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Gone In 40 Minutes -- What Pakistani Forces Did During Bin Laden Raid

  • RFE/RL

Pakistani police, reporters, and local residents gather outside the compound where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hid out in Abbottabad on May 3.

Pakistani police, reporters, and local residents gather outside the compound where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hid out in Abbottabad on May 3.

Skepticism is rife abroad over how Pakistan could fail to detect the world's most-wanted man on its territory.

But following Osama bin Laden's killing at the hands of elite U.S. forces, Pakistani authorities are facing criticism at home as to how the country's defenses could be breached.

Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir addressed the issue on May 5 by warning foreign states against treating such raids "as a rule," and expressing confidence in the country's ability to defend itself.

"There should be no doubt that Pakistan has adequate capacity to ensure its own defense," Bashir said. "We are proud of our armed forces, of our security agencies, and we are proud of the work of the Inter-Services Intelligence."

Nevertheless, the public appears unconvinced, as evidenced by one popular text message making the rounds in Islamabad: "Pakistan is now so insecure that even Osama bin Laden is not safe."

At any rate, the controversy begs the question of what Pakistan's security services, police, and army were doing while a 40-minute kill-or-capture operation was being carried out on the doorstep of one of their main military garrisons.

Local Police

RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal has determined that the phone lines at the police station in the alpine garrison town of Abbottabad started ringing constantly after 12:30 a.m. on May 2.

That is precisely the time when multiple U.S. stealth helicopters are reported to have reached bin Laden's compound in an area of the city known as Bilal Town, and were presumably hovering above while the raid was carried out.

Muhammad Nazir, the head of the Nawan Shehr police precinct under whose jurisdiction Bilal Town falls, told RFE/RL he immediately sent police teams to investigate.

Nazir, along with two other officers, made up one of the teams that rushed to the scene. Upon arriving, he said he found that the area had been surrounded by military personnel, whose officers asked the police to form an outer cordon around the compound.

An entry in the police logbook witnessed by a reporter from RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal noted only that an incident involving a helicopter accident was recorded.

In a separate account published this week by the BBC's Urdu website, an unnamed police officer in Abbottabad said that when he reached the house he saw commandos rappelling from a helicopter and surrounding the compound.

He claimed that he figured he was witnessing a Pakistani military operation and refrained from trying to enter the compound. Twenty minutes later, he said, he heard a loud bang, after which the helicopters flew away.

Part of a damaged helicopter lies near the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2.


Most local accounts suggest that Pakistani police and military personnel reached the compound only after U.S. helicopters had flown away.

In the account given to the BBC this week, the unidentified police officer said that when the Pakistani military reached the compound, its personnel noted that a damaged helicopter left behind did not appear to be the same type used by the Pakistani military.

In Islamabad, senior diplomats at Pakistan's Foreign Ministry have provided some clarity to the military's response

Speaking to journalists on May 3, Foreign Secretary Bashir perhaps gave the most complete version of events.

"Our radars were evaded. As soon as the relevant authorities came to know of this particular matter, this was at a time when one of their helicopters crashed or malfunctioned or was destroyed," Bashir said.

"The fact is that the Pakistani armed forces, they had not been consulted, they were not in the know. They did what was required, the air force was scrambled."

The big question that has been left unanswered is what happened after the jets were scrambled. Did they pursue the U.S. helicopter or helicopters? Were they able to identify and track the U.S. helicopter or helicopters, and if so did then pursue them. Were they called off after making contact with the U.S. military?

Over the course of the week, many retired army and air force generals have faced these questions on late-night Pakistani TV shows. None has been able to provide the answers.

Pakistan Military Academy

Foreign Secretary Bashir attempted this week to downplay the much-reported fact that bin Laden was killed within sight of the Pakistan Military Academy, the country's equivalent of West Point.

But Bashir discounted any notion that the academy, commonly known as Kakul, should have responded in any way to the incident.

"The Pakistan military academy is a training institute," Bashir stressed. "It is a routine training institution, and especially over these last few days -- with the courses over -- there is nobody there until the next course starts."