Up until May 2, 2011, Pakistan sheltered Osama bin Laden in protected and comfortable accommodation. Indeed, between 2004 and 2005, at least five fortified villa complexes like the one raided by US Special Forces in Abbottabad May 2 were provided for the al Qaeda leader's use as hideouts in different parts of Pakistan.
They were all located in upscale areas or near military facilities, one of them actually inside an army residential neighborhood near Karachi populated by officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and higher. And, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, when unoccupied by bin Laden, the walled homes often served Pakistani intelligence as safe houses or even holiday villas for high officers.
When Foreign Secretary Salman Bashar disclosed Wednesday, May 4 that information about the Abbottabad villa had been relayed to Washington two years ago, he added that there were "millions of other suspect locations" in other parts of Pakistan.
Some intelligence officials in the West wondered out loud this week how, in a country where the average man is no more than 1.60 meters in height, a two-meter tall Arab managed to escape notice when he stepped out on the roof of his house or a balcony for a breath of fresh air.
(The balconies, incidentally, were angled so as to obstruct snipers' aim from outside the compound.)
On those grounds alone, Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, or even his army neighbors would have known who was living there some of the time.
Another point that sticks out about those residences, assuming that Abbottabad was the template for his other secret bolt holes in Pakistan, is that they had no open or covered parking space. The most wanted terrorist in the world hunted by every Western secret service did not keep a getaway car ready to go. Neither were any helicopters set aside for his use at nearby Pakistan army facilities, some located less than half a kilometer from one of his makeshift residences.
That is not the only odd fact about Osama bin Laden's security arrangements.
Osama bin Laden would have been easier prey in 2007
Only two electrically-operated gates gave access to the compound behind the 3-5-meter high walls. Effective for keeping unwanted visitors out, a small number of armed men could have barred the two gates in a trice and caged him inside. No underground escape hatch had been tunneled under the house.
If attacked, therefore, the master terrorist would have found the jaws of his sanctuary snapping shut making it a trap.
Neither did the villa have a bunker or fortified room for protection against an exploding missile or bomb, such as is now standard in every government compound in the US, Pakistan and Arab countries. The Abbottabad house, astonishingly, too, was not fitted with alarms, whether sophisticated electronic sensors or even an ordinary burglar alarm.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources disclose that when the occupants of those walled compounds, including bin Laden, decided to relocate, a long convoy of luxury limousines and buses turned up to collect them. The convoy would be kept waiting outside one of the gates for its passengers. But there were no guards covering the second gate against trespassers. The vehicles moved off without police or military escort.
According to our sources, these convoys commuted between bin Laden's different Pakistan addresses five to seven times a year between 2007 and early 2010. The schedule was then reduced to two or three trips. After September 2010, Bin Laden with family and entourage stayed put in Abbottabad.
The convoys moving up and down open roads every few months during 2007 would have presented an easier target operationally and intelligence-wise than a raid on a three-storey building. Yet the most notorious terrorist mastermind of the age was not attacked for four years, undoubtedly because the top US administration policy-makers had decided to hold back – until this month.
Inconsistencies and retractions
This means that President George W. Bush in his last two years in office and President Barack Obama, in the first two, decided not to authorize the Al Qaeda leader's slaying or capture.
(A separate article in this issue – Obama lever for the Muslim Brotherhood's Push for Power – analyzes the considerations holding them back.)
Two days after breaking the news of his death, the White House in Washington began to feel the backlash. Wednesday, May 4, the Pakistani government, fed up with taking the heat of accusations and innuendo in the US and West alleging that Osama bin Laden had been living under its Inter-Services-Intelligence agency's protection, hit back: Foreign Secretary Bashar disclosed that as far back as 2009, during the first year of Obama's office as president, the ISI had indicated to the CIA that the Abbottabad complex was a possible hideout for terrorists. Transfers of information had been intensified from November 2010.
The 2009 date offered by the Pakistani minister did not square with the one offered in Obama's first announcement early Monday, May 2, when he said the first lead to Bin Laden's whereabouts in Abbottabad reached him in August 2010.
Washington had made it easy for Islamabad to exploit the errors and gaps in the often conflicting American accounts of the affair. In one embarrassing climb-down, Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, admitted that the previous version of events – mostly from the chief US counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan – had been put out "with great haste." Contradicting earlier claims that the Al Qaeda leader had died while firing an automatic weapon at the US commandos or "in a firefight", the spokesman admitted "he was unarmed."
Likewise, the dramatic account of Bin Laden using his wife as a "human shield" and forcing her to sacrifice her life proved false. The woman was still alive and had been taken into Pakistani custody with several of his offspring.
Pakistanis walk a tight rope
More retracting, amending and revising lie ahead of the White House in the coming days, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report as more information spills out from outside sources – and not only from Pakistan. Allied intelligence services are briefing their governments on the Abbottabad raid from their own informants. More than one has termed the information issuing from Washington "most problematic."
The only witnesses to the event inside the Ben Laden villa aside from the 24 US Navy SEALs who carried out the operation are in Pakistani custody. Some were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. They are all under heavy ISI guard.
The Pakistani government will have no qualms about producing them and their testimonies in public to get the Americans off their backs. One high-ranking Western intelligence source commented: "It's clear that the Pakistanis are walking a real tightrope here."
On the one hand, they don't want it to be caught scheming with the Americans to liquidate Bin Laden for fear of vendettas launched against them by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. On the other hand, they feel that close military and intelligence cooperation with the United States is becoming dangerous to their national-security interests on the Indian subcontinent.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources single out four anomalies in Washington's presentation of the operation which terminated the life of the al Qaeda leader:
Osama bin Laden put his security in Pakistani hands
1. President Obama and others have lauded the raid as an extraordinarily brilliant, brave and high-precision feat, when in fact most military experts rate it a routine military operation like "the hundreds of raids carried out almost nightly by American and other Western forces in dozens of locations in Afghanistan and Iraq" or by other armies engaged in counter-terror combat like the Israeli Defense Forces on the West Bank.
There was nothing complicated about the targeted building to raise exceptional difficulty, they said. The planners and officers had all the necessary military and intelligence information they needed to go forward with the operation and safely predict its successful outcome, namely the al Qaeda leader's death. Therefore a small team was enough to do the job without the need for air cover or a back-up force for unexpected trouble.
2. Since that outcome was foreseen by both by the Americans and Pakistanis, the questions remaining to be answered are: Why did Washington pick May 2011 for the operation and why did the Pakistanis play along?
(A separate item in this issue discloses the secret CIA-ISI deal)
3. From the way he was killed, it was obvious that the White House had decided that an American soldier would put a put a bullet in his head rather than use unpiloted drones to fire missiles into his bedroom, whose exact location was known in advance.
Why then is Washington prevaricating on this point?
4. The only weapons fired in the Abbottabad villa belonged to the US commandos. It would therefore seem that Bin Laden either had no armed bodyguards on the premises or none were around to stop the raiders climbing the stairs to his bedroom. Their absence would suggest that the al Qaeda leader relied on Pakistani security agencies to protect him and had placed his security in their hands. Because he had a deal with the ISI, it made sense for his havens to be located close to Pakistani military facilities – for protection. It also explained why the vehicles carrying him between secret residences required no armed escort and why he didn't bother to outfit them with alarm systems.