The Truth Behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden

A few days after US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a "senior intelligence official" briefing reporters on the materials seized from bin Laden’s compound said the materials revealed that bin Laden had "continued to direct even tactical details of the group’s management." Bin Laden was, "not just a strategic thinker for the group," said the official. "He was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions." The official called the bin Laden compound, "an active command and control center."

The senior intelligence official triumphantly called the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout "the greatest intelligence success perhaps of a generation," and administration officials could not resist leaking to reporters that a key element in that success was that the CIA interrogators had gotten the name of bin Laden’s trusted courier from al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo. CIA Director Leon Panetta was quite willing to leave the implication that some of the information had been obtained from detainees by "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Such was the official line at the time. But none of it was true. It is now clear that CIA officials were blatantly misrepresenting both bin Laden’s role in al-Qaeda when he was killed and how the agency came to focus on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In fact, during his six years in Abbottabad, bin Laden was not the functioning head of al-Qaeda at all, but an isolated figurehead who had become irrelevant to the actual operations of the organization. The real story, told here for the first time, is that bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad because he had been forced into exile by the al-Qaeda leadership.

The CIA’s claim that it found bin Laden on its own is equally false. In fact, the intensive focus on the compound in Abbottabad was the result of crucial intelligence provided by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Truthout has been able to reconstruct the real story of bin Laden’s exile in Abbottabad, as well as how the CIA found him, thanks in large part to information gathered last year from Pakistani tribal and ISI sources by retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Shaukat Qadir. But that information was confirmed, in essence, in remarks after the bin Laden raid by the same senior intelligence official cited above – remarks that have been ignored until now.

What the Bin Laden Documents Reveal

The initial claims about what the documents from the Abbottabad compound showed about bin Laden’s role in al-Qaeda were not based on any substantive evidence because the documents had not even been read, much less analyzed by the CIA. That process would take six weeks of intensive work by the analysts, cyber-experts and translators, as the Associated Press reported June 8, 2011. But with roughly 95 percent of the work done, the picture that emerged from the documents was starkly different from what the press had been told when the country was riveted to the story.

Osama bin Laden had indeed come up with plenty of ideas about attacking US and Western targets, but officials now acknowledged to Associated Press that there was, "no evidence in the files that any of the ideas bin Laden proposed led to a specific action that was later carried out."

A month after the analysis of the bin Laden documents was completed, one official told CNN that they showed bin Laden writing about attacks on aircraft carrying Obama and Petraeus in Afghanistan. Another official familiar with the documents told the network, however, that they reflected bin Laden, "in his brainstorming mode." One official described a document in which bin Laden expressed interest in having a team plan attacks on the United States on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But, an official commenting on the entire collection of bin Laden documents told CNN, "[T]hese were ideas, not fully or even partially planned plots."

Eight months later, in March 2012, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whose writing invariably reflects what top national security officials want to see in the news media, was given a "small sample" of the documents by a "senior administration official." The two documents he chose to highlight – bin Laden’s musings on shooting down aircraft with Obama or Petraeus on board and attacks on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 – had already been reported by CNN in July 2011. Acknowledging that al-Qaeda did not even have the military technology to shoot down a US plane, Ignatius observed that bin Laden, "still dreamed of pulling off another spectacular terror attack against the United States."

So, several months after the Abbottabad documents had been thoroughly analyzed and the results digested by senior administration officials, the administration was unable to cite a single piece of evidence that bin Laden had given orders for – or was even involved in discussing – a real, concrete plan for an al-Qaeda action, much less one that had actually been carried out. Far from depicting bin Laden as the day-to-day decisionmaker or even "master strategist" of al-Qaeda, the documents showed a man dreaming of glorious exploits that were unconnected with reality.

"Nobody Listened to His Rantings Anymore"

The reality reflected in the documents from the Abbottabad compound is that bin Laden had been exiled by the leadership of al-Qaeda because he had come to be seen as a loose cannon who was a danger to the organization. The train of events that led to bin Laden’s holing up in the compound in Abbottabad began in August 2003, in a small village in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, near the fabled caves of Tora Bora where he led a battle against US Special Forces in December 2001. It was there that the leadership of al-Qaeda conducted a series of extraordinary meetings on its most pressing problem: how to ease bin Laden out of his leadership role in the organization.

Those deliberations can now be revealed because Qadir, the retired 30-year veteran of the Pakistani Army, had served for years in South Waziristan alongside Mehsud tribesmen, with whom he had stayed in contact over the years. After the bin Laden raid, Qadir went back to his former comrades, and they introduced him to three of their relatives who had been couriers for Mehsud tribal militant leader Baitullah Mehsud in his contacts with al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, during the 2003 meetings.

Mehsud would become the head of the al-Qaeda affiliate organization Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007. But in 2009, Mehsud was killed in a drone strike and the organization was splintering over various issues. All three former couriers broke their ties with Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud’s successor as head of TTP. The political split in the Mehsud tribal community, followed by the killing of bin Laden, released the former couriers from their oaths of secrecy. In early August 2011, Qadir was able to meet separately with each of the three former Mehsud couriers in three different villages in South Waziristan, on the understanding that their names would not be revealed.

After bin Laden moved from the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan to South Waziristan in northwest Pakistan, his health continued to decline, according to the three former Mehsud couriers. Just what ailments were causing the deterioration was not clear, but he was no longer able to walk, and had to be moved by horseback from one house in South Waziristan to another for security reasons.

But an even greater concern of the al-Qaeda shura (or council), according to the former couriers, was what appeared to bin Laden’s colleagues to be his obsession with the idea that al-Qaeda should attack and capture Pakistan’s nuclear reactor at Kahuta. Zawahiri, the second-ranking al-Qaeda leader, who had the task of meeting personally with bin Laden, along with the rest of the shura tried to tell bin Laden that Kahuta was impenetrable. They pointed to the presence of a regular infantry battalion, air defense, guard dogs, mines and a laser security system guarding the facility. And anyway, as they pointed out to bin Laden, there were no nuclear weapons stored there.

But none of that seemed to matter to bin Laden, who seemed delusional on the issue. "Nobody listened to his rantings anymore," said one of the couriers in a conversation with Qadir. "He had become a physical liability and was going mad," another told Qadir a couple of days earlier. "He had become an object of ridicule," said the second courier, recalling that some of the militants in South Waziristan had become aware of his harangues on the subject and were starting to make jokes at bin Laden’s expense. "You can’t have a leader whose people ridicule him," he said.

Zawahiri had been running the day-to-day affairs of al-Qaeda, but bin Laden was still insisting on participating in major decisions. That situation led Zawahiri to propose during a series of meetings in August 2003 that bin Laden be forced to retire from active involvement in the organization’s decisions. The other members of the shura supported him, according to all three former Mehsud tribal couriers.

The only question was how to get bin Laden to agree. The shura believed bin Laden would only listen to one man: Abu Ayoub Al Iraqi, who had accompanied bin Laden to Peshawar in the early 1980s and had been a mentor to bin Laden when he founded al-Qaeda, then faded into the background. The problem was, according to the ex-couriers, that only bin Laden knew how to contact him. So, the shura decided to present a plan to bin Laden for the capture of the Kahuta nuclear base on condition that it would be subject to the approval of Iraqi.

Bin Laden agreed with the proposal and a courier was dispatched to Iraqi. But unknown to bin Laden, the courier also carried a letter from Zawahiri detailing bin Laden’s condition and requesting Iraqi’s help in convincing him to retire voluntarily for his own safety. The courier returned from visiting Iraqi in September 2003 with cosmetic modifications of the plan, and with the advice that the shura had requested: bin Laden should be housed in a secure location from which he could issue orders, but Zawahiri should continue to act on bin Laden’s behalf in the day-to-day affairs of the organization.

The plan was to let bin Laden believe that he would still be the leader of al-Qaeda from his new safe haven. In reality, the al-Qaeda leaders were sending him into an urban exile to get him off their backs.

The shura considered various options for permanent housing for bin Laden before deciding that he should live a secluded family life in a city that would not be too far from Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to the Mehsud tribal sources. The third-ranking member of the hierarchy, Mustafa al-Uzayti, a Libyan better known by his alias Abu Faraj al Libi, was tasked with finding the best location for bin Laden and his family to reside, according to Qadir’s Mehsud tribal sources.

Al Libi’s first choice was Mardan, about 30 miles from Peshawar, but bin Laden’s courier, who used the alias Sheikh Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, suggested that it was too dangerous because some pro-al-Qaeda individuals were constantly under surveillance by Pakistani and US intelligence agencies. He suggested Abbottabad instead.

After bin Laden approved the construction of a house within a larger compound in Abbottabad, it was Kuwaiti who purchased the land and oversaw the construction. Investigators from Pakistan’s ISI later learned that Kuwaiti and his younger brother moved in with their own wives, along with bin Laden and his large family of two wives, six children and four grandchildren in May or June 2005.

How Did the CIA Find Bin Laden?

Immediately after the Special Operations forces raids that killed bin Laden, a senior administration official who had an obvious interest in peddling a particular narrative about CIA interrogation techniques told reporters that the CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo had been a critical factor in finally tracking down bin Laden. According to one version, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as "KSM," the mastermind of the 9/11 attack, had identified bin Laden’s trusted courier in 2007; in another version, unidentified detainees had given interrogators the courier’s real name.

The story of bin Laden’s courier was an open invitation for past and present CIA officials who had gone along with the use of torture in interrogating suspects to justify their position. CIA Director Panetta channeled their viewpoint in an interview with NBC, suggesting that, for some of the information that led the agency to bin Laden, interrogators, "used their enhanced interrogation techniques against some of the detainees." He added, "Whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question." Reuters reported that the story of how the administration learned about the identity of bin Laden’s courier was, "certain to reopen the debate over practices that many have equated with torture."

That entire story was more disinformation. In fact, none of the detainees had divulged the actual identity of bin Laden’s courier – or even the courier’s alias within the organization, Sheik Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Had any of them provided the actual name of the courier, it would not have taken another four years to discover where that courier – and bin Laden – were living. Reuters, which originally reported that KSM had given up the name of the courier, later corrected the story, explaining in a note appended to it that KSM had divulged only the, "existence of courier rather than the name of the courier." None of the other outlets that had published the disinformation published a similar correction.

Another story, leaked by the CIA to Associated Press, claimed the discovery of the Abbottabad compound as the result of an electronic intercept. In August 2010, according to the story, a voice was heard in a phone conversation with someone whose cell phone US intelligence was monitoring, and from the substance of the conversation, intelligence analysts concluded that it was Kuwaiti. That in turn led CIA operatives to the Abbottabad compound, according to the story.

But is doubtful that Kuwaiti used his mobile phone to communicate with anyone who was already under surveillance in 2010. By 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been largely destroyed, in large part by the US Special Forces’ ability to monitor the Iraqi militants’ use of mobile phones, and both the al-Qaeda shura and bin Laden himself were even more acutely aware of the danger of any electronic communications that could expose Kuwaiti. Documents retrieved from bin Laden’s Abbottabad home reminded al-Qaeda officials that all internal communications were to be by letter only and not by phone or the Internet. Three ISI investigators told Qadir in three separate meetings the same thing about al-Qaeda’s caution with respect to the use of cell phones for internal communications.

Furthermore, it was another six months before the CIA initiated an effort to penetrate the Abbottabad compound with a human source. It was only in February 2011 that the CIA enlisted a Pakistani doctor named Shakeel Afridi to try to gain access to the house on the pretense of a fake campaign for testing people’s blood for hepatitis, according to Afridi’s testimony to ISI investigators. That gap in the timeline is only one of several pieces of evidence indicating that the CIA had not, in fact, tracked someone they believed to be bin Laden’s courier to the compound in Abbottabad in July or August 2010. The story of the intercepted phone call appears to be at least another misleading report on the path to Abbottabad.

The ISI Reveals a Secret

For nearly a year, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, remained silent about how bin Laden had been found. Meanwhile, former CIA director Panetta suggested that the ISI had long known about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, two unnamed ISI officials asserted to The Washington Post in an April 27 article that ISI provided the CIA with the cell phone number that belonged to Kuwaiti in November 2010 and told them it was last detected in Abbottabad. But the ISI officials said that their agency did not know at the time that the number was Kuwaiti’s.

A US official denied to the Post that the United States had learned about the number from the ISI. But in the initial briefing of reporters after the bin Laden raid on May 2, 2011, a "senior intelligence official" had actually confirmed, in guarded terms, that Pakistan had provided crucial information that intensified the CIA’s focus on the Abbottabad compound. "The Pakistanis did not know of our interest in the compound," said the official, "but they did provide us information that helped us develop a clearer focus on this compound over time…. [T]hey provided us information attached to [the compound] to help us complete the robust intelligence case that … eventually carried the day."

It is now clear that this acknowledgment, which was ignored in media coverage of the briefing, was a reference to ISI’s providing the CIA with both the cell phone number of Arshad Khan and the fact that it belonged to the owner of the compound in Abbottabad. The unnamed official was confirming indirectly that until ISI had given it that information, the CIA had not focused on the Abbottabad compound as the likely location of bin Laden’s courier, or, therefore, of bin Laden himself.

But there was more to the ISI information. Qadir was able to obtain a detailed account from ISI officers involved in the bin Laden investigation showing that ISI also told the CIA that it suspected that Khan might be linked to terrorism.

Qadir is a retired infantry officer who never worked in intelligence, but one of the officers involved in the ISI investigation of the background to the bin Laden killing had been under his command in Kurram Agency many years earlier. That connection enabled him to get access to several other ISI officers who were working on the investigation or were familiar with it. In conversations with Qadir in an ISI safe house in mid-December and over lunch at the Islamabad Club the same month, his initial ISI source told him how the ISI detachment in Abbottabad had launched an investigation of Khan in 2008.

According to Qadir’s initial ISI source, Khan had let it be known locally that he had made some money from business ventures in Dubai, and that his current occupation was dealing in foreign currency exchange and real estate in Peshawar. "It was merely routine," the ISI officer emphasized. "We had no suspicions at the time."

That story put out by Kuwaiti and Khan, which was evidently an effort to explain his regular monthly visits to Peshawar, eventually reached the ISI detachment in Abbottabad. The result was a routine request to the detachment in Peshawar to make an inquiry to confirm the information. After months of methodical checking in Peshawar, the ISI unit there reported that none of the half-dozen Arshad Khans who were money changers was a resident of Abbottabad. The inconsistency was conveyed to ISI headquarters in early 2010, with a request for an expanded search in other towns, according to the ISI sources. A request was then sent to all major cities in Pakistan, just in case somebody had gotten the location of the business wrong.

After more months of routine checking, all ISI stations across the country had reported finding no trace of a Pashtun money changer named Arshad residing in Abbottabad. Furthermore, the Peshawar detachment had learned that Khan had been purchasing prescription drugs during his monthly visits to Peshawar, as Qadir learned from two separate ISI officials involved in the post-bin-Laden-raid investigation. The suspicions of ISI officials were now piqued.

It was in July 2010, after the routine investigation indicated that Khan was not telling the truth about his trips to Peshawar, that the ISI official in charge of the investigation decided that the matter was suspicious enough to bring it to the attention of the Counter Terrorism Wing (CTW) of ISI, according to Qadir’s ISI sources. Those sources told Qadir they believed CTW asked the CIA for satellite surveillance of Khan’s residence in Abbottabad. "I thought it was worth getting satellite coverage and forwarded the request to HQ, after consulting with my officers," the official who made the decision told Qadir. "It could have turned out to be nothing important, but if there was an important person hiding there, I would look like an incompetent fool."

The CTW had worked closely with the CIA on capturing al-Qaeda leaders and operatives over the years, and that cooperation remained intact in mid-2010, even as tensions between the two intelligence agencies were rising over the rapid increase in the number of spies the CIA had infiltrated into Pakistan that year, partly to keep tabs on ISI’s relations with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. So, it would not have been unusual for the CTW to bring the results of the investigation of Khan to the attention of the CIA.

Five different junior and mid-level ISI officers – three in the field and two in ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi – told Qadir in separate meetings in August and September 2011 that they understood CTW had decided to forward a request to the CIA for surveillance of the Abbottabad compound.

More senior officers at headquarters claimed to Qadir, however, that they didn’t know about such a request, and at an even more senior level, they denied that such a request had even been made. The pattern of responses by ISI officials is consistent with a political decision by the military leadership to avoid even the slightest cooperation with the United States linked to the killing of bin Laden, according to Qadir. Given popular Pakistani anger about the unilateral US raid that killed bin Laden, even admitting that it had played a role in triggering the surveillance of the house in Abbottabad would have played into the hands of Pakistani groups who wanted to discredit the Army as stooges of the United States. "The mood in Pakistan was ugly," Qadir explained, "and the GHQ [Army headquarters] and ISI were in the eye of the storm. They felt they had no choice but to be accused of either complicity with the CIA in the raid or incompetence, and they chose incompetence."

But since Pakistan openly broke with Washington over the US military attack on two Pakistani border posts last November, the Pakistani military has more self-confidence. Under its new chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, the ISI has become more "proactive" in responding to negative press coverage, according to the officials who spoke with the Post. The ISI revelation to the Washington Post that ISI had turned over Khan’s cell phone number to the CIA in November confirms the essence of the story Qadir obtained from his sources.

The information obtained from ISI about the Abbottabad compound explains the otherwise mysterious remark by President Barack Obama on the night of the raid. "It is important here to note," Obama said, "that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound he was hiding in."

Obama’s insertion of that acknowledgement of the assistance of Pakistani intelligence into his triumphant announcement of the bin Laden killing further confirms the evidence that Pakistani help in focusing on the Abbottabad compound was crucial, but senior CIA officials, assuming the news media would never catch on, had nevertheless done what officials always do if they don’t believe they will be held accountable: they put out false information that made them look good. The lies surrounding the bin Laden killing are one more example of this primary leitmotif of the US national security state in the era of unaccountable permanent war.

Reprinted with permission courtesy of Truthout.

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.