The official story of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden reflects American derring-do. US forces snuck deep into Pakistan to conduct a commando raid on the world’s most-wanted terrorist less than two miles away from Pakistan’s premier military academy. The Pakistani government vehemently protested the action afterward, but America finally got the top terrorist of the network that conducted the 9/11 attacks. Barack Obama took credit for making the call on the dangerous incursion, and reminded voters repeatedly during the 2012 election that he was the man who got bin Laden.
Four years after the raid, a new version of events has emerged — albeit from a source whose credibility isn’t exactly sterling. Seymour Hersh wrote that his single source says Obama lied about the raid, and that it was a joint US-Pakistani operation that was supposed to end in a drone strike:
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.
‘When your version comes out – if you do it – people in Pakistan will be tremendously grateful,’ Durrani told me. ‘For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but people like to be told the truth, and what you’ve told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact-finding mission since this episode.’ As a former ISI head, he said, he had been told shortly after the raid by ‘people in the “strategic community” who would know’ that there had been an informant who had alerted the US to bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, and that after his killing the US’s betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha exposed.
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.
The ISI, according to Hersh’s one source, had pulled bin Laden out of the Hindu Kush in 2006 to bring him to Abbottabad, in part by bribing locals to rat him out. The US got confirmation about bin Laden’s location by basically doing the same thing, this time with military aid that went directly to the officers involved in this transaction in the form of protective gear. The problem, according to Hersh, is that the Saudis were spending a lot of money to keep bin Laden hidden because bin Laden was also a Saudi.
This is where the narrative starts to slip off the rails, though, and it brings up an important point. The first issue in any story written by Seymour Hersh is … Seymour Hersh. He has a habit of running with single-source stories that don’t pan out in the long run, and this tale has a number of red flags. This would be a big one. It’s certainly possible that some Saudi group would have coughed up cash to keep bin Laden out of harms’ way, but it wouldn’t have been the royal government. They were one of bin Laden’s targets, in part because of their alliance with the US, and especially the American military bases in Saudi Arabia.
How much is true, and how much is sheer fantasy? Hersh describes a coordination in the Pakistani military that seems too large in scope to have been a secret for four years, and only uncovered by Hersh’s single source:
Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them. The initial plan said that news of the raid shouldn’t be announced straightaway. All units in the Joint Special Operations Command operate under stringent secrecy and the JSOC leadership believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer. Then a carefully constructed cover story would be issued: Obama would announce that DNA analysis confirmed that bin Laden had been killed in a drone raid in the Hindu Kush, on Afghanistan’s side of the border. The Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public. It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced.
That would explain why the Pakistanis remained largely silent, and in part why they retaliated by withdrawing support for some drone missions for a while. But this kind of story would have almost certainly emerged in 2012 if the Pakistanis had gotten betrayed in this manner. That’s especially true for the next part of Hersh’s tale, in which he accuses Obama of explicitly ordering an assassination rather than a capture attempt:
It was clear to all by this point, the retired official said, that bin Laden would not survive: ‘Pasha told us at a meeting in April that he could not risk leaving bin Laden in the compound now that we know he’s there. Too many people in the Pakistani chain of command know about the mission. He and Kayani had to tell the whole story to the directors of the air defence command and to a few local commanders.
‘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.
Could all this be true? It’s possible, but why would it come out now? If those who felt betrayed by Obama had wanted to do real damage to him would have allowed all this to come out in 2012, not 2015, and to the New York Times (which was looking into the details of the raid in 2014, too) rather than Seymour Hersh. The Daily Beast’s nat-sec team checked into the story, and …
OK. We have at @thedailybeast folks with excellent Pakistani + US spec ops sources. They're reacts to the Hersh story? Uh, nope.
— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) May 10, 2015
I’d say operate with skeptic shields set to max on this one.