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.
Harakat “is one of the oldest and closest allies of al-Qaeda, and they are very, very close to the ISI,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.
“The question of ISI and Pakistani army complicity in bin Laden’s hide-out now hangs like a dark cloud over the entire relationship” between Pakistan and the US, Riedel added.
Indeed, suspicions abound that the ISI or parts of it sought to hide bin Laden, perhaps to keep him as an eventual bargaining chip or ensure billions of dollars in US military aid would flow to Pakistan as long as bin Laden was alive.
Both the chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, -Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, said this month that they believed some members of the ISI or Pakistani army were involved in harboring bin Laden, who himself had a long history with the ISI, dating to the mujahidin insurgency that the US and Pakistan supported against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Two former militant commanders and one senior fighter who have received support from the ISI for years said they were convinced that the ISI played a part in sheltering bin Laden. Because of their covert existence, they spoke on the condition that their names not be used. One of the commanders belonged to Harakat. The other said he had fought as a guerrilla and trained others for 15 years while on the payroll of the Pakistani military, until he quit a few years ago. He said he had met bin Laden twice.
In spring 2003, bin Laden, accompanied by a personal guard unit of Arab and Chechen fighters, arrived unexpectedly at a gathering of 80 to 90 militants at a village in the Shawal mountain range of North Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the former commander said. He met bin Laden briefly inside a house; he said he knew it was him because they had met before, in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The encounter in North Waziristan occurred before the US campaign of drone aircraft strikes, which began in 2004, made it unsafe for militants to gather in the area in large numbers. For about three years before the US drone campaign, bin Laden was moving from place to place in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, the commander said.
The US had small Special Operations units and CIA operatives working with Pakistani security forces to track al-Qaeda members at that time. At some point, bin Laden went deeper underground. That is when the commander speculated that the al-Qaeda leader was moved to a safe house in a city, although he did not say he knew that bin Laden had gone to Abbottabad.
He and the other commander, who spent 10 years with Harakat, offered no proof of their belief that bin Laden was under Pakistani military protection, but their views were informed by their years of work with the ISI and their knowledge of how it routinely handled militant leaders it considered assets — placing them under protective custody in cities, often close to military installations.
The treatment amounts to a kind of house arrest, to ensure both the security of the asset and his low profile to avoid embarrassment to his protectors.
Art Keller, a former CIA officer who worked in Pakistan in 2006, said he had heard rumors after he left Pakistan in 2007 that Harakat was providing “background” assistance with logistics in moving and maintaining the al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan. That did not necessarily mean members of the group were aware of the role they played or knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, another US intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.
It remains unclear how bin Laden arrived in Abbottabad, where US officials say he and his family lived for five years, beginning in 2006. The city is home to one of the nation’s top military academies — less than 1.6km from the compound where bin Laden was killed.
It is also a transit point for militants moving between Kashmir and the tribal areas. The region is the prime recruitment base of Harakat, whose training camps still exist nearby in Mansehra.
Through the late 1990s, Harakat collaborated closely with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, sharing training camps and channeling foreign fighters to al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Khalil was a co-signer of bin Laden’s 1998 edict ordering attacks against the US. The group even organized trips for journalists to see bin Laden in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001, and was used to pass messages to him, said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier and former intelligence official.
Such were the links between the groups that when the US fired cruise missiles at bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, 11 Harakat fighters were killed. Some of the group’s fighters were also killed in the bombings of one of bin Laden’s bases in Afghanistan at the start of the US invasion in October 2001.
Under strong US pressure, Harakat and similar groups were officially banned and driven underground by the government of then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in 2002. Harakat just renamed itself and continued to run camps unencumbered by Pakistani authorities and to train militants, some of whom have been caught while fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the commanders said.
After 2007, many of its fighters left to join the Taliban, but its leadership and network have remained intact, if reduced, the commanders said. Indeed, bin Laden’s courier appears to have used a camp in Mansehra that belonged to a Harakat splinter group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, as a transit stop, said a US government official familiar with the analysis of the bin Laden material.
The Pakistani army continued its links with the Harakat leadership, in particular Khalil, Pakistani officials and analysts said. In 2007, Khalil was used by the Musharraf government as a member of a group of clerics who tried to negotiate an end to a siege by militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
“They can find him when they want him,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, who has written a book on militant groups.
What role, if any, Khalil may have played in helping bin Laden in Abbottabad, or whether he even knew he was living there, is still not clear. It is also the case that hardliners within the ranks of his organization may have become disillusioned with their ISI handlers over the years, broke from them and operated more independently.
Another Pakistani militant leader closely connected to bin Laden is Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar. Akhtar stopped in South Waziristan on the way to Afghanistan just months ago, a militant interviewed by telephone said.
The presence in Waziristan of Akhtar — who is wanted in connection with the attack that killed former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — demonstrated that he could still move freely without ISI interference.
A report by the Pakistani Interior Ministry said Akhtar had visited bin Laden in August 2009 near the border with Afghanistan to discuss jihadist operations against Pakistan, according to an account published in the Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times last year.
It is the only recorded episode showing that bin Laden’s presence inside Pakistan was known to Pakistani intelligence, until the US raid that killed him.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JANE PERLEZ, SALMAN MASOOD AND MARK MAZZETTI
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement