LAHORE: The run of good luck for the world’s most wanted fugitive, Osama bin Laden, actually began to run out on January 29, 2011, when Pakistani intelligence agencies arrested from Abbottabad Umar Patek, an Al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militant. Bin Laden’s specific location was then confirmed on the basis of information gleaned while interrogating Patek and two French nationals, Sharaf Deen and Zohaib Afza, arrested from Lahore on January 23, 2011, along with Pakistani national, Tahir Shehzad.
According to well-informed Pakistani intelligence sources privy to the hidden details of the “Get Osama Operation,” the information the abovementioned men provided during interogtaions was what eventually led to a well-orchestrated covert commando operation on May 1, targeting Osama’s fortress-like hideout in Abbottabad. The Al Qaeda chief was subsequently killed in a shootout.
Sources say crucial information leading to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was actually passed on to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Patek, a key leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI or Islamic Group), was arrested along with his wife, from the Abbottabad residence of Hameed following a bloody gun battle with Pakistani security forces. It is largely believed that Patek had been visiting bin Laden there.
Hameed’s son, Kashif, who was a student of telecommunications at an Abbottabad college, was also arrested with Patek, who received bullet wounds to his leg during the commando operation. Patek had been on the run for almost a decade and there was a $1 million bounty on his head for helping mastermind the 2002 suicide bombings of nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 people.
Specific information about Patek’s Abbottabad hideout was actually provided by two French nationals captured by Pakistani authorities on January 23, 2011, hardly a week before Patek’s arrest. However, while Patek’s arrest was made public two months later, on March 30, 2011, the arrest of the two French nationals was announced by the Pakistani authorities only on April 14, 2011. Patek had traveled to Pakistan on a commercial flight via Bangkok after obtaining a genuine passport using a false name.
The two French nationals, suspected of being part of a terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombing and who had given information about Patek’s Abbottabad hideout, were arrested from Lahore while meeting Tahir Shehzad, an al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani national. One of the detained French citizens is of Pakistani origin while the other is a convert to Islam.
Tahir Shehzad had been under surveillance by Pakistani intelligence sleuths since August 2010 when he was spotted in Abbottabad with an Arab terror suspect. As he left the hilly town of Abbottabad on January 23, 2011, Tahir Shehzad was followed by intelligence sleuths and finally arrested along with two white jehadis from France, whom Tahir had picked up from the Allama Iqbal International Airport.
According to Pakistani intelligence sources, on the basis of information provided by Patek and his arrested aides about Osama’s possible whereabouts, Pakistani intelligence sleuths had been monitoring his multi-story hideout in Abbottabad near the Kakul Military Academy for several months.
Built amidst green agricultural fields, the conspicuous size of the house, with high windows and few access points, made it stand out and gave rise to suspicions that the compound was meant to hide someone important. Osama’s presence there was eventually confirmed when a courier, who was a trusted aide of Laden and was the official owner of the house, was discovered.
Osama’s hideout, which was reportedly built almost five years ago, was eight times larger than its neighbouring houses, had no telephone or television connection and the residents used to burn their trash. The large compound had walls 12 to 18-feet high in height, topped with barbed wire.
The top-secret military operation had been carefully planned over many months after it was confirmed that Osama had been living there with members of his family, including his son and youngest wife.
As the operation began in the wee hours of Sunday, May 1, 2011, two American military helicopters swept into the compound at 1:30 and 2:00am. Roughly two dozen highly trained American soldiers, aided by the American CIA and the Pakistani ISI, stormed the Abbottabad compound to conduct a surgical raid designed to minimise collateral damage. A besieged Bin Laden resisted the assault force and was eventually killed in a firefight along with four others, including one of his sons, two companions and a female who was reportedly used as a human shield. While one US military helicopter was lost in the raid, no American lives were lost.
Well-informed intelligence sources say the “Get Osama Operation” was conducted jointly by the US Special Operations Forces and the US Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL), also known as Navy SEALs. US Special Operations Forces work under the American Special Operations Command, which is a reserve component force of the US Military. They are designated by the United States Secretary of Defence, and are specifically trained to conduct operations in areas under enemy or unfriendly control or politically sensitive environments to achieve the military, diplomatic, and informational objectives of the United States.
Similarly, being the US Navy’s principal special operations force, SEALs is a part of the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) as well as the maritime component of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). SEALs are trained and have been deployed in a wide variety of missions, including direct action and special reconnaissance operations, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defence, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, and other missions. It is quite astonishing to notice that the world’s most sought after FBI fugitive was hiding in the Bilal Town area of Kakul, a town situated in the Kakul Valley at an elevation of 1,300 meters, near the Thandiani Hills in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Interestingly, Osama’s hideout was hardly a kilometre away from the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) of the Pakistan Army in Abbottabad and barely about half a kilometre from the Cantonment Police Station.
The picturesque Abbottabad is the headquarters of the Hazara Division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The city is situated in the Orash Valley, 50 kilometres northeast of Islamabad and 150 kilometres east of Peshawar at an altitude of 4,120 feet. Abbottabad briefly saw an influx of the Pakistani Taliban fighters led by Maulvi Fazlullah after the Pakistani Army flushed them out of the Swat Valley in 2009. Abbottabad is one of the first towns on the famed Karakoram Highway that leads to Himalayas and China and is less than a day’s drive from the Afghan border. During the era of British rule, it was a major garrison town and remains so today, with Pakistani troops now occupying the barracks built and lived in by the region’s former rulers.
The city, famous throughout Pakistan for its pleasant weather, remains a major hub for tourism. Abbottabad is bounded on four sides by the Sarban hills, from which residents and tourists can see breathtaking views of the region and city. The location and the hills allow Abbottabad to experience pleasant weather in the summer and cold winters.
The neighbouring districts of Abbottabad are Mansehra to the north, Muzaffarabad to the east, Haripur to the west and Rawalpindi to the south. Tarbela Dam is situated west of Abbottabad, which is hardly five kilometres away from the Pakistan Army’s Kakul Military Academy.
In fact, Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited the Kakul Military Academy on April 23, 2011, just a week before bin Laden’s death. Addressing the passing out parade of the 123rd PMA Long Course at the Kakul Academy, General Kayani had declared that the Pakistan Army has broken the backbone of militants.
The death of the Al Qaeda chief raises many important questions, such as why the fortress-like hideout of the world’s most sought-after fugitive was situated only a few hundred metres from the Kakul Military Academy, and how it went unnoticed by Pakistani authorities. In fact, there are already fears in the establishment circles that his death inside Pakistan is likely to mark the beginning of a shift of the war theatre from Afghanistan to Pakistan, which is still considered by the Americans as a safe haven for fugitive Al Qaeda leaders.