Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was able to live in Pakistan undetected for nine years because of a breathtaking scale of negligence and incompetence at practically all levels of the Pakistani government, according to an official government report published by a TV channel on Monday.
The 336-page report was written by a commission tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding the covert U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. The pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite channel published the report on its website after it was leaked to the station by unknown sources.
Pakistani officials did not respond to requests for comment on the report’s authenticity.
The U.S. Navy SEALs raid that killed bin Laden in the northwest town of Abbottabad outraged Pakistani officials because they were not told about it beforehand. U.S. officials have said they kept Pakistan in the dark because they were worried the al-Qaeda founder would be tipped off.
The fact that the compound where bin Laden was hiding was located only about one km from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point led many in the U.S. to suspect Pakistani officials of aiding the al-Qaeda chief, although Washington never found evidence to back that up.
The report said it also found no evidence that current or former Pakistani officials helped bin Laden hide, although it couldn’t rule it out completely. It said very little is known about the network of support that bin Laden enjoyed in Pakistan, other than the group of family and backers that lived with him in Abbottabad.
The report lambasted all levels of government, including the powerful army and intelligence services, for failing to detect the terror leader as he lived in six different places in Pakistan over nine years.
“To summarise, negligence and incompetence to a greater or lesser degree at almost all levels of government are clear,” said the report, which was based on testimony from more than 200 witnesses, official documents and site visits.
The criticism of the army and intelligence services was noteworthy in a country where officials often steer clear of taking these powerful organizations to task. But it’s unclear if the report will cause any real repercussions. The commission recommended the government make the report public for fear it would be ignored or suppressed, but that never happened, even though it was completed months ago.
The report was published on the same day that The Associated Press reported that the top U.S. special operations commander ordered military files about the raid on bin Laden’s hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA, where they could be more easily shielded from ever being made public.
The report said it was shocking that nobody in the Pakistani government discovered bin Laden while he was living in Abbottabad for six years in a compound described as “hardly normal,” because it was somewhat isolated from homes around it, had very high walls and was protected by barbed wire. Bin Laden wore a cowboy hat when he moved around the compound to avoid detection from above.
“The extent of incompetence, to put it mildly, was astounding, if not unbelievable,” the report said.
It said the al-Qaeda chief came close to capture in 2002 or 2003 when he was living in the northwest Swat Valley, said the wife of bin Laden’s courier, Maryam. A policeman pulled them over for speeding as they were on their way to a bazaar, but Maryam’s husband, Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti, quickly settled the matter before the officer recognised bin Laden, she said.
The commission, composed of a Supreme Court judge, a retired army officer, a retired police officer and a career diplomat, took officials to task for failing to uncover the CIA network assumed to have helped the U.S. discover bin Laden.
“This has been a case of nothing less than a collective and sustained dereliction of duty by the political, military and intelligence leadership of the country,” the report said.
The commission found no evidence that Pakistani officials were informed beforehand about the U.S. raid. Cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency on the hunt for bin Laden ended in 2005, the report said. The U.S. was eventually able to find bin Laden by tracing his courier, al-Kuwaiti.
Pakistan’s radars were unable to detect the American aircraft that flew more than 160 km into Pakistani territory to carry out the raid on bin Laden because defence capabilities were in “peacetime” mode on the western border with Afghanistan, the report said.
Even if Pakistan stepped up its surveillance and defence resources, it likely wouldn’t be able to stop the U.S. from conducting a similar raid in the future because of the military and technological asymmetry between the two countries, the report said.
“The whole episode of the U.S. assassination mission of May 2, 2011, and the Pakistani government’s response before, during and after appears in large part to be a story of complacency, ignorance, negligence, incompetence, irresponsibility and possibly worse at various levels inside and outside the government,” the report concluded.