Belmont Club

Is the ISI Al-Qaeda?

“A top White House official said it was ‘inconceivable’ Osama bin Laden had not had a support system to help him inside Pakistan, but he declined to speculate if there had been any official Pakistani aid,” according to Reuters. Gulf News reported that the compound which Bin Laden occupied may once have been an ISI safe house. “Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and other senior senators sharply questioned Monday whether the Pakistani military and intelligence community had protected Osama bin Laden before Navy SEALs killed the terrorist leader in a Sunday night raid.”

The official suspicions began last year, according to the transcript of a briefing given by the White House to the press following the raid. “In the beginning of September of last year, the CIA began to work with the President on a set of assessments that led it to believe that in fact it was possible that Osama bin Laden may be located at a compound in Pakistan,” the briefing went. It went on to say they were “very concerned about — that he was inside of Pakistan.”

What is implied, but not stated in the briefing was that they were worried the raiding team had to go through the Pakistanis to get at him. The location of Osama bin Laden’s safe house was designed not only to control him but to defend his location from a raiding team. The dangers to the team were potentially significant. Abbottabad is home to at least one Pakistani Army regiment and has thousands of military personnel. An AP report says that the four incoming helicopters were fired on from Bin Laden’s rooftop. The Daily Mail reports that President Obama considered a proposal to strike the compound with B2 bombers, which underscores how dangerous the mission was.

Many reports suggest that the raiding team took off from Pakistan’s Ghazi aviation base. Located in the area of the Swat Valley, it is home to many U.S.aviation assets and has been visited by dignitaries like John Kerry. From there the assault team had a 100 mile flight southeast to Abbottabad. The White House transcript continued: “shortly after the raid, U.S. officials contacted senior Pakistani leaders to brief them on the intent and the results of the raid.” It was safe to tell them only after the fact.

This casts doubt on the claim by John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser, that the killing of Osama bin Laden is “a strategic blow to Al Qaeda.” It is a strategic blow, rather, to the fiction of America’s alliance with Pakistan. Bin Laden has, for much of the last ten years, been the creature of someone else. OBL did not have, and apparently has not had for some time, any operational independence. Who he worked for is the question.

Steve Coll of the New Yorker wonders aloud whether any further inquiries will be made — the kind that one would expect in the investigation of criminals of this magnitude.

It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army.

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests that the opposite is more likely—that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose? These questions are not relevant only to the full realization of justice for the victims of September 11th. They are also relevant to the victims of terrorist attacks conducted or inspired by bin Laden while he lived in the house, and these include many Pakistanis, as well as Afghans, Indians, Jordanians, and Britons. They are rightly subjects of American criminal law.

CNN suggests the opposite: that it is time to stop asking questions and to live and let live. “Given that drone strikes have been so unpopular in Pakistan, it could be a good time to stop them, now that the ‘head of the snake’ has been cut off. That could limit any backlash or protests against the U.S. on the streets of Islamabad.”  Because if certain rocks are turned over, who knows what will be discovered squirming beneath?

An Indian newspaper makes perhaps the most radical argument: that Lashkar-e-Taiba and perhaps al-Qaeda may in fact simply be aliases for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Perhaps not all parts of it, but some of it. That would be a thought. Pakistan has long had close connection with Saudi Arabia. Parts of the rambling Pakistani state may lead a double life as international terrorism. The problem may be more than academic. Pakistan may be fatally divided and on the brink of a resolution.  David Ignatius asks, “Will Pakistan erupt like Egypt?” In an article written before the announcement of Bin Laden’s capture, Ignatius says:

Think of Pakistan for a moment as the equivalent of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Both countries have strong militaries and weak civilian governments. Both are nominally America’s partners in the war against al-Qaeda, but both chafe at U.S. pressure. In each nation, the street is buzzing with talk of the nation’s shame and humiliation under American hegemony.

In Egypt, this pressure cooker led to a revolution whose loudest slogan was “dignity.” The same upheaval could spread to Pakistan, and given the strength of Islamic extremism there, it would have devastating consequences. Meanwhile, the relationship between Islamabad and Washington becomes more poisonous by the week.

It is bound to become more poisonous still. Ignatius continues: “Maybe Pakistan needs a popular revolution, like Egypt’s, where people demand a stronger role in determining their future. But it’s hard to see this working out to the advantage of anyone at this point, except perhaps Osama bin Laden. And it might put Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs.” Bin Laden is dead. But his employers — the ones who really called the shots — are very much alive and kicking. And yes, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are still up for grabs.

“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5