Pakistan alerted the US to suspicions about Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad as far back as 2009, the country’s Foreign Secretary revealed today.
Salman Bashir said American concerns over whether it could trust Pakistan’s security and intelligence services were “misplaced” and insisted it had extended “every co-operation” to the US and played a “pivotal role” in the fight against terror.
Islamabad is smarting over Washington’s decision not to inform it in advance of the audacious special forces raid which led to the killing of the al-Qaida leader in a city which is home to Pakistan’s elite officer training college.
CIA director Leon Panetta has said the Pakistani authorities were not told in advance because of fears that the information would be leaked, allowing bin Laden the opportunity to flee.
“It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission – they might alert the targets,” Mr Panetta told Time magazine.
And British Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs that Islamabad had some “searching questions” to answer, as it appeared bin Laden had an “extensive support network” in Pakistan.
The row blew up as the White House released further details of bin Laden’s death, revealing that the terrorist mastermind was unarmed when he was shot dead by US Navy Seal commandos, and did not attempt to shelter behind his wife as initially believed.
Mr Panetta also revealed that the US is considering releasing photos of bin Laden’s body and its burial at sea, to counter suspicions in the Arab world and internet conspiracy theories that he might still be alive.
Mr Bashir told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the CIA chief’s comments about Pakistan were “disquieting”.
“Mr Panetta of course is entitled to his views, but I know for sure that we have extended every co-operation to the US, including the CIA, as well as to other countries in so far as the campaign against terror is concerned,” he said.
“Of all the al-Qaida key people who were picked up or arrested, it was done by the ISI – by our intelligence. All the significant people who were picked up were picked up in Pakistani cities and towns, and it is worth remembering that.
“The fact is that this particular location was pointed out by our intelligence quite some time ago to the US intelligence. Of course, they have much more sophisticated equipment to evaluate and to assess...
“In what is called global anti-terror, Pakistan has played a pivotal role, so it is disquieting when we hear comments like this.”
Mr Bashir said the search for bin Laden was “a priority for everyone, including Pakistani intelligence”.
The compound where he was eventually found was identified to the US as a location of interest in 2009, though it was not known at that point that bin Laden was living there, he said. But he added that there were “millions” of possible locations on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border which were identified.
Mr Bashir said it was not time to “enter into recriminations”, adding: “Pakistan does not have to over and over again prove its credentials on these matters. We do it as a matter of enlightened self-interest and in the interests of the world.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney has insisted the US commandos were prepared to take bin Laden alive, but said he was ``resisting'' when he was shot dead.
The disclosure risked inflaming anger among al-Qaida sympathisers, amid warnings that bin Laden’s supporters were likely to attempt revenge attacks against America and its allies.
However it is unlikely to take the gloss off Barack Obama’s triumph in America, where the US president has been hailed by supporters and opponents alike for his bold decision to launch the attack which ended bin Laden’s career of terror.
At yesterday’s daily White House press briefing, Mr Carney said the administration was still considering whether to release photographs of bin Laden’s body in order to counter claims alread rife in the region that he had not been killed at all.
“There are sensitivities about the appropriateness,” he said. “It is fair to say it is a gruesome photograph. It is an issue we are taking into consideration.”
Earlier, Mr Panetta had hinted that ultimately a photograph of the al-Qaida leader would be released to the public, but acknowledged concerns and questions “that had to be debated” about their potential impact.
Mr Carney also disclosed that a woman killed in the raid had not been acting as a human shield, as previously claimed, but was caught in crossfire.
One of bin Laden’s wives was, however, shot and wounded when she tried to rush the American troops as they burst into the family’s home, he said.
Mr Carney acknowledged there had been inaccuracies in the original accounts of the raid given by US officials, saying they had released “a great deal of information in great haste”.
In an updated version, Mr Carney said there had been two other families in bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad – one living on the ground floor of the same building as the bin Laden family.
When the US troops entered the building, two al-Qaida couriers were killed “along with a woman who was killed in crossfire”.
The commandos then moved up to the first and second floors where they found the bin Laden family.
“There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he did resist,” Mr Carney said.
“In the room with bin Laden, a woman – bin Laden’s wife – rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
Mr Carney said the US team had faced consistent resistance “from the moment they landed to the end of the operation”.
“We were prepared to capture him (bin Laden) if that was possible. We expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance,” he said.
“There were many other people who were armed in the compound. There was a firefight – it was a highly volatile firefight.
“He resisted. The US personnel on the ground handled themselves with the utmost professionalism. He was killed in an operation because of the resistance that they met.”
Mr Cameron discussed the implications of bin Laden’s death at Cabinet and a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday and warned that Britain must be “more vigilant than ever” to the risk of a reprisal attack, either by al-Qaida or its affiliates seeking to demonstrate they can still operate effectively or by a radicalised individual acting as a “lone wolf”.
Bin Laden’s death did, however, offer an opportunity to persuade the Taliban in Afghanistan to “separate themselves from al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful political process”, he said.