WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden likely had “some sort” of a support network inside Pakistan, President Barack Obama said on Sunday, but added it will take investigations by Pakistan and the United States to find out the nature of that support.
Obama’s interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program comes a week after bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in a garrison town a short drive from Islamabad, raising questions about whether Pakistan’s government had known of the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts.
“We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was,” Obama said.
“We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that’s something that we have to investigate, and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate,” he added.
Asked whether he did not warn the Pakistani government or the military, or even the Pakistani intelligence community, of the impending raid, because he did not trust them, Obama replied:
“I didn’t tell most people here in the White House. I didn’t tell my own family. It was that important for us to maintain operational security. If I’m not revealing to some of my closest aides what we’re doing, then I sure as heck am not going to be revealing it to folks who I don’t know.”
Obama said he agonized over the decision to go ahead with the mission for fear of the loss of American life and because it was inside sovereign Pakistan.
“And so if it turns out that it’s a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who’s in this compound and, you know, we’ve sent special forces in — we’ve got problems,” he said.
But he added: “The one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil — didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”
Pakistan’s government has “indicated they have a profound interest in finding out what kinds of support networks bin Laden might have had,” Obama said. “But ... it’s going to take some time for us to be able to exploit the intelligence that we were able to gather on site.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scheduled to “take the nation into confidence” in parliament on Monday, his first statement to the people more than a week after the attack on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, 30 miles north of Islamabad, embarrassed the country and raised fears of a new rift between Islamabad and Washington.
Suspicion has deepened that Pakistan’s pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, which has a long history of contacts with militant groups, may have had ties with the al Qaeda leader — or that some of its agents did.
Pakistan has dismissed such suggestions and says it has paid the highest price in human life and money supporting the U.S. war on militancy launched after bin Laden’s followers staged the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told ABC’s “This Week” program his government would act on the results of the investigation.
“And heads will roll, once the investigation has been completed. Now, if those heads are rolled on account of incompetence, we will share that information with you. And if, God forbid, somebody’s complicity is discovered, there will be zero tolerance for that, as well.”
The ambassador said Pakistan had “many Jihadi has-beens from the 1980s who are still alive and well and kicking, and some of them could have been helping them, but they are not in the state or government of Pakistan today.”
Pakistani security officials reacted with skepticism to a U.S. assertion that bin Laden was actively engaged in directing his far-flung network from his compound in Abbottabad where he was killed on May 2.
Washington has said that, based on a trove of documents the size of a small college library and computer equipment seized in the raid, bin Laden’s hide-out was an “active command and control center” for al Qaeda where he was involved in plotting future attacks on the United States.
Pakistani officials said the fact that there was no Internet connection or even telephone line into the compound where the world’s most-wanted man was hiding raised doubts about his centrality to al Qaeda.
“It sounds ridiculous,” said a senior Pakistani intelligence official. “It doesn’t sound like he was running a terror network.”
Analysts have long maintained that, years before bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda had fragmented into a decentralized group that operated tactically without him.
On Saturday, the White House released five video clips of bin Laden taken from the compound, most of them showing the al Qaeda leader, his beard dyed black, evidently rehearsing the video-taped speeches he sometimes distributed to his followers.
None of the videos were released with sound. A U.S. intelligence official said it had been removed because the United States did not want to transmit bin Laden’s propaganda. But he said they contained the usual criticism of the United States as well as capitalism.
While several video segments showed him rehearsing, one showed an aging and gray-bearded bin Laden in a scruffy room, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a ski cap while watching videotapes of himself.
“This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al Qaeda’s top leader and it’s clear ... that he was not just a strategic thinker for the group,” the U.S. intelligence official said in Washington. “He was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions.”
The dueling narratives of bin Laden reflect Washington’s and Islamabad’s interests in peddling their own versions of bin Laden’s hidden life behind the walls of his compound.
Stressing bin Laden’s weakness makes his discovery just a few minutes’ walk from a military academy less embarrassing for Pakistan, but playing up his importance makes the U.S. operation all the more victorious.
The competing claims came as senior Pakistani officials said bin Laden may have lived in Pakistan for more than seven years before he was shot dead.
One of bin Laden’s widows, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, told investigators bin Laden and his family had spent five years in Abbottabad.
Abdulfattah, along with two other wives and several children, were among 15 or 16 people detained by Pakistani authorities at the compound after the raid.
She said that before Abbottabad, bin Laden had stayed in a nearby village for nearly 2-1/2 years.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Chak Shah Mohammad and Chris Allbritton in Islamabad; Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Sandra Maler