Why It Matters That Osama Bin Laden Was Once Pulled Over for Speeding

A report claims Pakistan's security agency overlooked clear evidence that the terrorist was hiding in plain sight.
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Reuters

The American raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a huge embarrassment for Pakistan's military and intelligence services. They had failed to report that bin Laden -- the world's most wanted man -- was living one kilometer away from the country's top military academy. And there was astonishment among Pakistanis that a complex foreign operation could take place so deep inside Pakistani territory without a single shot being fired in defense.

A landmark inquiry by the Pakistani government into the May 2, 2011 raid that was leaked by Al Jazeera English is unusually critical of the country's military and intelligence agencies, and while it stops short of conclusively painting the agency as complicit in bin Laden's presence in Pakistan, it does not rule it out, either.

The commission's findings are particularly harsh on the country's military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), saying the body does not respect civilian institutions and that it needs to rethink its strategy of using Islamist extremists as "assets" for projecting power in the region.

It is a stark departure from the usual discourse in Pakistan, where the ISI enjoys a reputation as the vanguard of the state, protecting it from external and internal threats.

Some of the country's most powerful institutions were subjected to unprecedented scrutiny in the raid's fallout, and the head of the ISI was summoned to answer questions before a joint session of Parliament.

A retired Supreme Court judge was put in charge of a commission to investigate further. The commission grilled 201 witnesses, including some of the country's top military leaders and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI.

According to the commission's report, Pakistani air force jets were not scrambled until three and a half hours after the initial American incursion, by which time the U.S. choppers had already left Pakistan.

On the question of whether or not their government or military was complicit in bin Laden's stay, Pakistanis had speculated at the time of the raid that at the minimum someone was negligent, and at the most, someone in the military, intelligence, or civilian government was complicit.

"The earlier theories remain," says Raza Rumi, who heads the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. "The report remains inconclusive in ascribing responsibility to a specific individual," he says, stressing that the authenticity of the document still needs to be verified.

The agency actually tasked with finding bin Laden was the ISI. But according to testimony by ISI leaders, bin Laden was assumed long dead, and they had given up the search for him years before the raid.

The commission questioned the ISI's commitment to the state, saying their decision to give up the search reflected the ISI's "naivete and its lack of commitment to eradicating organized extremism, ignorance and violence, which is the single biggest threat to Pakistan."

The report blames the ISI leadership for not doing enough to root out al-Qaeda sympathizers within its own ranks -- a common American criticism. "The extent of 'radical Islamist' influence in the armed forces has certainly been exaggerated by some foreign and Pakistani commentators," it says, "but it has assuredly been underestimated by senior military officials."

The report says the ISI, in its investigation of the U.S. raid, did not adequately probe the extent of bin Laden's support network in Pakistan, which had to include more locals.

Ultimately, the report blames the ISI for bin Laden living undetected in Abbottabad. As a result, "the country suffered military humiliation, national outrage, and international isolation."

The report also provides new details of where bin Laden lived in Pakistan after American invasion of Afghanistan, and the lengths he went to in order to cover his tracks.

After escaping U.S. forces at the battle of Tora Bora in 2001, bin Laden made his way to Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He moved to Swat, the scenic valley just north of the capital Islamabad, where he was visited by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in 2003. Shortly after the visit, bin Laden learned that Muhammad had been picked up by Pakistani and American authorities in Rawalpindi, and he decided to move to a safer location. He split from his family for some time, eventually gathering many of them together later in Haripur, a small city 40 miles north of Islamabad, where they lived in a small two-story house for two years. By 2005, they moved to a custom-built compound in Abbottabad, where bin Laden would be killed by U.S. Navy Seals six years later.

Bin Laden relied on two local handlers to arrange his stay in Pakistan, and especially after the 2003 arrest of Muhammad, the group was very cautious. Bin Laden himself never left the compound in Abbottabad, and his handlers never used cell phones near the home, driving hours away to use public phones in cities like Peshawar. When his wife had to go to the hospital to give birth, the handlers told doctors she was deaf and dumb, so they would not discover she was an Arab. During the six years bin Laden and the handlers' families lived together, their interactions were tightly controlled. It seems like no one but the handlers were allowed to meet bin Laden himself, and their wives and children were actively misguided about who their neighbor upstairs really was.

The closest bin Laden came to being caught was when, before moving to Abbottabad, the car he was traveling in was stopped by police for speeding. The police never found out he was one of the passengers.

Yet the report points out there were a number of occasions where Pakistani officials, if they had been doing their jobs, should have caught bin Laden. No Pakistani official has acknowledged the authenticity of the 337-page report.

The Abbottabad house was referred to by locals as the "Waziristani House," and was located inside a Cantonment, an ostensibly high-security area set aside in many Pakistani cities for families of those in the military. The handlers used fake identity cards to buy the property, and they did not pay taxes. To mask the fact that more than two dozen people were living in one home, they had four different electricity and gas connections set up. When government officials came to survey the area, official records listed the house as being vacant. The house itself had 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire, something that is admittedly not unusual for wealthy homes in Pakistan these days. But the fact that almost no one came or went from the place should have tipped off the police that something was amiss.

"How the entire neighborhood, local officials, police and security and intelligence officials all missed the size, the strange shape, the barbed wire, the lack of cars and visitors...beggars belief," the report says.

All of these lapses, the report says, point to the possibility of complicity among the Pakistani establishment.

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Umar Farooq is a freelance writer.

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