Sequestered behind the walls of his Abbottabad hideout, Osama bin Laden certainly did not seem to relish his life and the way his global jihad had foundered and crumbled. This is the impression one gets from the sheaf of OBL letters released on May 3. Bin Laden worried about his legacy and his network splintering into several outfits, many of which were outside his control. He worried about tactics and strategy. He wanted to rebrand al Qaeda, hoping that the makeover would win over alienated sympathisers. Quite a bit of worrying by a man whose intentions and actions wrecked the lives of so many. He was propped up by his handlers as the warrior saint in the 1990s. But after orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, he was a man on the run, chased by the US — and ostensibly by Pakistanis too. All along, his followers made sure that they sowed discord and destruction through their militancy. Even now, a year after the US raid that killed him, Bin Laden’s devastating legacy continues to haunt Pakistan.
The disclosure that he was hiding in plain sight came as a surprise to some. For years, as the hunt continued, Bin Laden’s last hideout, Abbottabad, did not figure high on the radar. He was thought to be hiding along the border with Afghanistan or high up in the mountains near Chitral. Intelligence officials speculated that he may have moved into the tribal badlands and may be avoiding electronic communication to avoid detection. Not many would have imagined that he was ensconced comfortably in several semi-urban hideouts in northwestern Pakistan. But in hindsight, maybe it was not that unimaginable. Osama bin Laden’s close associates were mostly captured from cities such as Karachi, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Gujrat. Still, the public here has viewed the ‘war against terror’ with disapproval. The al Qaeda has often been portrayed as an imaginary outfit and there is no dearth of people who continue to deny Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
Interestingly, Bin Laden expressed dissatisfaction with the ways of militants who he had initially inspired. He disapproved the tactics employed by the Pakistani Taliban, calling on them to stop attacks on mosques, public places and the general public. His exhortations were, however, spurned by the new breed of militants, who are a mix of ideologues and criminals and have little deference for the old guard.
The letters provide no details about the support Bin Laden received inside Pakistan. Perhaps, such information — if there is any — has been withheld for now. Pakistani military and spy organisations came out tainted after the May 2, 2011 raid. Their public image was battered and morale in the ranks sank. The military complained of betrayal by the US for conducting a stealth mission. But it is quite apparent that these feelings of distrust are shared by both sides with the Salala border incident only exacerbating the strains between them. Suspicions about the duplicity and complicity of Pakistani military and spy organisations continue to linger. Osama’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still at large. Till 2004, Pakistani soldiers were fighting against militants in South Waziristan after reports of Zawahiri’s sighting in that region. Rumours about his movement in Balochistan have also emerged. If past events portend any hint, the eventual discovery of his whereabouts might also come as a big surprise.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2012.