The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, made his last stand in Pakistan – but far from the lawless Afghan border, where he was believed to be hiding out. Instead, US forces killed him in the military town of Abbottabad, a short jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point and 75 miles north of the capital.
Neither Pakistani nor American military operations have targeted the city in the past. The location raises questions as to how long the Pakistani military knew of the Saudi extremist’s hiding spot and whether they shielded him.
“It seems deeply improbable that Bin Laden could have been where he was killed without the knowledge of some parts of the Pakistani state,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a leading Pakistani columnist, noting Abbottabad’s strategic importance.
Abbottabad residents tell the Monitor that around 1 a.m. Monday morning, US Special Forces battled Bin Laden’s bodyguards some 800 yards from the Pakistani Military Academy.
Shafiq, a local who was worried about reprisal, says he saw a large fleet of helicopters firing upon the compound. He heard two small blasts, then a huge explosion followed by a helicopter crashing and engulfing the area in flames.
Another resident, Muhammad Javed, says he and other residents were oblivious to Bin Laden’s presence.
“For weeks, we did not see anybody coming out or going inside the huge compound,” says Mr. Javed. “We only knew that two Afghans named Arshad and Tariq were living there.
How did Pakistan not know Osama was there?
While high walls and a system of couriers kept Bin Laden’s presence secret from residents, fooling the military and intelligence establishments is another matter.
“I think it is a failure of our intelligence – the fact that he can hang around in Abbottabad for so long and we didn’t know,” says Zafar Hillay, a former diplomat.
But Ramesh Chopra, a former chief of Indian military intelligence who was born in Abbottabad, says any military conducts sweeps of areas and would know its own back yard. For him, it’s clear Bin Laden was protected by elements of Pakistan’s establishment.
“If I were the [Pakistani intelligence] chief, I wouldn’t put Osama bin Laden there. I wouldn’t be so arrogant and foolish,” says Mr. Chopra. “A safehouse is supposed to be decrepit and in an isolated place.”
Pictures of Bin Laden’s bloodied and shattered face were broadcast on Pakistani television, though their authenticity could not be verified. Within hours of the pictures circulating, the US announced it had buried the body at sea in accordance with Muslim rules.
Was Pakistan involved in the operation?
Conflicting reports have emerged about the level of Pakistani knowledge and cooperation in the strike against Bin Laden.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official claimed to have been aware of the operation, though Pakistani forces were not directly involved, according to Reuters. At the very least, the entry of US Special Operation Forces deep inside Pakistani territory suggests a level of coordination with Pakistani authorities.
President Obama made no mention of a joint operation. But he did offer a vague nod to Pakistani help: “Our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Adding to the confusion was the Pakistani government’s delay in issuing an official statement, following a meeting of top civilian and military leaders including President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, and Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Instead, several hours after governments around the world had offered their reactions, Pakistani authorities opted to issue an official statement, which appeared to distance themselves from involvement.
Calling it “a major setback to terrorist organizations around the world,” the statement emphasized that the military operation was “conducted by the US forces in accordance with declared US policy that Osama bin Ladin will be eliminated in a direct action by the US forces, wherever found in the world.”
The statement’s emphasis on US action – not Pakistani – could be an attempt to guard against potential blowback from terrorist organizations bent on revenge, according to Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
It also would help direct the anger of ordinary Pakistanis toward America for violating the country’s sovereignty – and not toward their own government for allowing such an operation.
Prime Minister Gilani, appearing on TV, said he did not know about the extent of Pakistani involvement. “I don’t know the details, I don’t know minute details, but in short we have intelligence cooperation.”
By early evening, the Pakistani Taliban vowed to avenge bin Laden’s death. “If he has been martyred, we will avenge his death and launch attacksagainst American and Pakistani governments and their security forces,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told news agencies by telephone, adding that “If he has become a martyr, it is a great victory for us because martyrdom is the aim of all of us.”
Reaction within Pakistan
Reaction has thus far been fairly muted among Pakistan’s religious parties and militant groups, the segments of the population that most revered the Al Qaeda leader. That could change if those groups are able to portray the military operation as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
An opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in 2009, found that only 9 percent of Pakistanis expressed that they “liked” Bin Laden, while some 80 percent expressed dislike of him.
Liaqat Baloch, a senior leader with Pakistan’s Jamaat-Islami, Pakistan’s largest Islamist party, downplayed the killing.
“The Pakistani people don’t know much about Osama bin Laden and this won’t feel very important. Yes, he was anti-American, so the people will take some interest,” says Mr. Baloch. “If it took America 10 years and the deaths of so many to take their revenge then that is a shame upon them.”
So far, neither Al Qaeda nor the Pakistani or the Afghan Taliban have released verified statements on the issue.
“There will be some cranks and extremists, but by and large everyone is happy that this character is gone,” says Mr. Hilaly, the former diplomat. “One only hopes that the [US] will now be thinking along the lines ‘mission accomplished’ [in the region]…. as long as they are here, they destabilize Pakistan.”
* Ben Arnoldy contributed from New Delhi.