More than two years after U.S. Navy SEALs shot and killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad, an extensive report commissioned by the previous Pakistani government—and leaked by the Al Jazeera news network—on the daring raid leaves some old, uncomfortable questions unanswered.
Made public by Al Jazeera on July 9, the 337-page report was prepared by a four-member panel led by a Supreme Court justice, Javed Iqbal. This Abbottabad Commission holds state institutions responsible for the clandestine stay in Pakistan of the world’s most dangerous terrorist. The report doesn’t name any one institution, but uses instead blanket expressions indicting everyone responsible for national security.
This is routine. When the subject of inquiry is the Army or its intelligence agencies, inquiry commissions don’t name names and pretend to be mystified by the subject. The judicial probe into the May 2011 disappearance and killing of Asia Times online journalist Saleem Shahzad took six months instead of the mandated six weeks to say it didn’t know who killed him. Shahzad had reported on Karachi’s Mehran naval base attack the same month which killed 10. He said it was triggered by the Pakistan Navy not releasing a group of officers it had arrested on suspicion of being Al Qaeda members. Shortly after the article’s publication, Shahzad was picked up in Islamabad. His pummeled body was found in a watercourse days later.
The Abbottabad Commission report says no proof was found of anyone’s complicity in bin Laden’s nine-year stay in Pakistan; the intelligence agencies responsible for knowing his whereabouts also remained clueless. Yet it does not completely rule out complicity while asserting that the Commission found no proof of it. “This failure included negligence and incompetence and at some undetermined level a grave complicity may or may not have been involved,” states the report. Clearly, even this innuendo must have required some courage.
What the Commission wants to say is simply this: We did not find any evidence of anyone being complicit in bin Laden’s successful efforts to find safe hiding places; but “grave complicity” may or may not have taken place. It didn’t use “may” alone, and added “may not” probably to achieve consensus on whether the Commission should clearly indicate the possibility of complicity. To insist on such a possibility without clearly saying so, the report states: “[It is] a story of complacency, ignorance, negligence, incompetence, irresponsibility and possibly worse at various levels inside and outside the government.” The words “possibly worse” point to something that the five adjectives used earlier did not convey.
The reluctance of the report to speak of complicity unambiguously may point to a consensus within the Commission to stay circumscribed in its pursuit of truth so as not to tilt the country into a fresh bout of instability—and the state into a new crisis of accountability. There may have been a consensus on not pursuing certain lines of inquiry that would have required going the whole hog on possible new leads. One such lead lay in the suspicious proximity of the “Mansehra terrorist training camp” to bin Laden’s final residence.
Ghost at the Banquet
It is intriguing that the Mansehra camp was not referred to in connection with bin Laden. The report carries the following itinerary of bin Laden’s movements: he was in Pakistan for nine years, out of which he spent five or six in Abbottabad, starting 2006 first. Reports about the location of a terrorist camp in Mansehra started floating since 2001, when a group of terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament and almost triggered a sub-nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Bin Laden was in Bajaur first and probably escaped an Air Force attack because of “prior information.” He was then in Peshawar and Karachi, before going to Swat, from where he is supposed to have gone to Haripur before finally settling in Abbottabad.
The Commission should have looked into the flurry of reports about Mansehra, simply because it was a mere 20 kilometers from where bin Laden had decided to live.Daily Times’ Washington correspondent Khalid Hasan filed a report on Aug. 22, 2005, which identified one Sher Ali of North Waziristan who was sent to Mansehra by warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani for “a 20-day weapons training course at a secret mountain camp.” Ali was later captured in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had run training camps for Pakistani nonstate actors during the war against the Soviet Union; he could be funding the Mansehra camp for the same nonstate actors in 2006.
An early domestic testimony about Mansehra has come from Adnan Rasheed, the former Air Force officer turned terrorist, who was sprung from a jail in Bannu last year after a Taliban raid that was hardly resisted by the prison guards. The Taliban declared after the jailbreak that they had spent “over [Rs. 20 million] on the operation.” The money almost certainly went to those who transferred a dangerous terrorist from the military stronghold of Rawalpindi to Bannu, a semi-tribal area where the Taliban virtually rule in a doubtful diarchy with the local administration. After this clear case of “complicity,” Rasheed talked to an English-language Taliban journal, this March, and revealed how he had landed at Mansehra after joining the jihad:
“Brother X urged me to join the Taliban Air Force that needed skilled men. He kept on giving me [invitation to Islam] and kept on calling me to the path of Allah and His Prophet. Then I and Brother X left the [PAF] squadron. Brother X had some terms with Maulana Masood Azhar, so he took me to the Jaish-e-Muhammad office and then to the Mansehra training camp. He introduced me to them and then went back to his duty in Peshawar. I stayed in their camp for 23 days waiting to go along with some other brothers to Afghanistan; meanwhile, I was interviewed by many commanders; finally, they said that they had made my [delegation] back to my [PAF] Air Force squadron. They told me that I should work there and give the [invitation] of jihad.”
Maulana Masood Azhar is a wanted terrorist about whom Pakistan’s official position is that he is probably not in Pakistan. He belongs to the deniable list of internationally wanted people that once included bin Laden and now includes Mullah Omar. Blogging for the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution, Bruce Riedel wrote on July 3: “Mullah Omar, who most believe lives under ISI protection in Quetta … He has not been seen in public in years. On rare occasions, a message is issued in his name but he never appears in front of his followers. For all the world knows, the self-styled Commander of the Faithful may be dead, mad or incapacitated.”
Karachi is supposed to be under siege from a number of Taliban terrorist groups, all of them affiliated with Al Qaeda. If the Mansehra camp belongs to Jaish it establishes a link, first between Jaish and Al Qaeda, and then between the operators of jihad within the deep state and Al Qaeda under “Sheikh Osama.” Late last year, a target-killer caught in Karachi revealed that he was working for the Taliban on a monthly salary of Rs. 15,000 and had trained at the Mansehra camp 10 months earlier. Sitting atop a loose terrorist hierarchy in Pakistan, Al Qaeda is ceremonially accepted as patron mainly because of its ability to fund camps. In the good old days of America-backed Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s ISI commandos, like Colonel Imam, were training fighters in camps financed by Al Qaeda.
If the Abbottabad Commission report has ignored Mansehra, foreign journalists have not. Right after the killing of bin Laden, the Associated Press news agency filed the following story on May 23, 2011, from Ughi in district Mansehra: “Three men who identified themselves as mujahideen told the AP that the training complex is one of at least three in the region that between them house hundreds of recruits. The mission, the three say, is aimed at taking recruits to Kashmir to fight Pakistan’s archenemy, India. But Kashmiri veterans have been known to join forces with Al Qaeda and other terror groups, including those fighting the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” The last sentence of the report is typical: “When contacted by the AP last week, the Army denied there are any training camps or any facilities hidden away in the Mansehra area. ‘The allegations are baseless,’ said spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.”
Why did bin Laden opt for Abbottabad, which is home to the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy training newly recruited officers and therefore unsafe for him? The reason perhaps was that he had to be closer to the training camp run by a Punjab-based terrorist group he was fond of; and he could be sure that another terrorist group similarly intimate with him dominated Abbottabad and its environs. The two groups, one run by Maulana Masood Azhar and the other run by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khaleel, were once united under the name, Harkatul Mujahideen. Warriors belonging to these groups had accompanied bin Laden to Sudan when he fled the onset of civil war among the Pakistan-backed Afghan mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On June 22, 2011, The New York Times reported: “Harkat has especially deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, and the network provided by the group would have enhanced bin Laden’s ability to live and function in Pakistan, analysts familiar with the group said. Its leaders have strong ties with both Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, and they can roam widely because they are Pakistanis, something the foreigners who make up Al Qaeda’s ranks can’t do. Even today, the group’s leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khaleel, long one of bin Laden’s closest Pakistani associates, lives unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.”
Khaleel reportedly also handled bin Laden’s correspondence. It is difficult to imagine him acting as the arch-terrorist’s post office while presumably living under close intelligence surveillance. The Americans also traced cellphone calls made by Harkat operatives in Abbottabad to ISI officers. But what about the other favorite of bin Laden, the “whereabouts-unknown” Maulana Masood Azhar?
Jaish-e-Muhammad was created by Maulana Masood Azhar after falling out with Khaleel in 2001. The split was formalized by Mufti Shamzai of Banuri seminary who had facilitated the first meeting between Mullah Omar and bin Laden in Karachi in the early years of the Afghan jihad. This was the same Shamzai who, while accompanying a post-9/11 delegation led by then ISI chief Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, ended up persuading Mullah Omar to go on fighting the Americans instead of causing Al Qaeda to leave Afghanistan. (An Afghan witness has avowed that it was the general who so hated the Americans—like other ISI chiefs from Hamid Gul to Shuja Pasha—that he advised Mullah Omar to take on the Americans.)
Shamzai was killed by a sectarian hit squad in 2004 at the height of attacks on the Shia in which organizations linked to him through instruction and tutelage were involved. Maulana Azhar was his favorite student at the Banuri madrassah, and he was also close to bin Laden much in the same way as the Abdullah Ghazi family running Islamabad’s Lal Masjid: as an R&R muster point for Al Qaeda members and their nonstate actor affiliates.
Azhar was born in 1968 and completed his religious training at Shamzai’s seminary, where he then taught for two years until 1989. Jihad was a family affair. Ibrahim, his brother, went to Afghanistan at the age of 19, and later took along their father as well. Rabiya, Azhar and Ibrahim’s sister, worked for the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Ibrahim made many trips to Afghanistan and was part of the team put together for the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814. The aircraft was forced to land in Afghanistan, where the Taliban released Indian passengers in return for the freedom of Azhar and others from jail in India. (The Indians had nabbed Azhar from Srinagar in 1994.)
Azhar is said to have met bin Laden in Medina in the early ’90s when both were disguised. His mission was to bring his jihadi organization under the aegis of Al Qaeda, which he accomplished in 1993 by placing himself close to warlord Farah Eidid in Somalia while bin Laden was based in neighboring Sudan. The same year Eidid ended up killing 24 Pakistani troops doing U.N. peace duty in Mogadishu. Azhar was a great fundraiser and a man of action, and was liked by both Shamzai and bin Laden. Shamzai placed him in Mansehra to guard his “sectarian belt”—stretching from Mansehra to Besham and Jaglot Kohistan, which also connects with Swat—in addition to doing the job of asymmetric terrorism in India. When his boys attacked the Indian Parliament in 2001, it nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan.
Bin Laden attracted Pakistan because of his ability to get money for terrorist training without asking if the planned terrorism was against America or India. His hatred for America was seemingly shared by many serving Pakistani senior officers in the military at the time. Secular officers hated America for its post-1965 tilt toward India and subsequent non-recognition of Pakistan as a long-term nuclearized ally; Islamist officers interfaced with Al Qaeda and its affiliated nonstate actors at a much deeper level. Nothing demonstrates this pathology more than the contents of the Abbottabad Commission report recording the deposition of the former director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha.
Questioning the role of former president and Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pasha said “Musharraf had caved in so promptly and so completely to the U.S. demands that Shamsi airbase was given to them for drone strikes against people in Pakistan. Someone should have told the Americans that enough is enough, but in vain, and both the ‘political and military elite were responsible for this lapse.’” As if in response, the Commission too succumbed to the fallacy of “national sovereignty” and joined the former spy chief in his clearly unbalanced rhetoric without a thought for the loss of state writ over almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s territory to Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. The Commission probably needed a psychiatrist at hand to interpret Pasha’s statements.
This year a more revealing book by a much-lionized and bemedaled retired general, Shahid Aziz, paraded this pathology more clearly. In his acclaimed Urdu-language autobiography, Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak (How long this Silence?), with its telltale subtitle Ek Sipahi ki Dastan-e-Ishq-o-Junoon (The Story of Passion and Madness of a Soldier), he writes: “The bombs that kill innocent Pakistanis in bazaars and mosques are planted by friends of America, and this terrorism is done to persuade Pakistan to embrace America more closely, allow the government to pursue pro-America policies and to alienate Pakistan from the mujahideen. But this trend of support to the killers of Muslims is open rebellion against Allah.”
What should interest any psychiatrist is the following confession Aziz makes about himself: “Why am I full of contradiction? Why can’t I be balanced? Then I console myself with the thought that a pendulum has a balance too; what use is balance that is static and frozen? Real balance is in movement. One should be flying back and forth on a swing.”
The change of mind about such officers among the newly-elected political leadership was revealed when on June 18, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan uttered the following sentence: “We need to purge the Army and its leadership of people like [ex-ISI chief] General Pasha. Although Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has kept himself away from politics, people like Pasha still exist in the Army.”
There may be senior officers in the military who have taken one step further from where Pasha stands. Many, including some officers at the Shamsi base that Pasha mourns, have reportedly joined banned terrorist organizations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and have thought of taking over the military’s command by staging a coup. The most blatant first indication of such indiscipline came in Maj. Gen. Ameer Faisal Alavi’s letter to London’s Sunday Times suggesting that elements within the Army might kill him because he had reported two generals to the Army high command as actually working for Al Qaeda. Alavi was promptly killed by Maj. Haroon Ashiq, a deserter to Al Qaeda, in Islamabad in November 2008 on orders from Al Qaeda’s Lashkar-e-Zil chief, Ilyas Kashmiri. (Ashiq was acquitted by an antiterrorism court in 2010, and Kashmiri was killed by a drone in North Waziristan the following year)
Just as bin Laden seems to have been clandestinely favored and kept in hiding by certain America-hating Islamist elements, those favored by America—including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination in 2007 was owned by Al Qaeda—were chastised through bin Laden’s organization and its terrorist adjuncts.