(Photo: AP Images / Anjum Naveed)
LAHORE, Pakistan – On Monday morning, Pakistan suddenly found itself between a rock and a hard place when U.S. President Barack Obama broke the news of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s killing in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan. "Justice has been done," the U.S. president said Sunday night in a televised statement that Americans had been waiting a decade to hear.
The fact that bin Laden was killed just a few hundred meters away from Pakistan’s main military academy raises questions about how the six-foot-four fugitive, one of the most famous faces in the world, managed to survive there for so long despite denials by the country’s military and political leadership that the al-Qaida supreme leader was present on Pakistani soil.
The incident is also most likely to unleash a flurry of violence in Pakistan by angry Islamist militants and al-Qaida sympathizers to whom bin Laden was a great hero, and now an even greater martyr. Pakistan is already reeling from various serious crises and the incident is bound to bring more bloodshed to the country which has already lost thousands of lives to terrorism.
Making what is being termed as the news of the decade, an elite unit of U.S. commandos launched a helicopter-borne assault on a closely guarded compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad, 30 miles northeast of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, Sunday night, killing bin Laden and three other men in a firefight. The operation lasted 40 minutes. The dead included bin Laden's most trusted courier, who carried his messages to the outside world, and one of bin Laden's sons, according to reports. A woman also died and it is said that she was one of bin Laden's four wives.
It was reported that bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, Safia, survived the attack and she had confirmed her father’s death in the offensive. She also said that U.S. troops had taken away bin Laden’s body, already claimed by President Obama in his televised speech.
According to U.S. media reports, an official said bin Laden had been buried at sea after senior administration officials said the body would be handled according to Islamic practice and tradition, and that practice calls for burial within 24 hours.
There had been years of speculation that bin Laden was hiding in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan or across the border in Afghanistan. But the town where he was found, Kakul, lies a short distance from Islamabad and is home to Pakistan’s main military training institution, the Pakistan Military Academy (or Pakistan’s Sandhurst.
“The American forces flew to bin Laden's hideout in helicopters at about 1 a.m. from neighboring Afghanistan,” said security officials in Islamabad, also claiming that Pakistan’s radar system was jammed and the choppers could not be detected.
However, a Pakistani diplomat said there was all likelihood that the helicopters, four in number and carrying around 20 U.S. special troops, flew in from Ghazi airbase near Haripur, about 500 kilometers from Peshawar. He said the operation was conducted by Americans but Pakistan assisted in terms of authorization of helicopter flights in its airspace.
A Pakistani intelligence official said one of the four U.S. helicopters was brought down by the militants present with bin Laden in the compound.
The diplomat said the U.S. forces took no time to transport the body away from Pakistani soil for burial at sea, as the American authorities did not want an accessible gravesite that they feared would become a shrine for the al-Qaida chief’s followers. U.S. authorities had offered the body to the Saudi government, but it refused to accept it.
U.S. officials meanwhile said that DNA testing on bin Laden’s corpse before it was buried at sea confirmed the identity of the world’s most wanted terrorist. “Bin Laden’s DNA has been matched to several family members. And there is at least 99 percent certainty that the DNA matches that of Osama bin Laden,” an official told AFP news agency. However, the U.S. may have to release photographs of bin Laden’s corpse to smother any effort to claim he survived the raid, top U.S. lawmakers warned.
President Obama praised Pakistan for its "close counter-terrorism co-operation." But officials said the U.S. was the only country that knew in advance of the operation. An official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence declined to comment other than to say that it was a "highly sensitive intelligence operation.”
The dramatic news closes one chapter in the global turmoil sparked by the September 11 attacks on America that killed nearly 3,000 people in 2001. The event triggered the war in Afghanistan, was used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq and inflicted grievous damage on America's moral authority after the CIA torture of al-Qaida suspects and the detention of more than 700 people at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
According to U.S. media reports, senior U.S. administration officials said that after 9/11 the CIA chased various leads about bin Laden's inner circle, in particular his couriers. One of these couriers came in for special attention, mentioned by detainees at Guantánamo Bay by his nom de guerre. He was said to be a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, and one of the few couriers bin Laden trusted. Officials said they were initially unable to identify him but finally did so four years ago.
Two years ago, the CIA found the rough location where the courier and his brother lived in Pakistan, and in August last year they narrowed it down to a compound in Abbottabad, an affluent area about 35 miles north of Islamabad that had been founded as a British garrison town in the 1840s and named after its first deputy commissioner, Major James Abbott.
They realized immediately this was no normal residence. The walls of the 3,000 sq-ft compound were 12 to 18 feet high, topped with barbed wire. There were two security gates, and access to the compound was severely restricted. The main part of the residence was three-story high but had few windows, and a third-floor terrace was shielded by a privacy wall. Built around five years ago, it was valued at about $1 million but had no phone or internet connection.
According to media reports, the two brothers had no known source of income, adding to CIA suspicions. The CIA learned too that there was a family living with them, and that the composition of this family matched bin Laden's. Local suspicions were understood to have been aroused by the fact that the residents of the compound burned their rubbish rather than putting it out for collection.
By September, the CIA had determined there was a "strong possibility" that the hideout was bin Laden's, and by February, they were confident they had the right location. In March, President Obama began chairing a series of five national security meetings. At the last of these, on April 29, while the world's attention was on the royal wedding taking place in London, he gave the order to mount an operation, according to a New York Times report.
At that meeting, at 8:20 a.m. in the diplomatic room at the White House, Obama met his national security adviser Thomas Donilon, counter-terrorism adviser John O’Brennan, and other senior national security aides to go through the detailed plan to attack the compound and sign the formal orders authorizing it, according to the NYT report.
"We shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan," a senior administration official told the paper. Only a tiny handful of people within the administration were aware of the operation.
At around 1:15 a.m. local time on Monday, Abbottabad residents became aware that something was happening. "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 a.m. [is a rare event]," tweeted one local, Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual), following that some minutes later with: "A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S"
Altafullah Khan, who lives near Bin Laden’s compound, said the residents of the area had no clue that the world’s most wanted man was living in their neighborhood. “The occupants of that house did not interact with anyone.”
“I have only seen some women dressed like Arabs coming out from the house besides noticing some foreigners on a few occasions,” he said.
Khan said he was resting on his terrace Sunday night when he heard the helicopters hovering over his house. “There was electricity load shedding at that time and I could not make out the identity of the choppers. Suddenly they opened fire and then there was this huge explosion that rocked the entire town,” he said, adding that the entire neighborhood kept indoors and it was only in the morning that they came to know through TV reports that the al-Qaida chief had been killed on their street.
A woman living in the same locality had a different account to share. She claimed that before the operation started, she had seen Pakistani security personnel in plainclothes taking positions along the street. She also claimed that she had seen a Pakistan Army helicopter taking part in the operation, but this claim could not be verified officially.
From the face of it, it’s clear that the U.S. did not notify its Pakistani allies about the plan to kill bin Laden until after its forces had left Pakistani soil.
A Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson said President Obama had telephoned President Asif Zardari on the successful U.S. operation, suggesting that Pakistan’s political leadership in Islamabad was also not kept in the loop.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government confirmed that bin Laden had been killed but stressed that U.S. forces, not Pakistani troops, had carried out the operation. The statement came as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan telephoned newspaper offices to claim that the Taliban would avenge the al-Qaida chief’s killing.
Ehsan has previously claimed responsibility for several bombings and incidents of terrorism, including the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister for minorities, who was gunned down in Islamabad in March for advocating changing the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and supporting the release of a Christian blasphemy convict woman, Asia Bibi (also known as Asia Noreen).
"If he (bin Laden) has become a martyr, it is a great victory for us because martyrdom is the aim of all of us," Ehsan said, as he also claimed responsibility for the killing of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. "Now Pakistani rulers, President Zardari and the Army will be our first targets. America will be our second target," the Taliban spokesman said. "These people are in fact the enemies of Islam."
Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement, “The mission was carried out in accordance with declared U.S. policy that Osama bin Laden will be eliminated in a direct action by the U.S. forces, wherever found in the world.”
The Foreign Office did not mention any Pakistani involvement in the operation despite the fact that President Obama mentioned Pakistani assistance in taking out bin Laden during his televised address.
Still, the Foreign Office hailed the killing as “a major setback to terrorist organizations around the world.” “Osama bin Laden’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community, including Pakistan, to fight and eliminate terrorism,” it said.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani dubbed bin Laden’s killing a major achievement in the war against terrorism. “We will not allow our soil to be used against any other country for terrorism and therefore I think it’s a great victory, it’s a success and I congratulate the success of this operation,” Gilani said in a TV interview.
Asked about the extent to which Pakistan cooperated in the operation he said, “I don't know minute details, but in short we have intelligence cooperation.”
Asked if it was embarrassing for the government to discover that bin Laden had been living within easy reach of the capital, Gilani said: “It’s an embarrassment for the whole world because of the high tech and the intelligence and such information, they could not reach that gentleman for the last seven years,” revealing no further details of the operation.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Gilani met a U.S. delegation led by Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman. During the meeting, Gilani emphasized the need for a constructive and positive message from both sides on the Abbottabad operation and stressed that the sensitivities in this regard must be given due importance rather than giving it a “spin.”
However, according to media reports Monday night, U.S. counter-terrorism chief John Brennan said it was "inconceivable" that bin Laden had not had some kind of support system as he managed to live "for an extended period of time" in a heavily-fortified compound, barely a two-hour drive from Pakistan’s capital city.
Laying bare Washington's mistrust of its "war on terror" ally, he revealed that the Pakistani government had only been notified of the raid after the elite team of Navy SEALs had left Pakistan's airspace.
"We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there," Brennan said at a White House briefing, according to reports.