by Asif Haroon Raja
On the night of 02 May 2011, two US Black Hawk stealth helicopters carrying two dozen soldiers from US elite Navy SEALs took off from Jalalabad or Baghram Airbase and headed for Abbotabad to get Osama bin Laden. Two helicopters remained at a distance in back up support role. Obama and other top leaders of his administration watched the live show on the screen in White House with rapt attention and with throbbing hearts. Obama’s nervousness was understandable for he knew the negative political fallout effects upon him in case the mission got aborted.
The operation was launched on the basis of intelligence collected by CIA’s secret base in Abbotabad and satellites. Reportedly, ISI had given the initial lead in 2009 that some high value Arab target was living somewhere between Taxila and Haripur. Recorded conversation of an Arab with another one in Kuwait was recorded and handed over to CIA. The vague information was followed up by CIA and it got the breakthrough in August 2010 when a detainee in Gitmo recognized the voice and disclosed that it was of Osama’s personal body guard. This lead led to Osama’s residence in Abbotabad and was converted into concrete intelligence in March this year.
Once it was ascertained that the most wanted man was residing in a house in Bilal Town in military garrison, the raiding team was selected and trained under simulated conditions to get Osama. President Obama after debating several options like bombing, drone attack, joint raid with Pakistani commandoes and heli-borne commando attack gave the go-ahead signal on 29 April for the helicopter assault singly and without taking Pakistan into confidence. ISI had worked in close cooperation with CIA and had helped in arresting hundreds of Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives and high value leaders. It was kept completely in the dark on the plea that it might scuttle the mission by scaring away the target. Pak-US Relations had strained in the backdrop of Raymond Davis incident and ever since his release on 16 March, CIA itched to teach a lesson to the leaderships of Pak Army and ISI that had shown defiance and created impediments in its way. Keeping Pakistan out of the loop was not because of trust deficit as widely perceived but because of CIA’s personal vendetta.
Till such time the PAF chief broke his silence on 6 May, it was believed that the intruding helicopters managed to enter Pakistan airspace undetected by jamming the radars fixed at selective points along western border and exploiting the blind gaps due to hilly terrain. Air Marshal Rao Qamar disclosed that the radars were not jammed but had been put off on account of technical reasons and considering that there was no security threat from western border. In all probability, this information was known to CIA. The modified version of Black Hawk equipped with latest stealth technology otherwise has inbuilt capability to fly low and avoid detection of radars. It also has protective shield against ground fire.
The two helicopters entered Pakistan airspace at about 2330 hours 01 May. Flight time was one hour and on target operation was for 40 minutes. The helicopters reached the target area undetected at about 0030 a.m. 2 May and as they were descending to allow the SEALs to land on the rooftop, one of the choppers either developed technical fault or was fired at from inside the house. The damaged chopper had to land inside the compound of the house with tail outside the boundary wall. The raiders who as per the initial plan were to land on the roof made a quick change and slid down with the help of hanging ropes inside the compound and commenced their operation. Reportedly, Osama living on the top floor was unarmed and didn’t offer any resistance but was shot in his head and killed. His youngest wife who was residing with him tried to protect his husband but was shot in her leg and wounded. Besides, three other persons who were supposedly the security guard and couriers of Osama and Hamza son of Osama were also killed. The damaged helicopter was burnt but somehow the tail remained safe.
All told there were 22 men, women and children in the house including five dead. Being short of one helicopter, the raiders took away the body of Osama, his son and one courier and also pocketed hard drive and video discs from Osama’s bedroom. 19 people were left behind who were later taken into custody by our security forces. These include three wives and 11 children of Osama. The operation terminated at about 01.10 a.m. and by 02.10 a.m. the lone helicopter had safely crossed back into Afghanistan. By the time the PAF got the wind and scrambled the F-16s, the intruders had flown away. It implies that our jets got airborne one hour and forty minutes after the operation commenced at 0030 a.m.
Injuring of Osama’s wife and killing of unarmed Osama bin Laden were violent and unlawful acts and against tenets of justice. Capturing Osama alive and then putting him on trial would have raised the image and credibility of the US. Osama’s body was flown back to Baghram Airbase where DNA test was carried out to confirm his identity. His body was then lowered in the sea. The reason given for not burying him in accordance with Muslim rites was to prevent his grave getting converted into a shrine. Last rites were performed in undue haste for unexplained reasons, as if Osama might return back to life or his body may be hijacked.
The world heard Barack Obama’s speech at 0830 a.m. on May 02 with rapt attention. He triumphantly announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US Special Forces in Pakistan. He said that the US was not at war with Islam and that Osama, responsible for the murder of thousands of people was not a Muslim. He acknowledged Pakistan’s role in making the operation a stunning success. He gave a message to the world that the US doesn’t spare its detractors and brings them to justice sooner or later. Although he spoke coolly and without any emotive outbursts or use of arrogant phrases like ‘we got em’, it was obvious he was mighty pleased. It was the best news he had heard since his take over in January 2009. It was a windfall for him, suddenly upturning his sliding political fortunes.
There were spontaneous celebrations in USA as well as in western countries. Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq governments welcomed the news. Saud family in Saudi Arabia should have been the happiest since Osama had become a real threat to the kingdom. Other monarchies in Arab world as well as the countries affected by al-Qaeda terrorism too must have breathed a sigh of relief. Followers and sympathizers of Osama however were distressed but doubted the authenticity of the news.
In Pakistan, the news didn’t cause undue excitement or emotional outbursts, but was heard with total disbelief and bewilderment. What mystified them was Osama’s presence in Abbotabad. Most had believed that he was dead particularly when in 2003 it was reported that he was suffering from acute kidneys problem and was on dialysis. It was perceived that it was medically not possible for a runaway man to survive for so long without proper medical attention, rest and diet. Occasional video clips of Osama from 2003 onwards giving instructions to his followers to continue fighting the non-believers were not taken seriously and viewed as part of western propaganda.
People in Pakistan lost interest in Osama when they became biggest victims of terrorism. Involvement of al-Qaeda and several other domestic terrorist outfits in terrorism together with economic hardships tormented them so immensely that Osama became irrelevant to them. Moreover, US-NATO fight had got focused towards Afghan Taliban and not towards Al-Qaeda, which as an entity had shriveled over a period of time. Pakistanis were more concerned about intrigues and designs of external adversaries and their own survival rather than about fate of unseen and untested Osama.
It was widely believed that Osama was deliberately kept alive by CIA to justify continuation of war on terror and also to continue extracting funds for the wild goose chase. The US on the other hand kept leaking out stories that ISI knew about Osama’s location. Hillary Clinton categorically stated that Al-Qaeda top leadership was in FATA since 2002 and elements within Pak military and ISI were in the know of it. Ten years guessing game is a long period and it was natural for the people to lose interest in Osama who didn’t belong to Pakistan and had become dysfunctional in December 2001 after the carpet bombing in Tora Bora. Even at that time it was publicized by the western media that he had hit the bucket.
However, Osama and other Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders had managed to escape and sneak into neighboring Kurram Agency. Ever since, he has been hiding and evading arrest. His evasive strategy to save himself from getting nabbed was based on changing his hiding places along the treacherous belt of Pak-Afghan border. From Tora Bora he escaped to Paktia, later to North Waziristan and then to Khost. From there he moved to Kunar in April 2003, then to Bajaur and to Haripur in June 2003 and finally to Abbotabad in January 2006.
After his flight from the caves of Tora Bora in December 2001, Osama never came out in the open, or conversed on mobile phone or directed war effort in any way. As per US version, he isued audio tapes at regular intervals. Al-Qaeda’s Shura had decided that he will take up a backseat and will remain detached and in hiding till the heat of grand search had died down and the hunters gave up the chase as a bad job, presuming that he was dead. Once Osama went into background, Dr Ayman el-Zawahiri from Egypt took over the operational responsibilities of Al-Qaeda on his behalf and he kept moving discreetly from FATA to Iraq and back. After mid 2003, he diverted his major attention towards Iraqi theatre of war to release pressure on Taliban in Afghanistan.
After Lal Masjid operation in July 2007, Zawahiri had declared war against Pakistan. In response to his call, rate of suicide attacks suddenly jumped up. Al-Qaeda in collusion with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups has been involved in terrorism in Pakistan. In fact it imparted technical training to TTP members in the form of making of improvised bombs, suicide jackets, car bombs and training and motivation of suicide bombers.
Since Osama got off the radar screen, it was generally believed that either he was in Afghanistan or had died. Reason for this belief was that Pakistani intelligence agencies together with CIA and FBI had undertaken massive hunt of runaway Al-Qaeda operatives and had succeeded in arresting over 600 operatives including high value targets with heavy head money in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda network in South Waziristan had been disrupted in 2004 and operations had been launched in other tribal agencies. FATA as well as settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were kept under a close watch. For some reasons, the US remained glued with the idea that Osama was located within the belt of Pak-Afghan border and nowhere else. Hence, all its focus was on this region and very little towards urban centres from where majority of high value al-Qaeda leaders had been arrested. Since Osama couldn’t be nabbed despite the biggest hunt ever launched in the history and carrying reward money of $25 million, the assessment made by the public in Pakistan that he was dead or not in Pakistan was fair.
In the backdrop of all this, locating Osama in a military station of Abbotabad next door to Kakul military academy was mind boggling. Although the US has claimed that Osama hiding in a house in Bilal Town has been killed in a sting operation, the general public is still dazed and baffled. There are too many questions flashing into their minds. They had held the Army and ISI in very high esteem and they could not reconcile to the fact that US raiders killed and took away Osama right under their noses and they didn’t come to know of it. In the backdrop of intense propaganda war to which Pakistan has been subjected to, it is natural for the people to be skeptical and unsure particularly when the story narrated is one sided! Clouds of mystification became thicker because the top political and military leadership and ISPR remained tightlipped for next 2-3 days and didn’t explain as to how come the US forces could carryout this surprise action and get away with it. The PM and President have yet to address the nation. Whatever statements made by Foreign office and other power centres are not in sync. There are contradictions in statements of both Pakistani and American versions.
The big question is why the most wanted man opted to take such a huge risk by living in an indefensible rented house in military heavy area with his family instead of hiding in a far flung inaccessible area where there were armed militants to protect him at the peril of their lives. Unless he was bitten by a mad dog and he had lost his senses, there is no earthly reason for the most wanted man to plunk himself amidst the heavily fortified cantonment of Abbotabad and that too at a time when the CIA chase had gone cold. It is simply inconceivable that he managed to stay in the said house with his large family undetected by our security forces, intelligence agencies and neighbors for over five years. Osama’s wife has now revealed that prior to moving to Abbotabad, they had been residing in a village near Haripur for two and half years.
Osama had managed to deceive the hunters by moving from place to place and not staying at a place for more than few weeks. How come he fixed himself in the most hazardous surroundings for five years and three months at a stretch? He did not shift even when an Indonesian Umar Patik involved in Bali bombing was arrested by ISI from Abbotabad in March 2011. One can imagine the state of a hunted fugitive who was denied space by his country of origin and the whole world had shunned him and his hunters were desperate to kill him. Even if he had voluntarily surrendered, he would have met the fate of Saddam Hussein.
Until and unless he was staying there with the connivance of the military, it is hard to digest that he had stayed at his own in such an insecure place? If the latter is true, it raises more questions. It implies, he was housed there with the blessing of Gen Musharraf and latter with Gen Kayani’s approval. If true, why Abbotabad and why not some secluded place? ISI has many safe places. Could Kayani and Pasha have taken such a huge risk and that too with nil gains? How was Osama dearer to them than USA? If the two premier institutions were complicit, why the crucial information which led to his detection and death was shared by ISI with CIA?
There were 22 men, women and children residing in the three storey house and the residents were either Arabic speaking or Pashtu speaking. They had not maintained any social contacts with neighbors and were leading a secluded life. The house had 12-15 ft high boundary wall with a barbed wire on top of it. It was a bit odd house in relation to other houses in its vicinity. With such glaring peculiarities it is incomprehensible that the house and the residents didn’t stir up any suspicion or inquisitiveness among neighbors, or any other state organ located in close vicinity, particularly under current volatile security environment.
PMA Kakul headed by a two-star general has an exclusive security battalion which maintains adequate perimeter of security around the Academy and has a quick reaction force (QRF) to deal with sudden unforeseen situations. The whole PMA road is kept under tight scrutiny. Bilal town falls within cantonment limits and comes under the responsibility of station commander. Police station and an intelligence set up are also located in close vicinity of the house. Besides several other intelligence outfits and military police and host of other military units in Abbotabad, there are three regimental centers under Brigs, each having its own QRF.
With such a heavy cluster of Army outfits, would this small force have taken such a huge risk, particularly when it was devoid of ground cordon of the target area? Without effective cordoning, it is not possible for a heli-borne force to succeed in a blind area. The US military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan speak otherwise. With such a heavy military presence, is it possible for two noisy helicopters carrying 24-men team to barge in and hover over the targeted area middle of the night, land into the compound of the said house from a hovering helicopter, burn one of its helicopter developing some technical fault, fire at intense rate for 40 minutes and get away undetected.
The only possibility is that the whole lots of people including law enforcement agencies in the town were either drugged or complicit to the drama. Even if we take it that the helicopters came in after jamming the radars and communication system, what about the one-hour return flight after 40-minute noisy operation? It takes just two minutes for PAF jets to scramble from Kamra airbase and none can doubt about the efficacy of PAF. The PAF has orders to shoot down any intruding aircraft/helicopter beyond five km across our border. The jets scramble even when radars get jammed so as to take on the impending unknown threat in the air rather than on ground. Why were the Americans so cocksure that the PAF would not intercept them on their return flight? If the PAF didn’t react, it was either complicit or ordered to keep sleeping, or had inexplicably become sluggish? To me, the whole thing appears to be a false flag operation in which the US has attained mastery. The ‘Get Geronimo’ operation whether conducted with or without the collusion of Pakistan will have adverse ramifications for Pakistan. The TTP and Al-Qaeda would carryon with their terrorist activities with greater vengeance to avenge the death of Osama.
Tone and tenor of US leaders has already changed and will become more and more aggressive and demanding. Obama and Democrats are no more under intense domestic pressure. The US military and CIA would now strategize how to go about exploiting the death of Osama to its advantage in its endgame. Capitalizing upon boosted morale of troops and support of people of America, counter terror operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan would be stepped up. Pakistan would also come under increased pressure and would now find it hard to resist the demand for an operation in North Waziristan. CIA network fully established in Pakistan would now feel justified to continue with its covert operations under the plea of nabbing other al-Qaeda operatives hiding in cities. Obama has already sounded that Osama had a network inside Pakistan without which he couldn’t have remained untraced for so long. He wants Pakistan to find and disable this network. He has clearly pointed his finger on Pak Army, the ISI and other security agencies. The US has been alleging for long that elements within these organizations are linked with al-Qaeda. Focus of hunt may now shift towards urban centers.
US consulate will soon be opened up in Quetta and CIA presence in Balochistan increased to nab and kill Zawahiri and Mulla Omar and his other Shura members allegedly based in Quetta region to give a deathblow to Taliban resistance movement. Greater pressure would be mounted on the Taliban leaders to agree to American dictated plan of political settlement. CIA would also speed up its activities to disable Pakistan’s nuclear program and turning Pakistan into a client state. Efforts will be doubled to speed up regime change in Libya. With three trophies of Osama, Pak nukes and Qaddafi’s head in its hands, the US military could then easily declare victory in Afghanistan even if the Taliban refuse to come to terms and triumphantly bid goodbye. The outflow of coalition troops starting in July would complete by 2014 and maybe earlier.
About the writer: Asif HAroon is a retired Brig and a defence analyst. Email: [email protected]