

But that’s not the only time that Malik shot his mouth off about bin Laden. “I categorically deny the presence of Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and even Mullah Omar in any part of Pakistan,” he also said.

Farhatullah Babar, Zardari spokesman:

“If there were officials who knew where bin Laden was, I can assure you that he would not be a free man. The fact is that at the moment we don’t even know if he’s alive or dead.” – The Daily Telegraph, May 11, 2010

Babar was responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Pakistanis knew more about bin Laden’s whereabouts than they were letting on: “I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels,” said Clinton in a CBS News interview, “but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill those who attacked us on 9/11.”

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating