Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier’ cellphone, which was recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
Senior American officials who have been briefed on the findings said that the discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country.
The discovery also raised important questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, taling into consideration that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years.
American analysts traced the calls on the cellphone and determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials. The officials also added that the contacts were not necessarily about Bin Laden and his protection and that there was no “smoking gun” that would show that Pakistan’s spy agency had protected Bin Laden.
At the same time the cellphone numbers provide one of the most intriguing leads yet in the hunt for the answer to an the most urgent and annoying question for Washington: How did it happen that Bin Laden was able to live comfortably for years in Abbottabad, a town dominated by the Pakistani military and only a three-hour drive from Islamabad, the capital?
One American official, who has been briefed in broad terms on the cellphone analysis said: “It’s a serious lead,” said. “It’s an avenue we’re investigating.”
The discovery also provides a potentially critical piece of the puzzle about Bin Laden’s secret odyssey after he sneaked off from American forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago.
It may also help answer how and why Bin Laden or his protectors chose Abbottabad, where he was killed in a raid by a Navy Seals team on May.
Harakat has very deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, the analysts who are familiar with the group told the Times. Its leaders have strong traces with both al-Qaida and Pakistani intelligence, known as Inter-Services Intelligence.
The senior American officials did not revealed the names of the commanders whose numbers were in the courier’s cellphone. They said the militants were in South Waziristan, where al-Qaida and other groups had been based for years. Harakat’s network would have allowed bin Laden to pass on messages and money to Qaida members there and in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, analysts and officials said.
Bin Laden and his courier, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, were discovered by U.S. intelligence through a accidental interception of an Ahmed phone call. That set in motion the secret CIA search of the Abbottabad region, which culminated with the May 2 raid by Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden, Ahmed’s brother Abrar and two other people. [via The New York Times and The Huff Post]