Washington has cast serious doubt on the ISI claim — and frequently portrays the agency as a sponsor of Islamist extremists — but a renewed official embrace of the operation that eliminated bin Laden is revealing in itself.
Many Pakistani politicians have described the May 2 raid as an assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty and an example of U.S. arrogance. A Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA in the hunt for bin Laden remains in custody on charges of treason, and his associates are barred from working.
After U.S. helicopters swooped in to breach bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s army said it knew nothing about his six-year presence in the garrison town, site of Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy.
The ISI continues to maintain that stance. But recent claims by one of bin Laden’s widows that the fugitive al-Qaeda leader spent some nine years in Pakistan, living in several homes and fathering four children, have renewed questions about whether somebody in the powerful spy service knew of his whereabouts.
On Friday evening, over iced tea at a hotel cafe, two ISI officials offered a narrative that they say puts Pakistan in a better light. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
One noted that the ISI’s new head, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, is taking a “proactive” approach to public relations to improve the international image of the much-maligned intelligence service.
“Any hit on al-Qaeda anywhere in the world has happened with our help,” the official said.
The other official, who said he had been intimately involved in the hunt for senior al-Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden, said the ISI provided the CIA with a cellphone number that eventually led to an al-Qaeda courier using the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
The story about the phone number isn’t new, but now the ISI has fleshed out one aspect of it: The officials said that in November 2010 they turned over the number to the CIA, along with information that it was last detected in Abbottabad.
The ISI said that it did not know then that the number was Kuwaiti’s, but that CIA analysts did and yet never relayed that information back to the Pakistanis.
“They knew who the number belonged to,” the official said, adding that he had worked closely with the CIA and turned over thousands of suspect numbers. “But after that, their cooperation with us ended.”
“It is the story of an extreme trust deficit and betrayal,” the other ISI official said.
But a U.S. official disputed the ISI version Friday.
“The fact is our knowledge of the number didn’t come from them telling us about it,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive information.
In the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s killing, Pakistan’s leaders applauded his death and said their country had helped in the operation.
“We in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day,” President Asif Ali Zardari wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post the day after the raid.
On May 5, the Pakistani military said in a statement on the raid, “While the CIA developed intelligence based on initial information provided by ISI, it did not share further development of intelligence on the case with ISI, contrary to the existing practice between the two services.”
In announcing bin Laden’s death, President Obama himself said, “It’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
But those words were eventually drowned out by mounting assertions from U.S. lawmakers, intelligence officials and pundits that Pakistan must have been aware of bin Laden’s refuge, even though no conclusive evidence of that has emerged publicly. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, popular resentment of the United States — and growing impatience with the fight against terrorism — caused the country’s leaders to distance themselves from those early claims of assisting with the hunt for bin Laden.
The ISI men said Washington officials are willing to acknowledge their contributions behind closed doors, but never in public. This seemed especially frustrating to the ISI official who said he turned over the vital mobile number to the CIA.
“On a daily basis, we shared data with our friends,” he said. “We cooperated on all the targets. There was no holding back. . . . Why would I hold anything back on Osama bin Laden?”