Bin Laden May Have Moved Freely Through Pakistan

Terry McDermott on how the Pakistani government might have truly not known bin Laden moved around right under their noses.

In December 2001, in the mountains of the Pashtun belt in eastern Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah convened a meeting of the remnants of al Qaeda, who were fleeing the American assault on their Afghan hideouts. Mohammed, otherwise known as KSM, and Zubaydah wanted to bring some order to the retreat.

The ferocity of the American counterattack after 9/11 had not been anticipated, and the al Qaeda fighters were running for their lives, like cockroaches running around after the light had been turned on, as one American intelligence operative put it. “Shit,” KSM later told an American interrogator, “we’ve awakened a sleeping bear ... I think we bit off more than we could chew.”

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were in hiding. Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda’s operational commander, had been killed in an aerial bombardment. The organization’s remaining chain of command was disintegrating. KSM and Zubaydah stepped in to bring some order to the chaos.

Unlike most of al Qaeda’s top operatives, the two of them had been living mainly in Pakistan for most of a decade—Zubaydah in Peshawar in the northwest and KSM in Karachi in the south. Even before the attacks, they had organized a collection of dozens of safe houses throughout Pakistan (they had more than 20 in Karachi alone), many of them operated by jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The militant groups were a classic Pakistani creation. Most originated in the 1980s with full support and funding from the Pakistan spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, ISI, as frontline resistance to India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Dozens of groups were supported by the ISI as they morphed and splintered over the years, and ISI officers established their training regimens and sat on councils to plan strategy and attacks. Within Pakistan’s urban areas the jihadi network was omnipresent. KSM had cultivated relationships throughout this underground.

After 9/11, the groups became indispensable in organizing the retreat from Afghanistan. KSM’s connections helped al Qaeda fighters regroup in Pakistan by providing money, logistics, safe havens, and a ready army of trustworthy foot soldiers. He was the bridge between the largely Arab al Qaeda leadership and its allies in Pakistan.

KSM was born and raised in Kuwait, but his family was from Pakistan. He spoke the local languages and moved easily among its citizens. His family were members of a tightly bound ethnic group called the Baluch, who live throughout southwestern Pakistan and eastern Iran. KSM used these blood ties to build his own network. Fellow Pakistanis, including some who had also grown up in Kuwait, became his trusted lieutenants and couriers. They transported men, money, and messages throughout the region. They helped operate dozens of safe houses, havens from which al Qaeda could bide its time for future attacks.

Bin Laden undoubtedly turned to KSM’s network when he escaped American and Afghan forces at Tora Bora in late 2001. We know that two of KSM’s most trusted Kuwaiti-born couriers, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti and his brother, became bin Laden’s links to the outside world while he was in hiding for the last decade. They were killed with him at his Abbottabad compound last year.

The Dawn newspaper in Pakistan reported this week that one of bin Laden’s young wives has told interrogators that bin Laden and his family moved several times throughout Pakistan while on the run. Amal Ahmad Abdul Fateh said that the family lived in four different houses before settling in Abbottabad and that bin Laden fathered four children while on the move. Two of the children, she said, were born in government hospitals.

This once again raises the obvious question of what, if anything, the Pakistani government knew of bin Laden’s movements. Pervez Musharraf, who was president for most of the time bin Laden was living in Pakistan, has denied any knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts. During the decade-plus that bin Laden was in Pakistan, Musharraf said repeatedly that he was certain bin Laden was holed up in the Afghan wilderness. The ISI has long claimed that its own networks were omnipresent throughout the country’s cities. Nothing ever happened without its agents knowing about it, its officers said.

This became the conventional wisdom, although it is unclear why. Nearly every significant al Qaeda figure who has been run down has been captured in Pakistan, and most in the country’s largest cities. KSM, for example, was caught in Rawalpindi in 2003 and Zubaydah was caught a year earlier in Faisalabad. Many of the urban areas of Pakistan overflow with migrants; the comings and goings of an individual family would hardly be remarkable and probably not much noticed. Houses throughout the country are frequently walled off from neighbors. This was true of the houses where KSM and bin Laden were caught.

The ISI is not telling the truth about something. Either they have the country wired and they knew about bin Laden, or its leaders like to brag about the breadth and depth of its knowledge as a form of intimidation. The latter seems much more likely.

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This doesn’t mean that no one in Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s presence. Pakistan is in many ways a fractured state. Although the army, of which the ISI is a part, is by far the most powerful entity in the country, it is not the only one. There are competing government bureaucracies, including police and intelligence agencies for whom the ISI is more rival than ally. There are functioning political parties who wield their own influences.

Any or all of these groups are shot through with corruption. The military has battled politicians for its share of the country’s wealth forever. (Ironically, the military’s economic success has led to a dramatic overbuilding in the cities; as a consequence empty dwellings and office buildings provide perfect hideouts everywhere.)

Somebody undoubtedly knew something about bin Laden’s movements, but money can buy a lot of silence, and bin Laden enjoyed more than a decade of it.