The cellphone of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, senior US officials briefed on the findings say. The discovery indicates that bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said. However, it also raised questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years, the officials and analysts said.
In tracing the calls on the cellphone, US analysts have determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials, the senior US officials said. One said they had met. The officials added that the contacts were not necessarily about bin Laden and his protection and that there was no “smoking gun” showing that Pakistan’s spy agency had protected bin Laden.
However, the cellphone numbers provide one of the most intriguing leads yet in the hunt for the answer to an urgent and vexing question for Washington: How was bin Laden able to live comfortably for years in Abbottabad, a town dominated by the Pakistani military and only a three-hour drive from Islamabad?
“It’s a serious lead,” said one US official, who has been briefed in broad terms on the cellphone analysis. “It’s an avenue we’re investigating.”
The revelation also provides a potentially critical piece of the puzzle about bin Laden’s secret odyssey after he slipped away from US forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago. It may help answer how and why bin Laden or his protectors chose Abbottabad, where he was killed in a raid by a Navy SEALs team on May 2.
Harakat has especially deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, and the network provided by the group would have enhanced bin Laden’s ability to live and function in Pakistan, analysts familiar with the group said. Its leaders have strong ties with both al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, and they can roam widely because they are Pakistanis, something the foreigners who make up al-Qaeda’s ranks cannot do.
Even today, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, long one of bin Laden’s closest Pakistani associates, lives unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.
The senior US officials did not name the commanders whose numbers were in the courier’s cellphone, but said the militants were in South Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and other groups had been based for years. Harakat’s network would have allowed bin Laden to pass on instructions to al-Qaeda members there and in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, to deliver messages and money or even to take care of personnel matters, analysts and officials said.
Harakat is one of a host of militant groups set up in the 1980s and early 1990s with the approval and assistance of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to fight as proxies in Afghanistan, initially against the Soviets, or against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Like many groups, it has splintered and renamed itself and, because of their overlapping nature, other groups could have been involved in supporting bin Laden, too, officials and analysts said. Howevaer, Harakat, they said, has been a favored tool of the ISI.