The Rashomon Effect: Retelling the Killing of Osama Bin Laden, 10 Years Since

AKSHOBH GIRIDHARADAS

Introduction

After 11 September 2001, when a group of militants associated with the Al-Qaeda staged coordinated attacks on the United States (US) and killed almost 3,000, Osama bin Laden became the world’s most wanted man. In the following years, US forces tried but failed to hunt for him across Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was almost a decade later when they found him, living in a compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, some 120 km north of the capital, Islamabad. In the early hours of 2 May 2011, US forces raided the compound and killed Bin Laden, and then President Barack Obama called it “a good day for America” and pronounced the world to be “safer”.[1] Ten years since, the question remains: How did Bin Laden evade US intelligence for many years and end up undetected — and likely protected — in a town in a country that is supposed to be an American ally?

It’s the 2nd of May in Islamabad

Cameron Munter gets a call on his mobile phone at 3:00 am on 2 May 2011. It was the Pakistan Foreign Secretary at that time, Salman Bashir: “I didn’t wake you, did I, ambassador?” Munter said he was already awake. Bashir asked, “There is something about a helicopter crash in Abbottabad, do you know anything about it?” To which the ambassador said, “I will have to get back to you, Salman.”

Haqqani’s Journey

Early on May 2nd, Amb. Hussain Haqqani was on his way from Washington to Islamabad, via London. Those were days, he now reminds his interviewer, when there was no wi-fi on commercial aeroplanes. The plane landed smoothly in Heathrow, where Amb. Haqqani turned on his mobile phone to find, he clearly remembers, 149 missed calls and countless text messages. One glance at the messages and he knew that he would not be getting on his onward flight to Islamabad. He called first, the airline helpdesk asking them to reroute his journey, and then President Asif Ali Zardari, who filled him in on the raid which ended early that morning.

Sleepless in Islamabad

Meanwhile, in Islamabad on May 2nd, Amb. Munter sat at the embassy with intelligence officers. He tells this author that it was like a scene from the Hollywood movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatised the hunt for Bin Laden. (Of course Munter thinks that the movie took too much cinematic liberties with its depiction of intelligence gathering.) Munter watches the first helicopter showing up, landing outside of the compound and securing the perimeter. The second helicopter was supposed to hover above the building but it did not go according to plan. Munter now says his mind immediately went back to the failed American raid in Iran in 1980, as he watched the scene — and he thought that the US would fail in its mission to kill Bin Laden.

The Days After

Munter had no idea what the repercussions would be of the killing of Bin Laden. He was a career foreign service officer and one of the State Department’s many diplomats based overseas, but none would have had it harder on May 2, 2011, when Munter walked into the meeting room to see Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and the then Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. In any other civilian democracy, Munter would be quizzed by the prime minister, the president, and perhaps the foreign minister; but Rawalpindi had the clout on national security.

Diatribe to Diplomacy

In Washington, Hussain Haqqani had his work cut out for him. He reached out to multiple levels of government, but most importantly, he acknowledged that President Obama had avoided speaking anything negative about Pakistan. Although Bin Laden was found in Pakistan, Obama continued to view them as an important ally in the US’s ‘war on terror’. Haqqani advised the Zardari PPP government that relations were not in a tailspin. Islamabad and Rawalpindi had both given their blessings on the assassination, and now it was time for Pakistan to show itself as an honest broker. “Swallow the humiliation and move on,” advised Haqqani. Zardari agreed and instructed Haqqani to execute the vision. It started with an op-ed piece in the Washington Post,[4] followed by successive TV interviews. Haqqani would repeat, one: “We are allies in the war on terror;” and two, that “no one in the highest echelons of the military or government was involved. But we will find out where the security apparatus failed in Bin Laden coming in and staying undetected for so many years.”

The Continuing Dual Narrative

Haqqani says that because Pakistan has been an important ally to the US since the Cold War era, the perception in Islamabad was that America would do according to what is in Pakistan’s best interest. This had been proven a fallacy, however, given the misunderstanding of Washington’s own interest and the asymmetry of power.

About the Author

Akshobh Ghiridaradas is a Visiting Fellow at ORF. He is a journalist based in Washington, DC.

A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh

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