The US wants access to Osama bin Laden’s three widows and any intelligence material its commandos left behind at the al-Qaeda leader’s compound, a top US official said in comments that could add a fresh sticking point in already frayed ties with Pakistan.
Information from the women, who remained in the house after the commandos killed bin Laden, might answer questions about whether Pakistan harbored the al-Qaeda chief as many US officials are speculating. It could also reveal details about the day-to-day life of bin Laden, his actions since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the inner workings of al-Qaeda.
The women, along with several children also picked up from the house, are believed to be in Pakistani army custody. A Pakistani army official declined to comment on Sunday on the request, which US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon revealed in an interview broadcast on NBC’s Meet the Press.
The CIA and Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have worked uneasily together in the past on counterterrorism, but the unilateral US raid — done without Pakistan’s advance knowledge — has exposed the deep mistrust that scars a complicated if vital partnership for both nations.
Even before the May 1 raid, the ISI said it was cutting cooperation with the CIA to protest drone strikes close to the Afghan border, among other things. In the current environment, Pakistan could use the fact it has something Washington wants — bin Laden’s widows — as leverage to reduce some of the pressure it is under.
Bin Laden was found in a large house close to a military academy in the army town of Abbottabad, where he had been living for up to six years. His location raised US suspicions that he had help from some Pakistani authorities, possibly elements of the powerful army and intelligence services.
Donilon said Washington had seen no evidence that the Pakistani government had been colluding with bin Laden — the public line taken by most US officials since the raid, including US President Barack Obama in comments also broadcast on Sunday.
“But they need to investigate that,” Donilon said. “And they need to provide us with intelligence, by the way, from the compound that they’ve gathered, including access to Osama bin Laden’s three wives, whom they have in ... custody.”
Donilon also said Pakistani authorities had collected other evidence from the house that the US wanted to “work with them on assessing.”
US commandos managed to seize a large and valuable intelligence haul that included videos, telephone numbers and documents, along with the body of bin Laden, before flying back to Afghanistan, US officials said.
The Pakistani government has strongly denied it knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but Western governments have long regarded Islamabad with suspicion. Its armed forces have historical — some say ongoing — links with Islamist militants, which they used as proxies in Afghanistan and India.
The allegations of Pakistani collusion pose an acute problem for the Obama administration because few can see any alternative but to continue engaging with the country. Unstable and nuclear-armed, it remains integral to the fight against al-Qaeda, as well as to US hopes for beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan later this year.
“We need to act in our national interest,” Donilon said. “We have had difficulty with Pakistan, as I said. But we’ve also had to work very closely with Pakistan in our counterterror efforts.”
The US commandos killed bin Laden and up to four other people, including one of his sons, at the compound.
Pakistani officials have given little information, some of it conflicting, about the identities of the women and children left behind, including exactly how many there are and what they allegedly have been saying.
Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tahmina Janjua said no countries had asked for the return of bin Laden’s relatives. The ministry in a statement last week said they were being well looked after and would be returned to their countries of origin.