America has said it is “inconceivable” that Osama bin Laden did not have a support system in Pakistan which enabled him to remain in the country for long periods.
White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan confirmed Washington did not inform the Pakistanis of the US special forces raid which killed the al-Qaida leader until its troops were safely out of the country.
The disclosure that the world’s most notorious terrorist leader was tracked to a large mansion complex in a garrison town close to Pakistan’s leading defence academy again raised suspicions about the role played by the Pakistani intelligence services.
Speaking at a White House news conference, Mr Brennan said bin Laden must have enjoyed help from within Pakistan to have remained at large for so long, although he stopped short of accusing the Pakistanis of any official involvement.
“It is inconceivable that bin Laden did not have support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for extended period of time,” he said.
“We are going to pursue all leads to find out what kind of support system and benefactors that bin Laden might have had.”
However many western intelligence experts believe he may have received protection from elements within the ISI intelligence agency – some of whom are suspected of pro-al-Qaida sympathies.
While it had long been thought that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, there was surprise that he was discovered in Abbottabad, a town with a large military presence 60 miles from the capital Islamabad, rather than the lawless tribal areas along the borders of Afghanistan.
The large, well-protected complex where he was living was said to be worth a million dollars but had no internet or telephone links which, analysts said, should have raised suspicions about who was there.
The extent of the American concerns was underlined by the disclosure that they even risked a potential clash with the Pakistan military rather than inform them in advance of the operation by the US Navy Seals team, and risk seeing bin Laden tipped off.
Mr Brennan said the Pakistani air force – which at that time did not realise the Americans were involved – scrambled its warplanes in response to the raid.
“We did not contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace,” he said.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron last night spoke by telephone to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari and prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in an attempt to soothe tensions.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister, who also spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Britain was committed to working “extremely closely” with both countries to counter the terrorist threat from al Qaida and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, it was disclosed that President Barack Obama – who personally authorised the mission to get bin Laden – had followed events in real-time from the White House situation room.
As well as bin Laden, who was shot in the head, one of his adult sons, two suspected al-Qaida couriers and a woman thought to be one of his wives died in the attack on the compound.
Mr Brennan said that she had apparently been used as a human shield. “She served as a shield,” he said. “It was unclear if she was put there, or if she put herself there.”
While US intelligence had painstakingly tracked bin Laden through his courtier to Abbottabad, Mr Brennan disclosed that when Mr Obama gave the go ahead for the mission they had not been certain he was in the building.
“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people assembled here. The minutes passed like days,” he said.
Following the operation, bin Laden’s identity was confirmed through DNA testing before being flown to an American warship in the Arabian Sea for burial at sea.
American officials were considering whether to release photographs of his body to counter suspicions in the Middle East that he was not really dead.
Meanwhile Britain has followed the US in putting its embassies and military bases around the world on heightened alert amid fears of reprisals by al Qaida and its affiliates.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said that al-Qaida would want to show it was still “in business”, while CIA director Leon Panetta said the terrorists would “almost certainly” try to avenge their leader.
President Zardari denied that Pakistan had lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism and claimed that his country was “perhaps the world’s greatest victim of terrorism”.
Writing in the Washington Post, the leader denied any notion that authorities had failed to act and said although bin Laden’s assassination was not a joint operation, a decade of co-operation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan had led up to his elimination “as a continuing threat to the civilised world”.
Mr Zardari added: “Some in the US press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing.
“Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact.
“Pakistan had as much reason to despise al-Qaida as any nation. The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as as it is America’s.”