Osama bin Laden lived in plain sight for almost a decade and was once even pulled over for speeding but not apprehended, thanks to the incompetence of Pakistan’s intelligence and security services, an official report into his killing said on Monday.
The report, leaked to Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera which circulated it late on Monday, offers fascinating details about life on the run for the world’s most wanted man, who, it says, wore a cowboy hat to avoid being spotted from above.
Written by a judge-led commission that the Pakistani government set up shortly after U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in 2011, the 336-page report is based on interviews with 201 sources including members of his family and various officials.
In one testimony showing how close bin Laden came to being captured, “Maryam,” the wife of one of his most trusted aides, recounted how his car was stopped by Pakistani police in the Swat region.
“Once when they were all … on a visit to the bazaar they were stopped for speeding by a policeman,” the report says. “But [Maryam’s husband] quickly settled the matter with the policeman and they drove on.”
To avoid detection from the sky, bin Laden took to wearing a cowboy hat when moving about his compound in the city of Abbottabad, his wives told investigators.
The inquiry’s findings —which have not yet been officially published — include evidence of incompetence at almost every level of Pakistan’s security apparatus. The report is also fiercely critical of the “illegal manner” in which the United States conducted the raid.
It chastises Pakistan’s leadership for failing to detect CIA activities on its soil, and does not rule out the involvement of rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence service — a sensitive issue even to touch on in a high-profile inquiry.
“The U.S. acted like a criminal thug,” says the report by the Abbottabad Commission.
“But above all, the tragedy refers to the comprehensive failure of Pakistan to detect the presence of OBL [Osama bin Laden] on its territory for almost a decade or to discern the direction of U.S. policy towards Pakistan that culminated in the avoidable humiliation of the people of Pakistan.”
After a decade-long hunt, the CIA finally tracked down the al Qaida leader to a compound within sight of an elite Pakistani military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital Islamabad.
In a night-time mission by U.S. Navy SEALs, bin Laden was killed on May 2 that year in an episode that humiliated Pakistan’s military and strained relations between the strategic allies Washington and Islamabad.
“As for [failing to detect] the CIA network, there was culpable negligence and incompetence,” the report says.
“Although the possibility of some degree of connivance inside or outside the government cannot be entirely discounted, no individual can be identified as guilty of connivance.”
Pakistan’s government and security officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bin Laden’s network killed nearly 3,000 people when al Qaida hijackers crashed commercial planes into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
Some U.S. officials have voiced suspicions that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies sheltered bin Laden, but Pakistan has dismissed the idea.
Life on the Run
The report offers insights into the dramatic night of his death and paints a picture of a restless and paranoid man who often hit the road to avoid capture.
Bin Laden arrived in Pakistan in the spring or summer of 2002, the report says, at one point spending two years in Haripur before moving to the Abbottabad compound with his big family in August 2005.
“All the places in Pakistan where OBL stayed are not fully known,” the report says. “But it included FATA [South Waziristan and Bajaur], Peshawar, Swat and Haripur.”
It found that he probably crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan’s Tora Bora area, where U.S. forces were hunting him, sometime in 2002. His family moved from Afghanistan’s Kandahar to Karachi shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“They kept a very low profile and lived extremely frugally. They never exposed themselves to public view. They had minimum security,” the report says.
“OBL successfully minimized any ‘signature’ of his presence. His minimal support group blended easily with the surrounding community … His wives, children and grandchildren hardly ever emerged from the places where they stayed. No one ever visited them, not even trusted al Qaida members.”
His wives, in their testimonies, said bin Laden was not fond of personal possessions and had very few clothes.
“Before coming to Abbottabad he had just three pairs of shalwar kameez [traditional dress] for summer, and three pairs for winter,” the report says.
“Whenever OBL felt unwell [unofficial U.S. accounts indicate he suffered from Addison’s disease], he treated himself with traditional Arab medicine … and whenever he felt sluggish he would take some chocolate with an apple.”