June Issue 2015
Cover Story: Who Lies Behind Osama?
No one believes anything anyone has to say about the raid in Abbottabad which killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. The official US version, as depicted in the hagiographical film Zero Dark Thirty, hews uncomfortably close to the romantic, self-loving view the Americans have of themselves. Here are the brave knights in shining armour — the warriors of the Navy SEALS — entering hostile territory to avenge the lives lost on 9/11. Back home, the deskbound nerds at the CIA worked all by their lonesome, perhaps with the help of a torturer or two, to find out where Osama had been squirrelled away all these years. With brawn and brains, the US managed to track down Public Enemy Number 1. It doesn’t require believing in outlandish conspiracy theories to reject this narrative as a little too convenient.
Pakistan’s version of the Osama raid is even easier to reject because there is no Pakistani version. On-the-record briefings to the press stuck to the driest facts possible: yes, Osama was in Abbottabad, yes, he was killed by the US and no, we won’t say anymore. A high-level commission to investigate both Osama’s presence in the country and the US operation to kill him was suppressed, as all inconvenient reports in the country are, until it was liberated by Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera in 2013.
Into this knowledge breach has stepped legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who in a controversial 10,000-word piece has challenged just about everything we thought we knew about the raid. The only two points he agrees on is that Osama was in Abbottabad and that he was killed. Every other ‘fact’ is up for grabs.
Hersh maintains that Osama wasn’t hiding in Abbottabad; rather he was being kept hidden by the Pakistan army which was quietly holding him to use in the future as leverage against Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. He was discovered by the US not thanks to the detective work of CIA analysts and interrogators, but through sheer coincidence when a Pakistani intelligence official walked into the US embassy and offered details of Osama’s residence. The raid was not a unilateral US effort which bamboozled our radar systems, but a joint effort carried out with the full knowledge of Pakistan. Osama was not killed because he tried to fight back. He was killed in cold blood. He was not buried at sea in accordance with Islamic rituals. Hersh has reason to believe his body was chucked out of the helicopter after the Navy SEALS left the country.
Hersh’s sensational claims have been met with much scepticism. The main problem with his story is that it relies only on one unnamed source in US intelligence. We have no idea how high up this source is and no particular reason to believe him. Until his credibility can be established, everything Hersh says must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Subsequent reporting in Pakistan has done little to back up his claims. A story in a local newspaper named the intelligence official who had allegedly walked into the US embassy and was later relocated to America. It now turns out that the person in question had left the intelligence service in 1979 and sought asylum in the UK after protesting the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And inconveniently for the story, he died last year after suffering from cancer for many years.
There are other problems with Hersh’s narrative. It is hard to see the logic behind dumping Osama’s body in the middle of the mission, rather than at sea. This aspect of the story serves only to up the drama and establish the blood-thirstiness of the US. He also claims Pakistan was offered greater military aid and a freer hand in Afghanistan in return for its cooperation in the raid. That aid, if it was promised, never materialised. Indeed, the raid marked a new low in troubled relations between the two countries. Pakistan did, however, become a less marginalized play
er in Afghanistan and its barely covert support for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network was glossed over.
But one doesn’t have to accept every small detail of Hersh’s story to raise questions about the raid. It seems inconceivable that Osama was in Abbottabad — where the PMA is located — without our knowledge. The leaked Abbottabad commission report put it down to gross negligence, but did raise the possibility of collusion with elements of the intelligence services. Even the findings of the commission need to be put into perspective. Its members, no matter how thorough a job they did, were representatives of the establishment, comprising a judge, diplomat, general and retired police officer. The report was cautious, refusing to name those responsible for this epic failure and admitting it would be politically unfeasible to punish them. But the overall tone of the report confirms there is much we still haven’t been — and likely never will be — told.
Even if we knew nothing about Osama’s whereabouts — as big an if as that may be — we still have to account for the US raid. Let’s accept for now that the Navy SEALS were able to cross our border undetected. That still doesn’t explain how we remained in the dark for the entirety of the raid, including when a US helicopter crashed. This, once again, suggests collusion or incompetence. Neither scenario bathes us in glory.
The public perception of Hersh’s story will rise and fall based on his reputation — and it is a mixed one. He is considered one of the greatest investigative journalists ever for breaking stories of the US massacre in the My Lai village in Vietnam and for being the first person to uncover the mass torture by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But his track record in recent years has been sketchy as he predicted the possibility of a US nuclear attack in Iran and blamed Turkey for a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Neither story has been vindicated by history.
We are now in a position where the US and Pakistan are certainly not to be trusted since both have a history of lying and reasons to continue their deceit. Hersh’s credibility is also suspect, though not as doubtful as that of the governments he reports on. The truth is out there somewhere, but whether it ever filters down to us is an open, festering question.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.