US takes heat off Pakistan on bin Laden's hideout

Obama's national security adviser says no evidence of Pakistani impropriety found, but investigation necessary.

May 8, 2011 16:46
Pakistanis near compound where bin Laden killed

Pakistan bin Laden compound 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD - The Obama administration took some heat off Pakistan on Sunday, saying it had no evidence that Islamabad knew Osama bin Laden was living in the country before he was killed by US commandos in a garrison town a short drive from the capital.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scheduled to "take the nation into confidence" in parliament on Monday, his first statement to the people more than a week after the attack embarrassed the country and raised fears of a new rift between Islamabad and Washington.

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Suspicion has deepened that Pakistan's pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, which has a long history of contacts with militant groups, may have had ties with the al-Qaida leader - or that some of its agents did.

Pakistan has dismissed such suggestions and says it has paid the highest price in human life and money supporting the U.S. war on militancy launched after bin Laden's followers staged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The U.S. national security adviser said that while bin Laden's residence for several years in a compound in Abbottabad, 30 miles (50 km) north of Islamabad, "needs to be investigated," there was nothing to suggest the government or security establishment knew he was there.

"I can tell you directly that I've not seen evidence that would tell us that the political, the military, or the intelligence leadership had foreknowledge of bin Laden," Tom Donilon told NBC's "Meet the Press" when asked if Pakistan was guilty of harboring the al-Qaida leader.

"How could this have happened in Pakistan?" Donilon said. "We need to investigate it. We need to work with the Pakistanis. And we're pressing the Pakistanis on this investigation."

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told ABC's "This Week" his government would act on the results of the investigation.

"And heads will roll, once the investigation has been completed. Now, if those heads are rolled on account of incompetence, we will share that information with you. And if, God forbid, somebody's complicity is discovered, there will be zero tolerance for that, as well."

Donilon said Pakistani officials also needed to provide U.S authorities with intelligence they had gathered from the compound where bin Laden was killed, and access to his three wives who are in Pakistani custody.

But he added that despite difficulties in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, "We've also had to work very closely with Pakistan in our counter-terror efforts. More terrorists and extremists have been captured or killed in Pakistan than anyplace else."

Pakistani security officials reacted with skepticism to a U.S. assertion that bin Laden was actively engaged in directing his far-flung network from his compound in Abbottabad where he was killed on May 2.

Washington has said that, based on a trove of documents the size of a small college library and computer equipment seized in the raid, bin Laden's hideout was an "active command and control center" for al Qaeda where he was involved in plotting future attacks on the United States.

Pakistani officials said the fact that there was no internet connection or even telephone line into the compound where the world's most-wanted man was hiding raised doubts about his centrality to al-Qaida.

"It sounds ridiculous," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official. "It doesn't sound like he was running a terror network."

Analysts have long maintained that, years before bin Laden's death, al-Qaida had fragmented into a decentralized group that operated tactically without him.

"It's bullshit," said a senior Pakistani security official, when quizzed on a U.S. intelligence official's assertion that bin Laden had been "active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions" of the Islamist militant group from his hideout.

On Saturday, the White House released five video clips of bin Laden taken from the compound, most of them showing the al-Qaida leader, his beard dyed black, evidently rehearsing the video-taped speeches he sometimes distributed to his followers.

None of the videos was released with sound. A U.S. intelligence official said it had been removed because the United States did not want to transmit bin Laden's propaganda. But he said they contained the usual criticism of the United States as well as capitalism.

While several video segments showed him rehearsing, one showed an aging and gray-bearded bin Laden in a scruffy room, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a ski cap while watching videotapes of himself.

"This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al-Qaida's top leader and it's clear ... that he was not just a strategic thinker for the group," the U.S. intelligence official said in Washington. "He was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions."

Donilon reiterated the assertion on Sunday talk shows, telling NBC: "Osama bin Laden ...had an operational and strategic direction role," in al Qaeda.

The dueling narratives of bin Laden reflect both Washington's and Islamabad's interests in peddling their own versions of bin Laden's hidden life behind the walls of his compound.

Stressing bin Laden's weakness makes his discovery just a few minutes' walk from a military academy less embarrassing for Pakistan, but playing up his importance makes the U.S. operation all the more victorious.

The competing claims came as senior Pakistani officials said bin Laden may have lived in Pakistan for more than seven years before he was shot dead.

One of bin Laden's widows, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, told investigators bin Laden and his family had spent five years in Abbottabad.

Abdulfattah, along with two other wives and several children, were among 15 or 16 people detained by Pakistani authorities at the compound after the raid.

She said that before Abbottabad, bin Laden had stayed in a nearby village for nearly two-and-a-half years.

Residents of the village of Chak Shah Mohammad, at the end of a bumpy road flanked by fields of wheat, were both puzzled and a little scared to find themselves at the focus of the investigation.

"Everyone in the village knows when a cow has a calf so how could bin Laden and his family hide here?" Mohammad Naseer, a 65-year-old retired soldier, said as he took a break from working his fields. "I can say for sure he wasn't here."

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