Osama bin Laden’s presence in an elaborately fortified million-dollar compound “raises questions” about what some Pakistani officials might have known about the al-Qaida leader’s presence prior to Sunday’s raid that killed him, the top White House counterterrorism adviser said Monday.
The pointed comments by White House advisor John Brennan come amid mounting tensions between the Obama administration and Pakistani officials over intelligence cooperation, fueled in part by longstanding U.S. suspicions about ties between the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, and various terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida, such as the home-grown Laskhar e Taiba.
In a separate briefing Monday, senior U.S. officials stated that that the U.S. government did not inform Pakistani officials beforehand about the successful helicopter assault that killed bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, a city about 60 miles north of Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.
The location of the large bin Laden compound -- less than two miles from a prestigious military academy that is sometimes known as Pakistan’s West Point -- raises questions about what some Pakistani officials may have known, Brennan said at a briefing for White House reporters. While Pakistani officials “seem surprised” to learn that bin Laden was hiding in the city, Brennan said he questioned how “a compound of that size in that area” could exist without arousing suspicions.
A Pakistani official on Monday denied there was any prior official knowledge of bin Laden’s presence in the conspicuously large house with high walls surrounded by barbed wire in Abbottabad, a relatively affluent area heavily populated by current and former members of that country’s military and intelligence establishment. The million dollar compound was built in 2005, U.S. officials said.
“There is no chance at all of this,” said one Pakistani official when asked whether any government officials knew about bin Laden’s presence or were protecting him. “We are doing (counterterrorism) operations and our people are being killed.”
But some counterterrorism experts aren’t buying it, noting that the bin Laden compound was literally walking distance from the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s premier military academy. Only a week ago, Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parez Kayanim addressed graduating cadets about the country’s anti-terrorism efforts at the school.
Ali Soufan, a veteran former FBI counterterrorism agent, noted that the compound is located in a town heavily populated by current and former Pakistani military officers – and is relatively free of any terrorist activity. “There’s no way he could have been sitting there without the knowledge of some people in the ISI and the Pakistani military," said Soufan.
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., is asking similar questions. He said Monday that he wants more information about Pakistan’s commitment to the fight terrorism before the country receives up to $3 billion in aid from the United States planned for fiscal 2012.
“This tremendous milestone in the fight against terrorism also raises serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to that effort,” he said. “The ability of Osama bin Laden to live in a compound so close to Pakistan's capital is astounding – and we need to understand who knew his location, when they knew it, and whether Pakistani officials were helping to protect him.”