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Bin Laden raid reveals 'state failure'

Leaked report offers scathing assessment of how al-Qaeda chief was able to evade detection.

Last Modified: 09 Jul 2013 14:45
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Al Jazeera's Phil Rees reports from Islamabad


On the night of May 1, 2011, United States Special Forces launched a raid to kill or capture al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, deep inside Pakistani territory, in a compound within the garrison town of Abbottabad. Following the event, the Pakistani government set up a Commission to establish how US forces could have violated Pakistani sovereignty without repercussions, and how Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, came to reside secretly in Pakistan for so long.

During the course of its investigation, the Commission found "a shocking state of affairs", where local governance had completely collapsed, as had the ability of the military, intelligence and security services to perform their jobs. In this report, Al Jazeera's Asad Hashim examines the many failures of the Pakistani civil state that allowed Bin Laden to evade capture for nine years.

 

Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's chief, was able to evade detection in Pakistan for nine years due to the "collective failure" of the Pakistani state's military and intelligence authorities, and "routine" incompetence at every level of the civil governance structure, a Pakistani government commission has concluded.

The failure was so complete that, by page 87 of its report, the Commission investigating the circumstances around Bin Laden's killing in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011 was forced to coin a term for it: "Governance Implosion Syndrome".

"[Osama bin Laden] was able to stay [in Abbottabad] due to a collective failure of the military authorities, the intelligence authorities, the police and the civilian administration. This failure included negligence and incompetence and at some undetermined level, a grave complicity may or may not have been involved," the Commission's scathing 336-page report says.

View the Abbottabad Commission report

The report was initially suppressed by the Pakistani government, but was released exclusively by Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit on Monday.

The low profile

Bin Laden first entered Pakistan around mid-2002, according to the findings of the commission, initially staying in Peshawar and the Swat Valley - and possibly, briefly, in the South Waziristan and Bajaur tribal areas. Keeping the low-profile which was to become his hallmark for nearly a decade, in Swat, he stayed in the area in which his Pakistani guards and couriers - the brothers Ibrahim and Abrar al-Kuwaiti - grew up. Consequently, Bin Laden's footprint was small. The closest he came to detection was in 2002 or early 2003, when he was in a car that was pulled over for speeding. The then clean-shaven Bin Laden aroused no particular suspicion from the traffic officer, however, and was allowed to go on his way.

What did they miss?

Local officials missed a number of signs that may have led to Bin Laden's discovery in Abbottabad:

- Land for house bought using fake ID that was never checked.

- Lack of building construction completion certificate never investigated.

- Property tax unpaid for six years and never checked.

- Unauthorised additional construction carried out, without local officials inspecting the building or requesting permits be sought.

- Multiple utility meters issued for single compound, and never investigated.

- House listed as 'uninhabited', despite as many as 27 people living there. Local officials did not notice.

- Lack of visitors, telephone lines, internet lines, TV connections and rubbish collection went unnoticed.

- 18ft (5.5m) walls, covered with barbed wire, did not arouse suspicion.

- Police failed to investigate presence of unregistered foreigners.

He then moved to a rented house in Haripur for almost two years. The truly egregious "dereliction[s] of duty", according to the commission, however, began once land was purchased in the army garrison town of Abbottabad for Bin Laden's custom-built compound to be constructed upon.

First, the land for the house was purchased by Abrar al-Kuwaiti under a false identity, that of "Muhammad Arshad", with a fake national identity card (NIC) in July 2004. Abrar used a hand-prepared ID card, as opposed to the computerised NICs that had replaced all such documents the previous year.

When buying the land, his identity was not verified with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), as is meant to be customary procedure. An official from the local Revenue Department, which is charged with recording land purchases, told the Commission that there was "nothing unusual about such lapses".

Further, after the completion of construction of the two-storey structure in 2005, an additional, unauthorised storey and 18ft (5.5m) high walls were added in the aftermath of the devastating October 2005 earthquake which hit Pakistan's north. Not only was the unauthorised construction not reported, the Commission also found that the compound had never been inspected by local Cantonment Board officials, as required by law. Consequently, the house lacked an official completion certificate, which should also have been investigated.

In at least one government land survey, the compound, which, at one time, housed 27 people, was listed as being "uninhabited".

Finally, revenue and land department officials testified that no property tax had been collected on the compound since the land was bought in 2004. The head of the Abbottabad Cantonment Board admitted that his body had been "negligent" in the case, but added that "a lot of illegal construction activity took place within the Cantonment area", according to the Commission's report.

The property had also been fitted with four separate meters for electricity and natural gas respectively, in an apparent attempt to mask the number of people actually living there, a local utilities official testified. This was, similarly, not investigated.

The Commission concludes that local government officials had been routinely negligent in carrying out their duties: "Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone [c]ommitted to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance."

'A dense fog'

It said that a collective "abdication of responsibilities" had "created a dense fog in which anything could have happened".
The failure was not just on the part of local administration, however. Police officials in Abbottabad, too, claimed ignorance when it came to the Bin Ladens' presence in their jurisdiction.

The chief of the local police station testified that there was no "unusual activity" around the house, and that it had never stood out as being worthy of particular investigation. It was a view echoed by police officials at every level, all the way up to the provincial police chief.

The Commission, however, notes that this was a large compound, with walls that were covered with barbed wire in some places, with no television, telephone or internet connections. There were no visitors to it, and it had had a seven foot "screening wall" constructed on its top storey - as part of further unauthorised construction. There were no security guards, despite the  al-Kuwaiti brothers' cover story being that they were fleeing a "family feud". And the size of the compound expanded with time.

"None of this negligence necessarily implie[s] connivance. But it does suggest gross negligence at the very least," the report notes.

Spotlight
Al Jazeera's exclusive coverage of the leaked Bin Laden files

In notes on the civilian administration and police's ignorance regarding the possible presence of Osama bin Laden and other high value targets (HVTs) who were indeed apprehended by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency from Abbottabad, the report says that the police displayed "indifference and [a] passive approach to the discharge of duties". It concluded that the local Home Department, under whom police and security fall, "did not interact with the security [and intelligence] agencies".

On the subject of intelligence agencies, the Commission found, after receiving testimony from the director-general of the agency, that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the country's main civilian intelligence agency, had completely failed either to track Bin Laden or to respond to multiple irregularities in the case of his compound in Abbottabad, a known abode of several HVTs - or to respond in an adequate manner in performing investigations after Bin Laden was killed.

"Instead of being one of the main security institutions of Pakistan, [the IB] had become little more than a Post Office," the report notes.

The director-general of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the country's national investigative authority, similarly testified that his agency "had no evidence or any kind of information relating to the Abbottabad incident".

Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone
[c]ommitted to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance.

Abbottabad Commission report

While civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies were professing ignorance, however, the ISI had carried out a number of operations in Abbottabad. In January 2011, they captured Umar Patek, the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia. Patek was found in a house in the Aram Bagh area of Abbottabad, just three kilometres away from Bin Laden's own compound.

Earlier, ISI officials also testified to having raided a location a two kilometres from Bin Laden's compound in 2003 in a failed attempt to capture Abu Faraj al-Libi, a known al-Qaeda commander. Al-Libi was later captured by Pakistani authorities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and is currently being held by US authorities at Guantanamo Bay.

Police and senior civilian government officials, however, said that intelligence sharing with the ISI on the subject of HVTs in Abbottabad had never taken place, and neither had there been much follow-up after their arrests.

As the Commission notes: "[The civilian authorities'] actual role in counter-terrorism was at best marginal, and in the tracking of OBL it was precisely zero."

The case of Saeed Iqbal

There was other spy work related to potential targets in Abbottabad, that also happened without the government's knowledge. The Commission investigated the case of Saeed Iqbal, a retired Pakistan Army Lieutenant-Colonel who was once assigned to the ISI, who visited one of Bin Laden's neighbours as many as three times in the months leading up to the raid. Iqbal was driving a bulletproof vehicle, and took several photographs from the roof of the neighbouring house.

Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then director-general of the ISI, testified that Iqbal had been retired "on disciplinary grounds" and had established a private security business. He "disappeared", according to the ISI, two days after the operation to kill Bin Laden on May 1, 2011. His profile, according to Lt-Gen Pasha, "matched that of a likely CIA recruit".

[The ISI] should not have been paralysed by the CIA's lack of cooperation, including sharing of intelligence.

Abbottabad Commission report

While a private security contractor such as Iqbal was looking into Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts, however, the ISI had "closed the file" on Bin Laden after the CIA reportedly stopped sharing information on the hunt for the al-Qaeda chief in 2005. This was despite the fact that Bin Laden had released an audio recording as late as January 2011, whose authenticity was verified through voice analysis. According to ISI assessments, ISI officials said, Bin Laden was either dead or inactive, and the lack of intelligence sharing from the CIA was seen as indicative that this was the US view, as well.

The fact of the matter, of course, was that the CIA had not stopped looking for Bin Laden - it had just stopped sharing information with the Pakistan's spies.

In its "Findings" section, the Commission notes: "The implicit assumption that only the CIA had the ability to find OBL in Pakistan indicated a complete lack of confidence by the ISI and the intelligence establishment in their own ability to do so. While the CIA certainly had the superior technical intelligence capabilities, the ISI was operating in its own environment, which should have given it a huge advantage over the CIA. It should not have been paralysed by the CIA's lack of cooperation, including sharing of intelligence."

Response to the raid

Quite aside from a breakdown in military defence procedures to respond to violations of Pakistan's sovereignty (included in the Commission's terms of reference is the question: "Is it official or unofficial defence policy not to attempt to defend the country if threatened or even attacked by a military superpower like the US?"), there was also the utter breakdown of civilian law enforcement in response to the incident.

On the ground, the police were quickly sidelined from carrying out their responsibilities, with police officials testifying that they had been relegated to forming an outer cordon around the site, which was taken over by the military and ISI. None, including senior police officials, demanded that they be allowed to investigate what was ostensibly the scene of at least four killings.

Of the Regional Criminal Investigation Officer, a senior police official who spent two hours at the crime scene, the Commission noted: "It was not apparent that he had any clear idea of what he was supposed to be doing there."

It was not apparent that [the Regional Criminal Investigating Officer] had any clear idea of what he was supposed to be doing there.

Abbottabad Commission report,

Under Pakistani law, any criminal case must be based on a First Information Report (FIR), detailing the initial findings of the police at the scene of the alleged crime. In the case of the Bin Laden raid, where four dead bodies were present and seen by police officers at a site in a civilian area, well within the remit of the police, an FIR was not filed.

The Commission found that the decision on the FIR had been kicked up the chain of command until a high level meeting between the chief minister, provincial police chief and other senior officials decided that it was not "in the national interest" to register a case, as the matter "appeared to be an act of war", according to the Commission's findings.

Moreover, in what the Commission refers to as "a shocking state of affairs", no written reports were prepared by the local or provincial police to be presented to their superiors, and police officers who had visited the crime scene, when questioned by superiors, advised them to watch local media reports. Officials at every level abdicated responsibility, pointing either further up the chain of command, or to the country's powerful military and intelligence services as being the responsible authorities.

The prevalence of ignorance regarding the raid and its aftermath were a marked feature at every level of government. Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, the country's then-defence minister, for example, testified that he was "not kept in the loop all the time" by the bureaucracy and military regarding not just this incident, but the entire functioning of his department. On the morning of May 2, Mukhtar came to know of the raid not through the military or government chain of command, but through media reports and a phone call from his daughter, who resides in New York, he told the Commission.

The huge walls and barbed wire at Bin Laden's Abbottabad
compound failed to arouse suspicion
[EPA]

His was not an atypical case. When the US made contact with Pakistan following the raid, it was through a phone call between then US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Mike Mullen and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pevez Kayani. It was left to Kayani to then inform the civilian government of what had happened, several hours later.

All roads, as far as government officials were concerned, led to the military, and the ISI. As such, the testimony of ISI chief Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha was instructive.

He described the fact that Bin Laden had been able to survive in Pakistan without being detected for nine years as "an intelligence failure" that was indicative of state "dysfunction".

In describing Pakistan's conduct with the United States, particularly in light of what the Commission deemed "an act of war", Pasha said: "We are a very weak state, also a very scared state." 

He added that the issues the Commission was investigating were "not so much of specific individual or institutional failure, but with a problem of collective and systemic failure".

He also claimed that the US CIA had been able to "deeply penetrate" Pakistani society, quoting a US intelligence officer as having allegedly told him: "You are so cheap… we can buy you with a visa, with a visit to the US, even with a dinner… we can buy anyone."

Accordingly, Pasha testified: "We are a failing state, even if we are not yet a failed state."

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Al Jazeera
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