Willful Ignorants

Pakistan’s leaked bin Laden report proves that the country’s vaunted spy agency is either shockingly inept or duplicitous. Or both.

Getty Images
Getty Images

"Everyone, including the United States, thought Osama bin Laden was no longer alive." That was the explanation senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials gave when asked how the world’s most-wanted man had eluded them for a decade. But members of a Pakistani government commission charged with investigating the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden didn’t buy it, and they said so in a remarkably candid 336-page report published by Al Jazeera this week.

The report, written by a four-man panel that included a retired supreme court judge and general, paints an alarming picture of Pakistan’s storied spy agency — one that hints strongly that ISI is either shockingly inept or duplicitous, or both. The members of the commission were given sweeping authority, and they seem to have used it in a refreshingly thorough manner, summoning more than two hundred witnesses, including Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI and one of the most powerful men in Pakistan.

The report — which took nine months to produce and another 15 to be leaked — goes well beyond examining bin Laden’s presence in the country, questioning the wisdom of delegating Pakistan’s entire counterterrorism effort to a single, secret, military agency that is too proud to share its burden with anyone else. 

At a time when much of the domestic outrage over the raid centers around the Pakistani military’s inability to defend against the American incursion, the commission turned the question on its head, saying the best defense would have been capturing al Qaeda’s leader a long time ago. 

Refusing to rule out "some degree of connivance inside or outside the government," the commission places the blame for failing to find bin Laden on the ISI. The agency’s "naivete and its lack of commitment to eradicating organized extremism, ignorance and violence," the report says, "is the single biggest threat to Pakistan."

At times literary in its retelling, the report gives us the clearest picture so far of what life was like for the 9/11 mastermind in the years leading up to his spectacular demise. Bin Laden was found in an expansive three-story home — complete with 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire — situated less than a mile from Kakul, the country’s top military academy.

The home’s size and placement were not lost on the commission, which questioned why it never came under suspicion so close to the Kakul academy. Pakistan’s top military officials, constant targets of al Qaeda and the Taliban, must have passed by the home on a regular basis. Surely, someone in charge of their security detail must have made a mental note to look into what paranoid Pakistani lived in that fortress.

The house had four separate electricity and gas connections, an illegal third story, and its walls were well beyond the maximum height allowed by the cantonment, the military housing scheme the house was situated in. The owners also never paid their taxes, and bin Laden’s two handlers, brothers Ibrahim and Abrar, used fabricated identities. All of this should have raised red flags — except that Pakistan is notorious for its failure to enforce the law.

The cantonment that bin Laden called home contained between 7,000 and 8,000 unregistered buildings, according to the officials who were supposed to regulate them. And less than one percent of Pakistanis pay their taxes. At checkpoints ringing highly secured Pakistani cantonments like the one in Abbottabad, moreover, it is the poor who are disproportionately stopped — the rickshaw driver, the day laborer on a bicycle, the tired student going home on a motorcycle at the end of a long day.

Of course, authorities simply cannot check everyone all the time. The commission’s report acknowledges this fact, however, saying the only institution in Pakistan with the resources to look for high-value targets like bin Laden was the ISI.

"The actual role in counterterrorism," the report says of civilian institutions, "was at best marginal, and in the tracking of Osama bin Laden it was precisely zero."

The lesson from the bin Laden saga, the commission concludes, is that police and other civilian institutions should be given the resources and space to do their jobs. The survivors of the bin Laden raid, the report says, should have been handed over to the police, which should have tracked down what kind of support network they had in Pakistan. The report laments the fact that the Bin Laden raid investigation, like every other major terrorism case in Pakistan, was handled by the ISI, instead of civilian institutions that are readily accountable to others. 

Bin Laden lived with two other families — dozens of people in all — in the same home for six years. Before that, he was not sitting in a cave, but moving around what the report refers to as many of Pakistan’s "settled areas." He and his family spent time in cities like Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. Bin Laden might not have had a Facebook account, but his social network was vast, and some of its members had even been touched by the otherwise non-existent Pakistani state.

We know that Bin Laden’s couriers went to extreme lengths to hide their tracks. But they nonetheless had social lives at least until 2003, when they were spooked by the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks

Ibrahim’s wife Maryam, who was extensively quoted in the commission’s report, recalls that her wedding party took place at KSM’s home in Karachi. Bin Ladin’s wife Amal attended the party, and the pair travelled together to Peshawar, where they met up with a clean-shaven Osama bin Laden and another man dressed in a police uniform. From there, they went to Swat, where they lived for six to eight months, and bin Laden was apparently confident enough to go to the bazaar with his family.

KSM visited them in 2003, bringing his family along and staying for two weeks. A month later, he was picked up in Rawalpindi in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation. The bin Ladens split up after KSM’s arrest, meeting later in the small city of Haripur, where they lived in a relatively small home for two years. Amal gave birth to two children in a local hospital.

As the commission’s report points out, the ISI had sole custody of bin Laden’s surviving family members for five months before the commission questioned them. Yet the ISI failed to pursue any of these leads. It did not track down where bin Laden’s wives lived in Pakistan, who arranged for their stay and transportation or whether or not their stories were corroborated by other evidence.

Bin Laden’s oldest — and reportedly his favorite — wife, Khairiah, lived in Iranian custody from 2002 until 2010. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, she fled there with other members of bin Laden’s family, including his son Saad bin Laden. How she got into Pakistan is still a major question. As the report points out, one possibility is that the Iranian government and al Qaeda arranged to exchange an Iranian diplomat for Khairiah. At any rate, Khairiah arrived in Pakistan in 2010 and travelled through Quetta to Waziristan. From there, she received a message from bin Laden inviting her to Abbottabad, where she arrived only three months before the raid that killed her husband.

Since there are no regular checkpoints on the highways connecting cities like Quetta and Islamabad, it is understandable that the police — wholly underpaid and overstretched — were not able to intercept Khairiah or bin Laden’s other wives as they moved around Pakistan. But each of these movements required a support network on the ground: drivers, guides, safe houses. The ISI, the only institution in the country capable of tracing such a network, failed to do so.

And Abbottabad itself should have been on the ISI’s radar as a hotbed of al Qaeda’s activity.

In 2005, the ISI had helped capture Abu Farraj al-Libbi, the man that replaced Mohammed as al Qaeda’s third in command, and they knew he had lived in Abbottabad starting in 2003. They had even tried to capture him at one point in a raid a few miles from bin Laden’s home. Al-Libbi likely needed a local support network. The report points out that if the ISI had any more information about al-Libbi’s stay in Abbottabad, they did not see fit to share it with the commission.

Also connected to Abbottabad was Umar Patek, an al Qaeda operative that helped plan the 2002 bombings in Bali, who traveled to the city in early 2011. The ISI claims he was only stopping there on his way to Afghanistan, but as the commission points out, he was more likely there to meet with bin Laden. Patek was captured in Abbottabad just two months before the bin Laden killing, and he was in Pakistani custody for four months afterwards. Yet, according to the commission’s report, the ISI apparently failed to extract any useful information from Patek about the al Qaeda network in Abbottabad.

The commission blames the ISI for the fact that none of these leads were followed up on, saying civilians were unaware of Abbottabad’s connections to al Qaeda. The ISI, in contrast, was "well aware of their presence but unwilling to share information."

The report also contains the extensive, candid testimony of Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the then head of the ISI (although one page is mysteriously missing from the leaked copy), It amounts to a damning illustration of why Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy has failed.

Pakistan has lost 50,000 people — including thousands of soldiers that were answerable to men like Pasha — to terrorist attacks since 2004. Yet Pasha seemed to be stuck in another world when talking to the commission. He rightly pointed out that ISI was overburdened, but then blamed those who dared to criticize his agency’s role in securing Pakistan, repeating the tired narrative that "the first line of national defense" was being attacked by "emotional" people that could be bought with "money, women, and alcohol."

To be sure, the United States has not worked well with the ISI, which some American officials claim have helped militants escape in the past. As the report points out, "there was never any trust between the two intelligence organizations … [just an] understanding due to overlapping interests."

When, after years of silence, U.S. officials raised the prospect of bin Laden living in Pakistan in 2010, the ISI asked for details and offered to help. They never got a reply. At one point, the CIA gave the ISI four phone numbers to track, but did not disclose that they were related to bin Laden’s handlers. As a result, the ISI failed to track the numbers, thinking the issue was of low importance.

Pasha, echoing a number of Pakistani military leaders, complained that there was not enough legal cover for his agency to detain and investigate suspected militants. The commission dismissed this, saying "in a democracy, an intelligence organization must be accountable and answerable to political oversight."

If Pakistanis were looking for insight into the bin Laden saga from the ISI, they did not get any. In fact, the problem the commission uncovered was one that has been known to Pakistanis for some time now. The ISI, which "neither had constitutional or legal authority, nor the necessary expertise and competence," for counterterrorism, was taking up the responsibility of civilian institutions that were "even less competent," because they had no long-term experience running the country. "The premier intelligence institution’s religiosity replaced accountability at the expense of professional competence," the report concludes.

In other words, Pakistanis cannot depend on agencies like the ISI — which either through incompetence or outright complicity failed to track down bin Laden — to defend its borders, whether the threat is coming from a U.S. raid, or a Taliban suicide bomber. Pakistani civilians, who have just voted in historic elections, must own their own counterterrorism policy. In the end, they are the ones that stand to lose the most.

Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society. Twitter: @UmarFarooq_

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