Now that the dust from Osama Bin Laden’s death has settled it is time to weigh the implications. The manner of his death provokes many serious thoughts.
Firstly, a point that many are making, the discovery that he was living in a large walled villa complex a short distance away from Pakistan’s premier military academy in the middle of a military cantonment in a town that has been called the Pakistani Aldershot can only mean that he was being protected by the Pakistani army or at any rate by elements within it. To my mind the point is so obvious as to hardly require explanation. Suffice to say that even if descriptions of Osama’s residence as some sort of fortress are exaggerations the presence in a garrison city close to some of the country’s most important military facilities of a large secure compound complete with closed circuit television cameras, high walls, armed guards and barbed wire could not have gone unnoticed especially in a country like Pakistan, which is facing a serious domestic insurgency and which has a major terrorist problem. If Osama had been discovered holed up in such a complex located close to key military facilities in Tehran or Tripoli or Damascus would anybody be in any doubt? In other words the country that is America’s key ally in the so called “war on terror” has turned out to be the chief terrorist’s protector.
The second point is that this discovery must call into question the extent to which Osama was ever an independent agent. Given that the Pakistanis were protecting him the question must be whether they were also controlling him. Osama had a $25 million price on his head and was the subject of an international man hand orchestrated by the world’s most powerful country. He would have been totally at the mercy of his Pakistani protectors. Would he have been in a position to take any step that they opposed or disagreed with? I cannot see how. Given the mystery of his whereabouts the Pakistanis would have been in a position to silence him by killing him or imprisoning him or by cutting off his communications with the outside world whenever they wanted. As we know senior Pakistani officials including at various times the former President Pervaiz Musharraf often made claims or publicly speculated that Osama was dead. Could these have been intended as warnings and reminders to Osama of the extent to which the Pakistanis had him at their mercy?
The US authorities have disclosed that the compound had no telephone links which strongly suggests that Osama depended on his Pakistani protectors to communicate with his followers and with the outside world. As I said in a previous post it is impossible that he could have controlled or exercised any influence over or maintained any sort of in depth contact with the rest of the jihadi movement if he was relying exclusively on couriers. Presumably for important messages and for distribution of his videos he depended on the Pakistanis and those visitors the Pakistanis allowed him to meet. Given that this was so the Pakistanis would have been in a position to control Osama by blocking the flow of information to and from him at any time they wanted without even having to resort to force. As it happens we know that there were long and unexplained gaps in Osama’s communications and video broadcasts. Could this have been because the Pakistanis for their own reasons imposed periods of silence on him?
During the 1970s and 1980s several Arab regimes including those in Syria, Iraq and Libya acted as hosts to various Arab terrorist groups. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq for example hosted the Abu Nidal terrorist organisation. No one doubted then that the actions of those organisations were largely controlled and directed by their host states. Why suppose that the situation with Osama was any different?
If it is conceded that the Pakistanis were indeed protecting and to a great extent controlling Osama the next obvious question is when did they start to do so? It seems that the compound in which he was found was built in 2005. It seems moreover that the compound was purpose built the Americans say to “house a prominent Al Qaeda leader” who it now turns out was none other than Osama himself. If one allows for six months to a year to buy the land and build and fit out the compound, which seems reasonable given its size, this would mean that there was a plan formulated by someone to house Osama in a purpose built compound in Abbotabad in 2004 that is within less than three years after his flight from Afghanistan. Accordiing to the BBC a senior Pakistani source has confirmed that Obama was living in the compound for over five years, in other words from when it was built. Moreover another Pakistani source has told the BBC, citing evidence supposedly given by one of Osama’s wives, that Osama had been living in a suburb of Abbotabad for some time even before the compound was built. This suggests that Osama was living in Abbotabad almost continuously from the time of his flight from Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001 until his death.
This in turn can only mean that the theory that Osama was being concealed and protected by the Pushtu tribes on the north west frontier was simply wrong and that the various claims and “evidence” locating him there were part of a deception operation intended to misinform the Americans and to direct their attention away from him. One of the saddest aspects of this affair is the degree to which certain journalists including one writing for the Guardian and another writing for the BBC who had fallen for this deception (one has even written a book on the subject) continue to cling to this theory even after it has been discredited. Instead of admitting that the theory was wrong and that their informers deceived them these journalists instead come up with elaborate and over complicated explanations of why the theory was right and why the facts of Osama’s death do not contradict it. Such an elaborate and effective deception operation cannot be carried out without the active collusion of the authorities of the country in which it is being carried out and is further proof if any were needed that the Pakistanis have been protecting Osama from the time he arrived in their country at the end of 2001 or at the beginning of 2002.
In other words the Pakistanis or at any rate elements within their army and intelligence agencies have been protecting Osama since almost the inception of the hunt for him. Not only does this seem to me to be the only possible explanation of the known facts but it also explains how he was able to evade capture for so long despite his distinctive appearance and the scale of the manhunt that was looking for him. He was able to avoid detection because the powerful country in which he was living actively helped to conceal him.
All this it seems to me can be fairly deduced from the known facts. I would actually go a step further and suggest that the facts point to the Pakistanis having been in touch with Osama even before the fall of the Taliban and of having arranged his escape from Afghanistan when the Taliban regime fell. As is well known Osama became involved in the jihadi war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s during which time he seems to have taken no personal part in the fighting but acted instead as a channel for the financial and logistical support and the volunteers reaching the jihadis from Saudi Arabia. Much has been made of his possible contacts with the CIA during this period but in the light of what we now know more pertinent would appear to have been the far more extensive contacts he would have had at this time with the Pakistani authorities on whose territory he was of course operating. Subsequently when in the mid 1990s he made his home in Afghanistan he did so with the consent of the Taliban regime, which was closely allied with Pakistan at the time. Given that this is so and given the known links between the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence service during this period it seems logical that Osama would have renewed his contacts with the Pakistanis and in the light of what we now know this seems to have been what happened. When in December 2001 the Taliban regime collapsed Osama presumably made use of his contacts with the Pakistanis to arrange his escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
I understand that the former head of the Afghan intelligence service is now saying publicly that his agents had traced Osama to the region of Abbotabad as long ago as 2007 and that when the Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought to pass this information on to the then Pakistani President Pervaiz Musharraf this precipitated a furious row between the two men. I understand that the former head of Afghan intelligence also claims that the titular leader of Afghan Taliban Mullah Omar is living in a safe house provided to him by the Pakistanis in the Pakistani city of Karachi. A few weeks ago I would have discounted this information as scaremongering but in the light of what we now know these claims should be taken seriously.
All this begs the fundamental and much larger question of why would the Pakistanis go to so much trouble and accept so great a risk to protect such a notorious and dangerous criminal when to do so would put Pakistan in potential conflict with the United States. In saying this I should make it clear that I utterly reject the outrageous claims that have appeared on the internet to the effect that the Americans too were in on the secret of Osama’s whereabouts. It is to my mind simply inconceivable that any American politician or official would risk his or her career and reputation as well as the threat of a prison sentence by colluding in a conspiracy to conceal Osama.
In a series of articles he has written on the internet the left wing commentator and activist Tariq Ali, who comes from a prominent Pakistani family with the links to the Pakistani elite, has called attention to his previous publication of a conversation he had with a Pakistani intelligence official in 2006. Over the course of this conversation the official not only all but admitted that Osama was present in Pakistan and that his whereabouts were known to the Pakistani authorities but explained the Pakistani decision to protect Osama and to conceal him from the Americans as looking after “the goose that lays the golden eggs”. Tariq Ali has suggested that by this comment the official was referring to the economic and military aid that Pakistan was receiving from the United States as a reward for its participation in the so called “war on terror”. The implication presumably is that Pakistan has an interest in prolonging the “war on terror” since that way it receives more of this aid from the United States and that Pakistan kept Osama concealed from the United States for this reason.
I think this explanation is unduly cynical and simplistic. Concealing Osama from the Americans was an act that jeopardised Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. If Pakistan’s objective in its dealings with the United States is to get as much aid from the United States as possible then concealing Osama from the Americans seems just about the worst way to go about it. As it is the discovery that Osama was at all times holed up in his compound in Abbotabad has put relations between the United States and Pakistan under extreme strain and led to calls in the United States for aid to Pakistan to be cut off.
Nor do I think likely the suggestion I have read elsewhere that the Pakistanis were holding on to Osama as some sort of bargaining chip they could trade with the Americans at a future negotiation. What would the Pakistanis hope to receive in return for him? More to the point I cannot think of anything more calculated to inflame relations between Pakistan and the United States than for Pakistan to admit to the United States that it was holding Osama whilst refusing to hand him over.
It seems to me that the only explanation for the protection extended by Pakistan to Osama was that he represented a vital link between Pakistan and the international jihadi movement. That Pakistan has been involved in sponsoring the international jihadi movement and in seeking to direct it against its enemies, be they Russia, Afghanistan or India, has long been known. That the Pakistanis were prepared to afford protection to a person such as Osama shows the extent to which they are committed to this strategy. Apparently it is so important to them that they are determined to persist with it even if by doing so they jeopardise their relationship with the United States, the most powerful state in the world. It is of only limited comfort to me that I suspect that one of the reasons why Osama was moved to Abbotabad and so close to the centre of Pakistani military power was presumably so that the Pakistanis could control him better and could prevent any repetition of his involvement in events like 9/11. One suspects that the Pakistanis were horrified by 9/11 and were determined that Osama would never become involved in anything like that again. By isolating him in Abbotabad far from the rest of the jihadi movement they were able to ensure this.
Notwithstanding my last comment, all this has very disturbing implications. At the minimum it means that the stream of propaganda videos that has issued from Osama’s compound in Abbotabad has done so with the knowledge and probable assistance of the Pakistani authorities. One wonders whether and if so to what extent the Pakistanis dictated some of the things Osama said in them. More to the point it means that the west’s most important ally in “the war on terror” is the main sponsor and protector of the jihadi terrorist movement the west is fighting. This is an ally with nuclear weapons that is willing to sponsor terrorists in pursuit of its regional ambitions even at the risk of its international reputation, its long term relationship with the United States and its own internal stability. Is Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world?