Shadow of Bin Laden continues to haunt

The life and times of Osama Bin Laden post 9/11 remains shrouded in mystery. During my recent visit to Pakistan, I spent time with Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani Army Brigadier, who personally investigated the story behind Bin Laden’s killing last year.

This lead story in the Guardian by Jason Bourke adds more details to the picture (though frankly, after more than a decade of Western-led war in AfPak, and our empowering of brutal warlords in the process, the role of Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem almost secondary):

Documents found in the house where… Osama bin Laden… was killed a year ago show a close working relationship between top… al-Qaida… leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the… Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against Nato forces in… Afghanistan, the Afghan government and targets in Pakistan.

The communications show a three-way conversation between Bin Laden, his then deputy Ayman Zawahiri and Omar, who is believed to have been in Pakistan since fleeing Afghanistan after the collapse of his regime in 2001.

They indicate a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence”, a Washington-based source familiar with the documents told the Guardian.

The news will undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban – seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda – might once again offer a safe haven to al-Qaida or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.

One possibility, experts say, is that although Omar built a strong relationship with Bin Laden and Zawahiri, other senior Taliban commanders see close alliance or co-operation with al-Qaida as deeply problematic.

A reliable account of Bin Laden’s life on the run can now be established, pieced together from the testimony, viewed by the Guardian, of one of Bin Laden’s wives, the recollections of the ISI officers who interviewed her… compiled by retired Pakistani army brigadier Shaukat Qadir, statements of militants detained by the US published by WikiLeaks and interviews with former US officials.

Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in November 2001, Bin Laden’s wives and children fled Afghanistan , travelling first to Karachi, the vast Pakistani port city, where they spent several months. Bin Laden himself headed north into the remote Afghan province of Kunar after the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. According to ISI officials quoted by Qadir, a senior militant detained by the ISI in 2006 told interrogators that Bin Laden had met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan insurgent leader, in Kunar at this time. ISI officials also maintain that Khaled Sheikh Mohamed told them that the al-Qaida chief was there.

Former American officials this weekend told the Guardian that there was considerable intelligence indicating that Bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan and making occasional journeys across the border into Pakistan at this time.

By the summer of 2004, Bin Laden appears to have moved into Pakistan permanently. According to the testimony of his youngest, Yemeni-born wife, she and her two children were reunited with her husband in a house in a remote district of the rugged Swat valley, in northwest Pakistan, in March 2004, before moving to another safe house in a small town called Haripur, 20 miles from Abbottabad, that autumn. In early summer 2005 the family then moved into the newly constructed compound where they would spend the next six years. They were joined there by Bin Laden’s second wife and her three children.

According to ISI officers interviewed by Qadir, the location had been scouted a year previously by senior militant Abu Farraj al-Libbi who then travelled to Swat to get Bin Laden’s approval for the move. The al-Qaida chief insisted that the land for the house be bought, not rented, and sketched out a design for the construction – currently in the possession of the ISI.

The al-Qaida leader himself evaded detection while on the move by pretending to be an ailing Pashtun former militant, still on Pakistan’s wanted list, who hoped to return home to die, Qadir has written.

Western security officials believe Bin Laden’s oldest wife joined him in Abbottabad after being released in deal between Iranian authorities and a Pakistani militant group holding an Iranian diplomat.

By November 2010, the crucial courier had been identified and located. He then led the hunters to the Abbottabad house.