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Not much substance

July 16, 2013


LEAVING aside the controversy of whether it is just a draft or the final version, the leaked Abbottabad Commission report reveals nothing that was not known before.

It fails to answer the critical question of how the world’s most wanted militant managed to stay undetected in Pakistan for so long. The focus of this report is mainly on the US military action and the security agencies’ failure to prevent the ‘humiliation’ caused by the intrusion.

More authentic and detailed accounts are available in foreign news literature and one does not need to read the report to find out what happened during the May 2 raid and how Osama bin Laden was killed. There is also nothing new about the “gross incompetence of our intelligence agencies”, that allowed the CIA to build a clandestine network in the country.

Ironically, the Commission failed to examine the most vital component of its terms of reference related to Bin Laden’s support network that helped him stay in the country for eight long years. The report is an indictment of the security agencies for failing to detect Bin Laden’s compound in a high-security zone and a scathing condemnation of the unilateral US action violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Indeed, the unilateral US action is condemnable and could not be justified on any pretext, but it should not be used to cover up our own failure that allowed Bin Laden a safe sanctuary in the country.

The report rightly observed that May 2 was the blackest day for Pakistan. This applies to not only the US military raid, but also to the humiliation of being caught hosting the world’s most wanted militant. Yet, the latter fact seemed to have been buried under strong rhetoric and clichés about national sovereignty.

Predictably, the report has ruled out complicity of any state institution in harbouring the Al Qaeda leader. Certainly there is no evidence of that. But then who provided Bin Laden protection and logistic support?

It could not have been possible for a fugitive with a $25 million bounty on his head to cross into Pakistan and safely shelter without a strong support base within the country.

During the time he hid in Pakistan, Bin Laden and his family travelled to many places. He is said to have stayed in Waziristan, Bajaur, Swat and Haripur before settling in Abbottabad. His wives and children also lived in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. For all that, they must have had the support of a dedicated and ideologically committed group looking after the logistics as well as their security.

It is also clear that Bin Laden continued to guide Al Qaeda activities while cloistered in his house inside the high-security garrison area.

The report summed up the question about the network in just one paragraph and that too in terms of probability: “It was probably quite small and largely, if not exclusively, Al Qaeda and its associates. It probably had a wider group of less dedicated and less regular support from sympathetic Pakistani jihadi groups and individuals.”

Nothing could be more vague. It is not the probability that the Commission was required to discuss. One expected the Commission to probe more deeply the jihadi and militant groups that operated as a support network for Bin Laden.

The line of questioning makes it quite apparent that the Commission approached the issue rather fleetingly and did not examine it in depth although the matter was part of the terms of reference.

It is also important to identify the network because it may still be actively working for Ayman al Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda fugitives apparently hiding in Pakistan. There should not be any doubt that the US would use force again if Zawahiri were tracked down. We need to act before another humiliation is inflicted on us. We don’t need another commission to tell us what happened then.

The report has identified only two brothers who served as Bin Laden’s couriers and his links to the outside world. Abrar and Ibrahim who used different aliases were killed in the May 2 raid.

The Kuwait-born brothers whose family hailed from Shangla district in Swat also helped Bin Laden release audio and video messages and communicate with other members of the support group. That is also how Bin Laden continued to guide Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities in Pakistan and other countries.

The identification of the two men, who lived with their families in Bin Laden’s compound, had opened new channels of inquiry for Pakistani investigators probing his support network. But the trail seems to have since gone cold. That raises serious questions about our security agencies.

Though the two were raised in Kuwait, they maintained connections with their ancestral village where one of the brothers was also married. I visited Martung village days after the May 2 incident. A three-hour drive from Abbottabad, the scenic village is a quiet collection of mud houses scattered along a hillside and surrounded by terraced fields. Narrow dirt streets crisscross it.

Most residents congregated at a mosque in the centre of the village that Friday afternoon. Subsistence farmers for the most part, they were visibly scared to talk about the two brothers.

Just few miles from Martung there is another village where Bin Laden and his family had stayed for more than eight months before moving to Haripur and then to Abbottabad. It was also where the Al Qaeda leader last met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Could all that happen without a powerful local support network?

It is less important whether the leaked report was a draft or the final version. Whatever the case, it does give a clear insight into the Commission’s failure to answer the most vital question linked to our battle against terrorism and national security.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain