Ever since the Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan, less than a mile from the country’s national military academy, the question haunting American relations with Pakistan has been: who knew he was there? How did the most-wanted man in human history find a hideout in one of Pakistan’s most exclusive military cantonment cities and live there for five years without the Pakistani spy service finding him? Or did it know all along?
Now there is an explosive new charge. The former head of the Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) says former president Pervez Musharraf knew bin Laden was in Abbottabad. General Ziauddin Khawaja, also known as Ziauddin Butt, was head of ISI from 1997 to 1999. A four star general, he fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. He was the first head of the army’s Strategic Plans Division which controls the country’s nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made him director general of ISI in 1997 and promoted him to chief of army staff on October 12, 1999 when he fired Musharraf from the job. Musharraf refused to go and launched a coup that overthrew Sharif. Ziauddin spent the next two years in solitary confinement, was discharged from the army, had his property confiscated and his retirement benefits curtailed. So he has a motive to speak harshly about Musharraf.
So bearing that in mind, here is what the former spy chief claims. Ziauddin says that the safehouse in Abbottabad was made to order for bin Laden by another Pakistani intelligence officer, Brigadier General Ijaz Shah, who was the ISI bureau head in Lahore, Pakistan when Musharraf staged his coup. Musharraf later made him head of the intelligence bureau, the ISI’s rival intelligence in Pakistan’s spy versus spy wars. Ziauddin says Ijaz Shah was responsible for setting up bin Laden in Abbottabad, ensuring his safety and keeping him hidden from the outside. And Ziauddin says Musharraf knew all about it.
Ijaz Shah is a colorful character. He has been closely linked to Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British born Kashmiri terrorist who was imprisoned in India in 1994 for kidnapping three British citizens and an American. Saeed was freed when Pakistani terrorists hijacked an Indian airliner to Kandahar, Afghanistan in December 2000, a plot masterminded by bin Laden and assisted by the ISI and the Afghan Taliban. Saeed was part of the plot two years later to kidnap Daniel Pearl and turned himself in to Brigadier Shah. Musharraf nominated Shah to be ambassador to Australia, but Canberra said no thanks. So he got the intelligence bureau job.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accused Shah of being behind the attempt to murder her when she returned from exile in late 2007. She was of course killed in another attempt later that year. Shah fled to Australia for a time while the situation cooled off.
Without a doubt, Ziauddin has an axe to grind. But he is also well tied in to the Pakistani intelligence world. When he was DG/ISI, he set up a special commando team to find and capture bin Laden with U.S. help. Elite commandoes from Special Services Group, Pakistan’s SEALs, were put on the hunt. Musharraf disbanded the group after he took power. Ziauddin’s successor at the ISI, General Mahmud Ahmad, refused American requests to go after bin Laden right up to 9/11. Then Musharraf had to fire him because even after 9/11, he did not want to do anything to bring bin Laden to justice.
We don’t know who was helping hide bin Laden but we need to track them down. If Mush, as many call him in Pakistan, knew, then he should be questioned by the authorities the next time he sets foot in America. The explosive story about him, which was first reported in the must read Militant Leadership Monitor, is more than an academic issue. If we can find who hid bin Laden, we will probably know who is hiding his successor, Ayman Zawahiri, and the rest of the al Qaeda gang.