John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism coordinator, told ABC television on Tuesday that Pakistan had launched an internal investigation to determine whether any individuals within the government or intelligence service (ISI) were involved in sheltering Osama bin Laden in that country’s military heartland. Brennan said he was certain that the “Pakistani officials want to get to the bottom of this, and we’re working closely with them to help them in this investigation.” Pakistan, he emphasized, was a “strong counterterrorism partner.”
Relying on the Pakistani government to carry out the investigation is a mistake. First, similar Pakistani investigations in the past, such as the investigation into former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and one in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists, have been neither credible nor helpful. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e Taiba, the terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attacks, remains free and continues to enjoy government funding and protection. Second, it is inconceivable that rogue elements provided sanctuary to bin Laden for several years in a mansion 40 miles outside Islamabad and just a mile from Pakistan’s key military academy without the knowledge of the senior chiefs of the military and intelligence.
Washington should launch its own investigation into the Pakistani government’s support to bin Laden. It should not only create a special commission to probe the mysteries of bin Laden’s multi-year sanctuary in Abbottabad, but also Pakistan’s ties to al-Qaeda after bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan in 1996. The ISI developed close ties to bin Laden during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, and the relationship continued after the al-Qaeda leader left Afghanistan and Pakistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Pakistan took no action against al-Qaeda’s offices and training camps on its soil even after the group was indicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. In May 1996, Pakistani intelligence officials are said to have encouraged and facilitated bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan, and afterwards introduced him to Taliban leader Mullah Omar through Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Here’s a summary of the 9/11 Commission Report’s findings on Pakistan’s alleged involvement:
“Though Bin Laden’s destination was Afghanistan, Pakistan was the nation that held the key to his ability to use Afghanistan as a base from which to revive his ambitious enterprise for war against the United States… It is unlikely that Bin Ladin could have returned to Afghanistan had Pakistan disapproved. The Pakistani military intelligence service probably had advance knowledge of his coming, and its officers may have facilitated his travel. During his entire time in Sudan, he had maintained guesthouses and training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These were part of a larger network used by diverse organizations for recruiting and training fighters for Islamic insurgencies in such places as Tajikistan, Kashmir, and Chechnya. Pakistani intelligence officers reportedly introduced Bin Ladin to Taliban leaders in Kandahar, their main base of power, to aid his reassertion of control over camps near Khowst, out of an apparent hope that he would now expand the camps and make them available for training Kashmiri militants.”
The commission should also investigate the ISI’s role in the November 2001 escape of bin Laden from Tora Bora into Pakistan. On April 27, WikiLeaks passed a Guantanamo Bay detainee file to the Daily Telegraph which suggested the ISI paid facilitators in Afghanistan to smuggle al-Qaeda fighters into Pakistan after the U.S. bombing began in October 2001. An in-depth investigation could also help to find out whether elements within the ISI had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda. The findings will help Washington to reassess its strategy to fight terrorism in Pakistan.
— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.