ABBOTABAD: A year after Osama bin Laden’s death, little is known about what the Pakistani authorities knew of his presence, allowing wild theories on what “really” happened to flourish.
Sitting on a rock by his garlic patch in the Bilal Town district of Abbottabad, around 80km north of Islamabad, Zain Mohammad says he wishes people would stop calling him “bin Laden’s neighbour”.
The nickname has stuck since last May, when a US special forces raid killed the 9/11 mastermind just a few metres from his house.
He’s not embarrassed, he says, just concerned for the truth. Like almost everyone else in this part of Abbottabad, a quiet town tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas, he doesn’t believe bin Laden was ever there.
But what about the American raid, the gunfire and explosions, the widows and children found in the house?
“I don’t think bin Laden was here. Only innocent people, with no links with al Qaeda or other militant groups, lived there and were martyred,” he said.
Aurangzeb, the head of a local school, is equally confident.
“Bin Laden was not here. His family maybe, but not him. This is just a drama set up by Americans with the complicity of the Pakistani army, which can do anything for money, they are just beggars!” he said.
It is a popular theory in the area. A local journalist says people are simply unwilling to accept such a notorious character was living in their midst.
“The reality is they are ashamed that bin Laden was hiding there while at the same time groups affiliated with al Qaeda killed thousands of people all over the country with their suicide bombings,” he said.
On the morning of May 2 last year, the same shame, along with fear, was felt at the highest levels of Pakistan’s all-powerful military, a security source said, reiterating the intelligence service’s line that they knew nothing about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan — a theory that has cut little ice in Washington.
“Military chiefs felt betrayed by the US, who did not tell them before the raid,” the official said.
“There was above all an element of fear among them when they realised that they were unable to control all their units and to know if some of them, linked to militants, helped bin Laden to hide there.”
In a sign of the gravity of the situation, General Shuja Pasha, head of the Inter Services Intelligence agency, made a rare admission in May when he acknowledged failings over bin Laden before parliament.
But he said little more, and the veil once again came down on the bin Laden affair.
For months the army barred all access to the Abbottabad house, before demolishing it suddenly in February, while the Americans refused to release a single photograph of bin Laden.
So the rumour mill began to whir: some believe the Americans brought bin Laden alive from Afghanistan and killed him in Abbottabad to smear Pakistan’s reputation. Others insist the Saudi terror mastermind is still alive.
Mystery also surrounds bin Laden’s three widows and children who lived with him in Abbottabad and were held by the Pakistanis after the Americans left them behind.
They were deported from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia on Friday after almost a year in custody, in which they did not make a single public appearance, creating yet more wild rumours.
Last month a retired Pakistani general claimed one of bin Laden’s wives betrayed him to the Americans in a fit of jealousy over a younger wife.
And a week before the deportation, a police officer guarding the house where the family was being held told AFP that one of the wives had given birth a few days earlier — 11 months after the death of the presumed father.
Will the full story of bin Laden’s time on the run in Pakistan and who knew about it ever emerge? In a country which seems to specialise in political and military mysteries, it looks unlikely.
The assassins of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, killed more than four years ago, have yet to be brought to justice and the death of military ruler General Zia-ul Haq nearly 25 years ago is still shrouded in mystery.
For the intelligence services, crazy theories serve a useful function, the security official explained.
“For the vast majority of the population, often uneducated, the army prefers to let conspiracy theories flourish instead of using transparency that could bring a greater shame, so people don’t entirely lose faith in the intelligence agencies’ ability to protect them from danger,” he said.
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