Counter-terrorism officials are investigating whether a starving and shivering Indonesian al-Qa'ida suspect arrested in Abbottabad earlier this year was trying to make his way to the secret hideout of Osama bin Laden or if it was pure coincidence the two men were both sheltering in this quiet, military town.
This week, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, Indonesia's Defence Minister, said that Umar Patek, one of the men accused of carrying out the 2002 Bali bombings in which more than 200 people were killed, had made his way to this garrison town to meet with the leader of al-Qa'ida.
Another official said that the terror suspect had hoped Bin Laden would give him shelter. "The information we have is that Umar Patek was in Pakistan with his Filipino wife trying to meet Osama bin Laden," Mr Yusgiantoro told reporters.
Patek and a woman believed to be his wife were arrested in January after Pakistani commandos stormed into the Abbottabad home of Abdul Hameed Sohail, a retired insurance executive who had given the couple shelter after his son found them begging in the street.
After firing two shots, the commandos dragged off Patek and the woman, along with Mr Sohail's 20-year-old son, Mohammed. As they carried away Patek and the woman, one of the commandos put a finger to his lips, indicating that Mr Sohail should not speak about what had taken place. He has not heard from his son since. "My son had gone out to the mosque and when he returned he said there were two people in a very bad condition, near to dying, and in need of help," Mr Sohail said yesterday. "It was on humanitarian grounds."
Mr Sohail said the couple, who "looked Asian" and did not speak any of the local languages, were thin, shaking and looked very ill. He put them in an upstairs room in his house and gave them some medicine. His young daughter would leave a tray outside their door containing salad, curry and chapatis, though they never ate more than one-quarter of what was left for them. They smelled very bad, he said.
During the eight to 10 days that they stayed at his home, the couple never went outside and received no visitors, Mr Sohail said. He was adamant that whether or not they planned to meet Bin Laden, no such get-together happened at that time. An unidentified US counter-terrorism official quoted this week by the Associated Press, confirmed that it is believed no meeting took place.
The coincidence may seem suspicious to those who believe it is inconceivable that Bin Laden could have been living so close to Pakistan's premier military academy without the support of elements within the country's intelligence agencies; so may the discovery of Patek, who had similarly been on the run for the best part of a decade and was thought to be in the Philippines.
Sidney Jones, an expert on South-east Asian militancy with the International Crisis Group, said it was possible that Patek, a senior member of Jemaah Islamiyah, considered an Indonesian affiliate of al-Qa'ida, had not arranged to visit Bin Laden and was on his way to Pakistan's tribal areas. But she added: "Clearly he was interested in joining up with [members of] al-Qa'ida, but it's not clear that he knew Bin Laden was in Abbottabad... the really interesting question is whether he was trying to open channels with Afghanistan for people from South-east Asia to go and join them. That is what the police should be interested in asking him about."
Mr Sohail insisted it was purely coincidence that Patek, believed to have trained with al-Qa'ida in Pakistan before the attacks of 11 September 2001 and had a $1m (£609,000) reward on his head, arrived at his house. He said his son was not militant or extremely religious and that during the time Patek and his wife stayed in the house, he did not see his son have any interaction with them.
News of Patek's arrest emerged in only March, when it was confirmed by Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, rather than Pakistani officials. Indonesia wants Patek extradited, but Pakistan is resisting.Reuse content