Weekly Standard: Can We Know What Pakistan Knew?

Originally published on May 9, 2011 10:07 am

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

In May 2010, in the aftermath of the attempted bombing of Times Square by a jihadist with ties to the Pakistani Taliban, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview to 60 Minutes and made a startling claim about the government in Pakistan. "I'm not saying that they're at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill, those who attacked us on Sept. 11."

Why would Clinton say this? Did the U.S. government have intelligence — an inside source, communications intercepts — that Pakistani officials knew where bin Laden was hiding? Or was America's top diplomat just engaging in idle speculation about a nation often described as a key ally in the war on terror?

One hint: She had made similar comments before.

A year later, two days after a team of Navy SEALs had killed bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, CIA director Leon Panetta was even more blunt. In an interview with Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi, Panetta explained why the United States went in on its own: "It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets."

That is a stunning statement. If Clinton would not accuse officials at the "highest levels" of the Pakistani government of al-Qaida sympathies, Panetta did. The CIA director does not deal with anyone other than officials at the highest levels of partner governments. So Panetta wouldn't withhold information simply out of concern that there are al-Qaida sympathizers or agents seeded among the midlevel ranks of Pakistan's military and ISI intelligence agency. He was concerned that the leaders of these institutions might alert the targets.

It was a reasonable concern for two reasons: the surprising location of bin Laden's compound and the long history of support for jihadists from within the Pakistani security apparatus.

In August 2010, the U.S. intelligence community tracked Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier known to be very close to bin Laden, to a large compound in Abbottabad, just 40 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city. The one-acre property immediately stood out. It was eight times larger than most of the surrounding lots, and it was contained by high walls topped with barbed wire — some rising to more than 15 feet. There were no obvious telephone or cable lines. From a nearby safe house, the CIA monitored the activities of the residents. Among other oddities, they burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection. A seven-foot wall on the third floor was high enough to allow a tall man to get some fresh air without being seen by his neighbors. But even after the intelligence community concluded that bin Laden was probably living there — a 60-80 percent likelihood, the CIA estimated — the location raised doubts.

Abbottabad is home to the Kakul Military Academy, often described as Pakistan's West Point. As a result, many military officials retire there, to be close to their friends from the army. It frequently hosts high-ranking military officers and visiting foreign dignitaries. A week before the U.S. assault on bin Laden's compound, the head of Pakistan's military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, spoke at a ceremony on the grounds of the academy. In February 2010, General David Petraeus paid a visit to Kakul.

So as CIA analysts learned everything they could about the property, one question kept coming up: Is it possible that the world's most wanted man is hiding in the shadows of one of Pakistan's best-known military garrisons without the knowledge of that country's top officials? They looked — and listened — for signs that official Pakistan was helping those ensconced in the compound. They did not find any.

Still, as Panetta's comment suggests, the absence of that evidence did not allay suspicions that high-ranking Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden's presence. And no wonder.

Bin Laden's links to Pakistan dated to the 1980s, when he was a liaison between Saudi intelligence, Pakistani intelligence, and the so-called Arab Afghans who traveled from the Middle East to fight the Soviets. While the war against the Soviets was fought in Afghanistan, the Arab Afghan network bin Laden led was based in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida was headquartered for several years in Sudan in the 1990s, during which time bin Laden refashioned the Arab Afghan network into an international terrorist network. But after the Sudanese government expelled the terror master, al-Qaida relocated to Afghanistan, almost certainly with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence — the ISI.

According to the Sept. 11 Commission: "It is unlikely that bin Laden could have returned to Afghanistan had Pakistan disapproved. The Pakistani military intelligence service probably had advance knowledge of his coming, and its officers may have facilitated his travel." During his time away from South Asia, bin Laden had "maintained guesthouses and training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan." But he would have needed to broker a deal with the new power inside Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, in order to resettle there.

The ISI made that happen. "Pakistani intelligence officers reportedly introduced bin Laden to Taliban leaders in Kandahar, their main base of power, to aid his reassertion of control over camps near Khowst, out of an apparent hope that he would now expand the camps and make them available for training [Pakistan-backed] Kashmiri militants," reported the Sept. 11 Commission.

The value of Pakistan's assistance to bin Laden at this time cannot be overestimated. After being expelled from Sudan, the Sept. 11 Commission found, bin Laden "was in his weakest position since his early days in the war against the Soviet Union." He was desperate for a new ally who would host his network and allow him to rebuild. Mullah Omar's Taliban, an ISI proxy, gave him just that.

Newly ensconced in Afghanistan, bin Laden rebuilt al-Qaida quickly and within just a few years showed off his group's deadly capabilities. On August 7, 1998, al-Qaida launched simultaneous suicide truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It was al-Qaida's most successful operation prior to Sept. 11, killing hundreds. In the wake of the attacks, President Clinton authorized missile strikes against a suspicious factory in Sudan and bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.

From a tactical perspective, the strikes mostly failed. A few dozen al-Qaida trainees and operatives were killed, but bin Laden escaped. Several Clinton administration officials and intelligence officers thought they knew why. "Officials in Washington speculated that one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or bin Laden." Adding to their suspicions was the fact that several Pakistani military intelligence officials were among the dead at one of bin Laden's camps.

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