"It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.I'm sure there is more to the helicopter crash story.
The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of 19 March 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she’d been told by a ‘Pakistani official’ that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he’d spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who – reflecting a widely held local view – asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was ‘quite possible’ that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, ‘but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.’
This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
. . .
The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command. I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership – echoed later by Durrani – over Obama’s decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden’s death. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency’s headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the test. ‘So now we’ve got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad, but how do we really know who it is?’ was the CIA’s worry at the time, the retired senior US intelligence official told me.
The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis. ‘The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the Pakistanis themselves would move bin Laden to another location. So only a very small number of people were read into the source and his story,’ the retired official said.
. . .
‘It didn’t take long to get the co-operation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership,’ the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. ‘The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree – there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that you’ve got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies’ – the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan – ‘would not like it.’
A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’
Despite their constant public feuding, American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia. Both services often find it useful to engage in public feuds ‘to cover their asses’, as the retired official put it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks, and co-operate on covert operations. At the same time, it’s understood in Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security. The ISI’s strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.
Adding to the tension was the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, often depicted in the Western press as an ‘Islamic bomb’ that might be transferred by Pakistan to an embattled nation in the Middle East in the event of a crisis with Israel. The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building its weapons system in the 1970s and it’s widely believed it now has more than a hundred nuclear warheads. It’s understood in Washington that US security depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to Pakistan. The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.
. . .
A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI told me that ‘there was a deal with your top guys. We were very reluctant, but it had to be done – not because of personal enrichment, but because all of the American aid programmes would be cut off. Your guys said we will starve you out if you don’t do it, and the okay was given while Pasha was in Washington. The deal was not only to keep the taps open, but Pasha was told there would be more goodies for us.’ The Pakistani said that Pasha’s visit also resulted in a commitment from the US to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there. ‘And so our top dogs justified the deal by saying this is for our country.’
. . .
‘Of course the guys knew the target was bin Laden and he was there under Pakistani control,’ the retired official said. ‘Otherwise, they would not have done the mission without air cover. It was clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder.’ A former Seal commander, who has led and participated in dozens of similar missions over the past decade, assured me that ‘we were not going to keep bin Laden alive – to allow the terrorist to live. By law, we know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is a homicide. We’ve come to grips with that. Each one of us, when we do these missions, say to ourselves, “Let’s face it. We’re going to commit a murder.”’ The White House’s initial account claimed that bin Laden had been brandishing a weapon; the story was aimed at deflecting those who questioned the legality of the US administration’s targeted assassination programme. The US has consistently maintained, despite widely reported remarks by people involved with the mission, that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately surrendered.
. . .
At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters. The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board. ‘The guys knew the TOT [time on target] had to be tight because they would wake up the whole town going in,’ the retired official said. The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for miles. Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was immediately dispatched to Abbottabad. But because the helicopter had been equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission. There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,’ the retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)
‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’ finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to kill him in self-defence? The house was shabby and bin Laden was living in a cell with bars on the window and barbed wire on the roof. The rules of engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. So here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It’s not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’ The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’
After they killed bin Laden, ‘the Seals were just there, some with physical injuries from the crash, waiting for the relief chopper,’ the retired official said. ‘Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks. They have no prisoners.’ Bin Laden’s wives and children were left for the ISI to interrogate and relocate. ‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’
On a normal assault mission, the retired official said, there would be no waiting around if a chopper went down. ‘The Seals would have finished the mission, thrown off their guns and gear, and jammed into the remaining Black Hawk and di-di-maued’ – Vietnamese slang for leaving in a rush – ‘out of there, with guys hanging out of the doors. They would not have blown the chopper – no commo gear is worth a dozen lives – unless they knew they were safe. Instead they stood around outside the compound, waiting for the bus to arrive.’ Pasha and Kayani had delivered on all their promises.
. . .
Obama’s speech was put together in a rush, the retired official said, and was viewed by his advisers as a political document, not a message that needed to be submitted for clearance to the national security bureaucracy. This series of self-serving and inaccurate statements would create chaos in the weeks following. Obama said that his administration had discovered that bin Laden was in Pakistan through ‘a possible lead’ the previous August; to many in the CIA the statement suggested a specific event, such as a walk-in. The remark led to a new cover story claiming that the CIA’s brilliant analysts had unmasked a courier network handling bin Laden’s continuing flow of operational orders to al-Qaida. Obama also praised ‘a small team of Americans’ for their care in avoiding civilian deaths and said: ‘After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.’ Two more details now had to be supplied for the cover story: a description of the firefight that never happened, and a story about what happened to the corpse. Obama went on to praise the Pakistanis: ‘It’s important to note that our counterterrorism co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.’ That statement risked exposing Kayani and Pasha. The White House’s solution was to ignore what Obama had said and order anyone talking to the press to insist that the Pakistanis had played no role in killing bin Laden. Obama left the clear impression that he and his advisers hadn’t known for sure that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but only had information ‘about the possibility’. This led first to the story that the Seals had determined they’d killed the right man by having a six-foot-tall Seal lie next to the corpse for comparison (bin Laden was known to be six foot four); and then to the claim that a DNA test had been performed on the corpse and demonstrated conclusively that the Seals had killed bin Laden. But, according to the retired official, it wasn’t clear from the Seals’ early reports whether all of bin Laden’s body, or any of it, made it back to Afghanistan.
Gates wasn’t the only official who was distressed by Obama’s decision to speak without clearing his remarks in advance, the retired official said, ‘but he was the only one protesting. Obama didn’t just double-cross Gates, he double-crossed everyone. This was not the fog of war. The fact that there was an agreement with the Pakistanis and no contingency analysis of what was to be disclosed if something went wrong – that wasn’t even discussed. And once it went wrong, they had to make up a new cover story on the fly.’ There was a legitimate reason for some deception: the role of the Pakistani walk-in had to be protected.
. . .
Asked whether bin Laden had fired on the Seals, as some reporters had been told, Brennan repeated what would become a White House mantra: ‘He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know … Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks … living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield … [It] just speaks to I think the nature of the individual he was.’
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts from information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture. ‘All of this is going on as the Seals are flying home from their mission. The agency guys know the whole story,’ the retired official said. ‘It was a group of annuitants who did it.’ (Annuitants are retired CIA officers who remain active on contract.) ‘They had been called in by some of the mission planners in the agency to help with the cover story. So the old-timers come in and say why not admit that we got some of the information about bin Laden from enhanced interrogation?’ At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
‘Gates told them this was not going to work,’ the retired official said. ‘He was never on the team. He knew at the eleventh hour of his career not to be a party to this nonsense. But State, the agency and the Pentagon had bought in on the cover story. None of the Seals thought that Obama was going to get on national TV and announce the raid. The Special Forces command was apoplectic. They prided themselves on keeping operational security.’ There was fear in Special Operations, the retired official said, that ‘if the true story of the missions leaked out, the White House bureaucracy was going to blame it on the Seals.’
The White House’s solution was to silence the Seals. On 5 May, every member of the Seal hit team – they had returned to their base in southern Virginia – and some members of the Joint Special Operations Command leadership were presented with a nondisclosure form drafted by the White House’s legal office; it promised civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the mission, in public or private. ‘The Seals were not happy,’ the retired official said. But most of them kept quiet, as did Admiral William McRaven, who was then in charge of JSOC. ‘McRaven was apoplectic. He knew he was fucked by the White House, but he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Seal, and not then a political operator, and he knew there’s no glory in blowing the whistle on the president. When Obama went public with bin Laden’s death, everyone had to scramble around for a new story that made sense, and the planners were stuck holding the bag.’
. . .
There was another reason to claim there had been a firefight inside the compound, the retired official said: to avoid the inevitable question that would arise from an uncontested assault. Where were bin Laden’s guards? Surely, the most sought-after terrorist in the world would have around-the-clock protection. ‘And one of those killed had to be the courier, because he didn’t exist and we couldn’t produce him. The Pakistanis had no choice but to play along with it.’ (Two days after the raid, Reuters published photographs of three dead men that it said it had purchased from an ISI official. Two of the men were later identified by an ISI spokesman as being the alleged courier and his brother.)
. . .
In June 2011, it was reported in the New York Times, the Washington Post and all over the Pakistani press that Amir Aziz had been held for questioning in Pakistan; he was, it was said, a CIA informant who had been spying on the comings and goings at the bin Laden compound. Aziz was released, but the retired official said that US intelligence was unable to learn who leaked the highly classified information about his involvement with the mission. Officials in Washington decided they ‘could not take a chance that Aziz’s role in obtaining bin Laden’s DNA also would become known’. A sacrificial lamb was needed, and the one chosen was Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old Pakistani doctor and sometime CIA asset, who had been arrested by the Pakistanis in late May and accused of assisting the agency. ‘We went to the Pakistanis and said go after Afridi,’ the retired official said. ‘We had to cover the whole issue of how we got the DNA.’ It was soon reported that the CIA had organised a fake vaccination programme in Abbottabad with Afridi’s help in a failed attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA. Afridi’s legitimate medical operation was run independently of local health authorities, was well financed and offered free vaccinations against hepatitis B. Posters advertising the programme were displayed throughout the area. Afridi was later accused of treason and sentenced to 33 years in prison because of his ties to an extremist. News of the CIA-sponsored programme created widespread anger in Pakistan, and led to the cancellation of other international vaccination programmes that were now seen as cover for American spying.
The retired official said that Afridi had been recruited long before the bin Laden mission as part of a separate intelligence effort to get information about suspected terrorists in Abbottabad and the surrounding area. ‘The plan was to use vaccinations as a way to get the blood of terrorism suspects in the villages.’ Afridi made no attempt to obtain DNA from the residents of the bin Laden compound. The report that he did so was a hurriedly put together ‘CIA cover story creating “facts”’ in a clumsy attempt to protect Aziz and his real mission. ‘Now we have the consequences,’ the retired official said. ‘A great humanitarian project to do something meaningful for the peasants has been compromised as a cynical hoax.’ Afridi’s conviction was overturned, but he remains in prison on a murder charge.
In his address announcing the raid, Obama said that after killing bin Laden the Seals ‘took custody of his body’. The statement created a problem. In the initial plan it was to be announced a week or so after the fact that bin Laden was killed in a drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and that his remains had been identified by DNA testing. But with Obama’s announcement of his killing by the Seals everyone now expected a body to be produced. Instead, reporters were told that bin Laden’s body had been flown by the Seals to an American military airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and then straight to the USS Carl Vinson, a supercarrier on routine patrol in the North Arabian Sea. Bin Laden had then been buried at sea, just hours after his death. The press corps’s only sceptical moments at John Brennan’s briefing on 2 May were to do with the burial. The questions were short, to the point, and rarely answered. ‘When was the decision made that he would be buried at sea if killed?’ ‘Was this part of the plan all along?’ ‘Can you just tell us why that was a good idea?’ ‘John, did you consult a Muslim expert on that?’ ‘Is there a visual recording of this burial?’ When this last question was asked, Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, came to Brennan’s rescue: ‘We’ve got to give other people a chance here.’
‘We thought the best way to ensure that his body was given an appropriate Islamic burial,’ Brennan said, ‘was to take those actions that would allow us to do that burial at sea.’ He said ‘appropriate specialists and experts’ were consulted, and that the US military was fully capable of carrying out the burial ‘consistent with Islamic law’. Brennan didn’t mention that Muslim law calls for the burial service to be conducted in the presence of an imam, and there was no suggestion that one happened to be on board the Carl Vinson.
. . .
Within weeks of the raid, I had been told by two longtime consultants to Special Operations Command, who have access to current intelligence, that the funeral aboard the Carl Vinson didn’t take place. One consultant told me that bin Laden’s remains were photographed and identified after being flown back to Afghanistan. The consultant added: ‘At that point, the CIA took control of the body. The cover story was that it had been flown to the Carl Vinson.’ The second consultant agreed that there had been ‘no burial at sea’. He added that ‘the killing of bin Laden was political theatre designed to burnish Obama’s military credentials … The Seals should have expected the political grandstanding. It’s irresistible to a politician. Bin Laden became a working asset.’ Early this year, speaking again to the second consultant, I returned to the burial at sea. The consultant laughed and said: ‘You mean, he didn’t make it to the water?’
The retired official said there had been another complication: some members of the Seal team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire. The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains – or so the Seals claimed. At the time, the retired official said, the Seals did not think their mission would be made public by Obama within a few hours: ‘If the president had gone ahead with the cover story, there would have been no need to have a funeral within hours of the killing. Once the cover story was blown, and the death was made public, the White House had a serious “Where’s the body?” problem. The world knew US forces had killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. Panic city. What to do? We need a “functional body” because we have to be able to say we identified bin Laden via a DNA analysis. It would be navy officers who came up with the “burial at sea” idea. Perfect. No body. Honourable burial following sharia law. Burial is made public in great detail, but Freedom of Information documents confirming the burial are denied for reasons of “national security”. It’s the classic unravelling of a poorly constructed cover story – it solves an immediate problem but, given the slighest inspection, there is no back-up support. There never was a plan, initially, to take the body to sea, and no burial of bin Laden at sea took place.’ The retired official said that if the Seals’ first accounts are to be believed, there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case."
Do you think parts of the body are being kept as trophies?
Hersh is no longer publishing in the irrelevant New Yorker, but in the increasingly important LRB.
Ignatius should be fired or resign as his retyping of propaganda is at a Judy Miller level: tweet (Adam Johnson):
"Recall: Ignatius' harrowing bin Laden Obama assassination plots based on computer files Hersh says never existed "I really have to wonder whether the Hersh piece will win all the journalism awards or whether it will be mocked and ignored. An early sign: tweet (Max Fisher of Vox):
"i guess hersh will explain the opus dei / knights of malta connection in the next piece"