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Terrorism

'Bin Laden had a large network in Pakistan'

A leaked Pakistani government inquiry into the killing of Osama bin Laden accuses the authorities of incompetence. South Asia expert Michael Kugelman explains just how much support the al Qaeda founder had in Pakistan.

When US Navy SEALs killed bin Laden two years ago in his residential compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, he had already managed to live undetected for nine years. After his death, Pakistan's government set up a commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the covert US raid. However, the commission's secret 336-page inquiry report, which was based on testimony from more than 200 witnesses, was leaked almost completely to the pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera. It was published on Monday, July 10, 2013.

DW: Pakistani officials failed initially to respond to requests for comment on the report. How likely is this document authentic?

Michael Kugelman: It's definitely authentic. Pakistan's foreign ministry has confirmed its authenticity. It would have been very difficult to fabricate such a detailed, well-organized, and well-written report. Also, a small part of the leaked report was missing. It would be unlikely for someone to remove a page from a fake report. Clearly, there was something there that wasn't meant to be seen.

Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. (Photo: Woodrow Wilson Center)

Kugelman says the US didn't inform Pakistani authorities about the raid because of a 'lack of trust'

Why did the US never inform Pakistani authorities about the raid on the bin Laden compound?

A lack of trust. The US and Pakistan have certainly shared intelligence in the post-9/11 era (many US drone strikes have been carried out with the aid of Pakistani intelligence data). However, in the months leading up to the raid, tensions between Washington and Islamabad had become very strong. Just a few months earlier, an American spy had killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, and he had been briefly detained. There was also concern in Washington that Pakistan was tipping off terrorists about possible drone strikes, so that the militants could relocate before being attacked.

So when it came time to plan for the raid, Washington concluded that it simply wasn't worth the trouble of informing Pakistan - especially because Pakistan probably would have forbidden the US from doing the raid. Or, less likely, it may have volunteered to participate in the raid with the US -though there's little indication the US would have agreed to this option either.

The inquiry report does not rule out the involvement of rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence service ISI. How likely is it that the US could have carried out the raid without any Pakistani help?

I think it's quite likely the US carried out the raid without any help. As we learn in the report, there's good reason to think that the CIA had established a presence in Abbottobad well before the raid - even as far back as 2010, when CIA officers allegedly posed as aid workers doing flood relief activities. These early efforts could have helped lay the groundwork for the raid, and therefore made the US less dependent on on-the-ground support that Pakistan could have theoretically provided.

In your opinion, how big was bin Laden's support network in Pakistan?

It was immense. Once US forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaeda members in Afghanistan took advantage of the porous border with Pakistan, and entered Pakistan's tribal areas, where they remained for many years. Some of them - including, of course, bin Laden himself -ventured deep into "settled" Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan's vast militant network includes many organizations that are loyal to, and in some cases connected to, al Qaeda. These range from anti-state insurgents such as the Pakistani Taliban to sectarian militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Bin Laden's support network in Pakistan was arguably just as large, if not larger then, the networks he enjoyed while living in Afghanistan and Sudan earlier on.

A Pakistani man reading a newspaper dealing with the death on bin Laden. (Photo: dpa)

Kugelman says bin Laden's network in Pakistan could have been even larger than the one in Afghanistan

The leaked report states investigators found no evidence that current or former Pakistani officials helped bin Laden hide, although it couldn't rule it out completely. How likely is it that bin Laden was able to live in plain sight for almost a decade without Pakistani authorities knowing about it?

It certainly seems hard to believe that Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies, which are some of the most powerful and well-resourced institutions in Pakistan, were unaware of bin Laden's presence. But then again, al Qaeda is also an extremely savvy and clever organization - and if there's any entity that can hide the world's most wanted terrorist from the Pakistani military, it's al Qaeda.

However, I suspect there may have been some low-level security establishment officials, acting as individuals and not on any orders from their superiors, who may have helped bin Laden from time to time over the years.

The authors of the report claim that "The US acted like a criminal thug." Will the leakage have any effect on US-Pakistani ties?

No, there won't be any effect. If anything, the US will applaud Pakistan for undertaking such a detailed, in-depth report that is willing to hold the security and military establishments accountable. The US will see this report as a sign of Pakistan's democratic progress -no longer can the powerful military escape scrutiny and accountability. The harsh rhetoric directed toward the US in the report is no big deal; the US has heard such rhetoric from Pakistanis before.

How do you think the new Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani political establishment will react to the report's findings?

Sharif will probably be pleased. He has often sparred with the military – after all, he was ousted from power and imprisoned when he was last prime minister - and he has sought to tilt the civil-military balance more in the civilian government's favor. This report, which puts the military on the defensive, will help do this - without him having to do anything himself.

The criticism of the army and intelligence services was noteworthy in a country where officials often steer clear of criticizing these powerful organizations. What impact might the accusations have on the Pakistani military and the new government?

The harsh criticism toward the military leadership is arguably the biggest takeaway from this report. It is exceedingly rare for the security establishment to come in for such harsh treatment from within Pakistan. At the same time, the report does not blame any individual officer, or specific department - and this may have been intentional. The fact that the criticism is directed more vaguely and broadly at the military leadership means that some sort of institutional response will be expected. In all reality, neither the military nor the new government will probably do much in light of this report.

Given the beating the military takes in the report, the new government will have some added leverage should it choose to assert its independence from the military, particularly in the areas of security and foreign policy—traditionally the domains of the military.

Michael Kugelman is senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His most recent work has focused on Pakistan's 2013 elections, Indian-Pakistani relations, US-Pakistani relations, and security challenges in India.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.