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Scepticism in Pak over Osama's alleged role


Updated: May 8, 2011, 8:39 PM IST
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Scepticism in Pak over Osama's alleged role
Suspicion has deepened that Pakistan's ISI may have had ties with the al Qaeda chief.

Chak Shah Mohammad: Pakistani security officials reacted with scepticism on Sunday to a US assertion that Osama bin Laden was actively engaged in directing his far-flung network from his compound in Abbottabad where he was killed on May 2.

Washington said on Saturday that, based on a trove of documents and computer equipment seized in the raid, bin Laden's hideout north of Islamabad was an "active command and control centre" for al Qaeda where he was involved in plotting future attacks on the United States.

"It sounds ridiculous," said a senior intelligence official. "It doesn't sound like he was running a terror network."

Pakistan, heavily dependent on billions of dollars in US aid, is under intense pressure to explain how the al Qaeda leader could have spent so many years undetected just a few hours' drive from its intelligence headquarters in the capital.

Suspicion has deepened that Pakistan's pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, which has a long history of contacts with militant groups, may have had ties with bin Laden - or that at least some of its agents did. The agency has been described as a state within a state.

Pakistan has dismissed such suggestions and says it has paid the highest price in human life and money supporting the US war on militancy launched after bin Laden's followers staged the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.

The Obama administration has seen no evidence Pakistan's government knew bin Laden was living in that country before his killing, the US national security adviser said on Sunday.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scheduled to "take the nation into confidence" in parliament on Monday, his first statement to the people more than a week after the incident embarrassed the country.

Pakistani officials said the fact that there was no internet connection or even phone line into the compound where the world's most-wanted man was hiding raised doubts about his centrality to al Qaeda.

Analysts have long maintained that, years before bin Laden's death, al Qaeda had fragmented into a decentralised group that operated tactically without him.

"It's bullshit," said a senior Pakistani security official, when quizzed on a US intelligence official's assertion that bin Laden had been "active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions" of the Islamist militant group from his secret home in the town of Abbottabad.

On Saturday, the White House released five video clips of bin Laden taken from the compound, most of them showing the al Qaeda leader, his beard dyed black, evidently rehearsing the videotaped speeches he sometimes distributed to his followers.

None of the videos was released with sound. A US intelligence official said it had been removed because the United States did not want to transmit bin Laden's propaganda. But he said they contained the usual criticism of the United States as well as capitalism.

While several video segments showed him rehearsing, one showed an ageing and grey-bearded bin Laden in a scruffy room, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a ski cap while watching videotapes of himself.

"This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control centre for al Qaeda's top leader and it's clear ... that he was not just a strategic thinker for the group," the US intelligence official said in Washington.

"He was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions."

The duelling narratives of bin Laden reflect both Washington's and Islamabad's interests in peddling their own versions of bin Laden's hidden life behind the walls of his compound.

Stressing bin Laden's weakness makes his discovery in a garrison town just a few minutes' walk from Pakistan's military academy less embarrassing for Pakistan, but playing up his importance makes the US operation all the more victorious.

The competing claims came as senior Pakistani officials said bin Laden may have lived in Pakistan for more than seven years before he was shot dead, a disclosure that could further strain relations between the two countries.

One of bin Laden's widows, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, told investigators bin Laden and his family had spent five years in Abbottabad.

Abdulfattah, along with two other wives and several children, were among 15 or 16 people detained by Pakistani authorities at the compound after the raid.

She said that before Abbottabad, bin Laden had stayed in a nearby village for nearly two-and-a-half years.

Residents of the village of Chak Shah Mohammad, at the end of a bumpy road flanked by fields of wheat, were both puzzled and a little scared to find themselves at the focus of the investigation.

"Everyone in the village knows when a cow has a calf so how could bin Laden and his family hide here?" Mohammad Naseer, a 65-year-old retired soldier, said as he took a break from working his fields. "I can say for sure he wasn't here."

The village is made up of about 120 small, brick buildings, homes and sheds, and has a population of about 400 people, although many have left for work in cities.

Pakistani security agents have been going house to house, searching for clues.

"Police never used to come to our doors but now these guys are turning up all suspicious of us," said school teacher Ahmed Sultan.

"My young kids are asking 'Dad what happened, what did you do?'" he said. "We have nothing to do with bin Laden. We're Pakistani... We don't feel anything for him."

First Published: May 8, 2011, 8:39 PM IST
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