US investigators say that they are closer to uncovering the mystery of how Osama bin Laden was able to hide in plain view in a Pakistani garrison town after phone records belonging to the al-Qa’ida leader’s courier revealed a link to a banned local terrorist group.
Retrieved among the vast store of evidence collected from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, the courier’s mobile phone was found to have contact details of members of Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), a pro al-Qa’ida group that has longstanding links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
The revelation, reported by the New York Times, could prove crucial in establishing how bin Laden was able to evade capture in Abbottabad for the six years that US officials believe he was hiding there for. It may also help determine whether bin Laden received any help from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, as some have charged but the ISI has denied.
Some of HuM’s militants are based near Abbottabad, in the town of Mansehra. Founded in the 1980s, HuM started life as an ISI-backed militant group to fight against Indian forces in Kashmir and Soviet forces during the Afghan jihad.
Although it was banned in 2002 by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, along with a slew of other militant groups, it continues to operate largely undisturbed. Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, HuM’s leader, lives on the outskirts of Islamabad in a two-storey compound, Pakistani officials confirmed.
Khalil was a confidant of bin Laden’s. Under his command, HuM has dispatched fighters to Kashmir, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya and Bosnia. The group’s ties with al-Qa’ida predate the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The two terror groups appeared on a list of terrorist organisations as early as 1997.
When al-Qa’ida arrived in Pakistan in late 2001, it relied on HuM and like-minded jihadist outfits for their terrorist networks seeded throughout the country. The collusion was made possible by their shared hardline convictions, taste for violence, and sectarian agenda. Over time, the lines dividing different groups have blurred, with individuals slipping from one to another.
The new revelations will add fresh pressure on Pakistan’s powerful military institution, which is already stinging from a wave of unprecedented criticism at home and abroad. So far, top US officials say that they have uncovered no proof of the military leadership’s complicity.
“In looking at every scrap of information we have, we think the highest levels of government were genuinely surprised,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. But she did not rule out the possibility of junior officers being involved.