Cellphone Offers Clues of Bin Laden’s Pakistan Ties

June 24, 2011

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The cellphone of Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, which was recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, senior American officials who have been briefed on the findings say.

Athar Hussain/Associated Press
Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil
is the leader of a militant group based in Pakistan.

The discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said. But it also raised tantalizing questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years, the officials and analysts said.

In tracing the calls on the cellphone, American analysts have determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials, the senior American officials said.

So what if Pakistan was hiding Bin Ladin? What then?

…The Pakistani Army continued its links with the Harakat leadership, in particular Mr. Khalil, Pakistani officials and analysts said. In 2007, Mr. Khalil was used by the Musharraf government as a member of a group of clerics who tried to negotiate an end to a siege by militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad…

…Another Pakistani militant leader closely connected to Bin Laden is Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. Mr. Akhtar stopped in South Waziristan on the way to Afghanistan just months ago, a militant interviewed by phone said. The presence in Waziristan of Mr. Akhtar — who is wanted in connection with the attack that killed Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, in 2007 — demonstrated that he could still move freely without ISI interference.  A report by the Pakistani Interior Ministry said that Mr. Akhtar had visited Bin Laden in August 2009 near the border with Afghanistan to discuss jihadist operations against Pakistan, according to an account that was published in the Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times in 2010.

It is the only recorded episode showing that Bin Laden’s presence inside Pakistan was known to Pakistani intelligence, until the American raid that killed him.

Harakat has especially deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, and the network provided by the group would have enhanced Bin Laden’s ability to live and function in Pakistan, analysts familiar with the group said. Its leaders have strong ties with both Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, and they can roam widely because they are Pakistanis, something the foreigners who make up Al Qaeda’s ranks cannot do.
Even today, the group’s leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, long one of Bin Laden’s closest Pakistani associates, lives unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.
The senior American officials did not name the commanders whose numbers were in the courier’s cellphone but said that the militants were in South Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and other groups had been based for years. Harakat’s network would have allowed Bin Laden to pass on instructions to Qaeda members there and in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, to deliver messages and money or even to take care of personnel matters, analysts and officials said.
Wielding a Militant Tool
Harakat is one of a host of militant groups set up in the 1980s and early ’90s with the approval and assistance of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to fight as proxies in Afghanistan, initially against the Soviets, or against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Like many groups, it has splintered and renamed itself over the years, and because of their overlapping nature, other groups could have been involved in supporting Bin Laden, too, officials and analysts said. But Harakat, they said, has been a favored tool of the ISI.

Harakat “is one of the oldest and closest allies of Al Qaeda, and they are very, very close to the ISI,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and the author of “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.” via nytimes.com