The curious case of Osama bin Laden

Published: May 3, 2011

The writer is professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

Osama bin Laden, the figurehead king of al Qaeda, is gone. His hosts are still rubbing their eyes and wondering how it all happened. Although scooped up from Pakistani soil, shot in the head and then buried at sea, the event was not announced by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani or by President Asif Ali Zardari. Instead, it was the president of the United States of America who told the world that bin Laden’s body was in the custody of US forces.

Suggestions that Pakistan played a significant role ring hollow. President Obama, in his televised speech on May 1, said “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden”. But no sooner had he stopped speaking that his top national security aides declared that the United States had not told Pakistani leaders about the raid ahead of time. Significantly, Obama did not thank Pakistan. An American official pointedly declared that the information leading to bin Laden’s killing was shared “with no other country” and this top secret operation was such that “only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance”.

Today, Pakistan’s embarrassment is deep. On numerous occasions, our military and civilian leaders had emphatically stated that bin Laden was not in Pakistan. Some suggested that he might be in Sudan or Somalia. Others hinted that he might already have died from a kidney ailment, or perhaps that he was in some intractable area, protected by nature and terrain and thus outside the effective control of the Pakistani state.

But then it turned out bin Laden was not hiding in some dark mountain cave in Waziristan. Instead, probably for at least some years, he had lived comfortably smack inside the modern, peaceful, and extraordinarily secure city of Abbottabad. Using Google Earth, one sees that the deceased was within easy walking distance of the famed Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. It is here where General Kayani had declared on April 23 that “the terrorist’s backbone has been broken and inshallah we will soon prevail”. Kayani has released no statement after the killing.

Still more intriguing are pictures and descriptions of bin Laden’s fortress house. Custom-designed, it was constructed on a plot of land roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area. Television images show that it has high walls, barbed wire and two security gates. Who approved the construction and paid for it? Why was it allowed to be away from the prying eyes of the secret agencies?

Even the famous and ferocious General Hamid Gul (retd) — a bin Laden sympathiser who advocates war with America — cannot buy into the claim that the military was unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts. In a recorded interview, he remarked that bin Laden being in Abbottabad unknown to authorities “is a bit amazing”. Aside from the military, he said “there is the local police, the Intelligence Bureau, the Military Intelligence, the ISI — they all had a presence there”. Pakistanis familiar with the intrusive nature of the multiple intelligence agencies will surely agree; to sniff out foreigners is a pushover.

So why was bin Laden sheltered in the army’s backyard? General Pervez Musharraf, who was army chief when bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad was being constructed in 2005, unwittingly gives us the clearest and most cogent explanation. The back cover of his celebrated book, In The Line Of Fire, written in 2006, reads:

“Since shortly after 9/11 — when many al Qaeda leaders fled Afghanistan and crossed the border into Pakistan — we have played multiple games of cat and mouse with them. The biggest of them all, Osama bin Laden, is still at large at the time of this writing but we have caught many, many others. We have captured 672 and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totalling millions of dollars. Here, I will tell the story of just a few of the most significant manhunts”.

So, at the end of the day, it was precisely that: A cat and mouse game. Bin Laden was the ‘Golden Goose’ that the army had kept under its watch but which, to its chagrin, has now been stolen from under its nose. Until then, the thinking had been to trade in the Goose at the right time for the right price, either in the form of dollars or political concessions. While bin Laden in virtual captivity had little operational value for al Qaeda, he still had enormous iconic value for the Americans. It was therefore expected that kudos would come just as in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti-born senior al Qaeda leader who was arrested in Rawalpindi, or Mullah Baradar, the Taliban leader arrested from Karachi.

Events, however, have turned a potential asset into a serious liability. Osama’s killing is now a bone stuck in the throat of Pakistan’s establishment that can neither be swallowed nor spat out. To appear joyful would infuriate the Islamists who are already fighting the state. On the other hand, to deprecate the killing would suggest that Pakistan had knowingly hosted the king of terrorists.

Now, with bin Laden gone, the military has two remaining major strategic assets: America’s weakness in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But moving these chess pieces around will not assure the peace and prosperity that we so desperately need. They will not solve our electricity or water crises, move us out of dire economic straits, or protect us from suicide bombers.

Bin Laden’s death should be regarded as a transformational moment by Pakistan and its military. It is time to dispense with the Musharraf-era cat and mouse games. We must repudiate the current policy of verbally condemning jihadism — and actually fighting it in some places — but secretly supporting it in other places. Until the establishment firmly resolves that it shall not support armed and violent non-state actors of any persuasion — including the Lashkar-e-Taiba — Pakistan will remain in interminable conflict both with itself and with the world.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2011.

Reader Comments (161)

  • tax payer
    May 8, 2011 - 9:22PM

    Dear Dr Shb

    Your next article must recommend budgetary cuts for the sleeping military, airforce and intelligence.

    How come taxes are spent on shinny uniforms,big protocols residences and large vehicles, foreigns trips of the Generals to US and Europe. Jst so to make them sleep well !!! & the young full of ambitious officers lay their life in Waziristan and Swat.

    How this army and intelligence will protect the borders of Pakistan, let alone nuclear assets? Recommend

  • Taimur Khan
    May 8, 2011 - 10:42PM

    We must not jump to any conclusion without any evidence backing it. If the army was keep Bin Laden then evidence should be given by the author hereRecommend

  • anil
    May 9, 2011 - 7:26PM

    I admire one thing about Pakistan. there seems to be freedom of expression which many other Muslim countries are denied. A great article. If only the Military top brass read this and took some clues!Recommend

  • Joe R.
    May 12, 2011 - 7:14AM

    As much as we wanted to get this guy, and feel that killing him will somehow rectify things, it doesn’t. Over 6 thousand of our bravest have died for this. The other side is that a trial would have wasted even more taxpayer’s money and in the end, would have gotten OBL a nice private cell where he could still conduct business like a pimp. What we should have done to him was dragged him slowly behind a Hum-V by his turbin (I mean no disrespect or offense to the indian, Hindu, or good muslim people. Multiple of our citizens were beheaded there like Daniel Pearl and so many others. They chanted “Ala” and did this in their god’s name. What god condones killing? No god. They did this of their own accord. Our soldiers were murdered, tortured, shot down, blown up or maimed forever by IED’s. Bob Woodruff almost died just giving an unbiast report. I feel Obama took the credit for Bush’s intelligence (not his own but the CIA’s informants etc.). In the killing, I `00% disagree on 2 things. 1) Osama’s daughter should not have been witness to her dad dying. That was not cool. 12 years old is still a child. 2) Burial at sea? I don’t think so. More like thrown in the middle of the street and covered in gas and lit up for the world to see. An eye for an eye. These are my opinions, I don’t claim them to be right, I am certainly not well versed in politics, and my only experience to draw from is my own life and dealings with bad people as a cop. Terrorism did not suffer a single blow when Osama was killed. On the contrary, it gave these people a marter, something physically real that they can perform even more terrorism in its name.Recommend

  • mussarat Hussain
    May 13, 2011 - 9:51PM

    Does General (rtd) Hamid Gul still advocates war with United States?

    If the retired general who headed prestigious espionage of Pakistan for years, was sympathetic with Pakistan and loved peace, should have advised Osama and his cronies to stop playing with “Blood and Fire”. Pakistani nation knows very well that Gul had contacts with OBL and his adherents.

    To my surprise Gul not only added fuel to the fire but instigated OBL, Mullah Omar and rest of the right-wing parties within the Pakistan to carry out “Jihad” against West, thus opening and unending trail of tension, chaos and hatred between two religions i.e Christianism and Islam. Surprisingly, Jihadis are at “War” with Muslims with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

    General Hamid Gul’s dogma “From Osama with Blind Love” has tantamount to push Pakistan further into worst-ever turmoil and maligning image of pakistan army and the agencies which have already accepted “negligence” and not the failure in OBL case.

    It would be in the best interest of nation if former ISI chief stop patronising terrorism in Pakistan or he would be responsible for harboring global terrorism for which patriotic Pakistani nation whether at home and abroad will not forgive him.



  • Thomas807
    May 15, 2011 - 12:57AM

    Either the USA notified Pakistan’s political and military leaders before the raid, or it did not.

    If it did notify them but purposely withheld that fact AND Pakistani leaders also withheld that fact despite the heavy criticism it came under, then the likely motive for doing so is to protect the Pakistani leaders from retribution from bin Laden’s followers and sympathizers. Being the subject of criticism is better than dying.

    If the USA did NOT notify Pakistani leaders prior to the raid, it is likely because they did not trust the Pakistanis and feared they would help bin Laden escape.

    In the former instance, the bond between the USA government and the Pakistani government will grow stronger … and we’ll be able to see that happen by watching the headlines. If the bond between the two nations grows weaker or toxic in coming months, that would support the second hypothesis, that Pakistani leadership is duplicitous and can’t be trusted.

    Although many claim insight into this matter, slick analysis and fast talking are no substitute for actual experience. Actions speak more loudly than words …

    My best guess is that Pakistan’s political authorities were more interested in getting bin Laden out of the country, and cooperated with the USA, while its military and security leaders were treating bin Laden as the tradable asset described by Hoodbhoy. In that case, the recent operation to capture and kill bin Laden will take away that asset from the military and expose its dangerous nature … which should naturally strengthen the nation’s civilian leaders and weaken the dominance of its military.Recommend

  • May 17, 2011 - 12:41AM

    how the hell can you live in a manshion the biggest house around in miles and not know whose living in it at least be suscpiciouse this is all a big rig made by the americans to get out of afghanistanRecommend

  • yousuf agha
    May 20, 2011 - 2:25PM

    ive never been a hoodbouy admirer , BUT what he writes here makes sense and reflects reality Recommend

  • Adnan
    May 20, 2011 - 7:04PM

    Mouth-piece of the Americans (maybe this time you’ll have the courage to publish it)Recommend

  • Awais
    May 29, 2011 - 5:04PM

    Well, hold on people. hole the horses until you decide that the western media and western governments are trusted and truthfull sources of all such information. Why in the first place you even believe that there was someone killed in that house. I tell you what, that house was the fusion center for dyncorp and CIA agents, the helis were already there, they brought in a fake body, showed the world about their hollywood skills, destroyed their one of the helicopters and declared that it was OBL. Wow wow, such an insane act that they did the DNA within hours although it take around 24 hours to get the results, they buried him within hours there although they didnt even cross the Jalalabad within the next 24 hours. Lies, lies lies. Stop the crap and look for the truth. These journalists, these govt sources are not the gods and they are fooling around making their own nation as hostage. Why we dont have guts to ask that where is the body, if it exists. Why they did not take him hostage (if he really existed there). Why in the hell his family in Paki custody and not with them although one of the version of confusion they deliberately created was that one of his wives acted as human sheild.. Please open your minds and start digging into the stories without trusting their govts and media. Otherwise you are the slave of their propaganda as well. Recommend

  • Tahir Younus
    Jun 3, 2011 - 4:27PM

    Mr. Talha! you are a perfect example of self denial, most of the Pakistanis are indulged in. Come out of your make-belief world and the trap of the conspiracy theorists. Recommend

More in Opinion