Opinion writer

The Pakistani town of Abbottabad seems to have been the perfect place to “hide in plain sight.” Not only did officers at the Pakistani military academy there apparently miss spotting Osama bin Laden so did a team of U.S. Special Forces trainers that, according to Pakistani officials, was based there from September to December 2008.

The “Where’s Waldo?” aspect of the hunt for bin Laden — who turns out to have been living since 2005 just a few hours’ drive north of Islamabad — has worsened the mistrust between America and Pakistan. Pakistani anger over the unilateral U.S. attack is indicated by the fact that someone just “outed” the CIA station chief in Islamabad for the second time in a year.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

More than a week after the Abbottabad raid, the nagging question remains: How could the Pakistanis not have known that the world’s leading terrorist was hiding in what some analysts have argued was practically a gated community for their military?

It’s a puzzle that embarrasses Pakistani officials just as much as it angers Americans. Surely someone must have known, and in Pakistan, that someone would likely have had connections to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. But that doesn’t necessarily mean ISI’s titular leaders knew about the support network, and therein lies part of the problem.

The ISI is, in the biblical phrase, a house with many mansions. What was known in one wing was not always shared with others. Indeed, if the ISI had transmitted information about sheltering bin Laden, U.S. intelligence almost certainly would have picked it up through surveillance.

Pakistani officials reject the allegation — rapidly becoming conventional wisdom in Washington — that they didn’t adequately pursue al-Qaeda. In interviews, they disclosed some new details that support their account. A U.S. official responded: “The Pakistanis indeed provided information that was useful to the U.S. government as it collected intelligence on the bin Laden compound. That information helped fill in some gaps.”

The Pakistani dossier starts with a joint CIA-ISI raid in the Abbottabad area in 2004, pursuing Abu Faraj al-Libi, often described as al-Qaeda’s No. 3 official. He was captured the next year in another joint operation in Mardan, west of Abbottabad.

The Pakistanis argue their telephone intercepts may have helped CIA analysts identify the courier who was sheltering bin Laden and trace him to the compound in Abbottabad. ISI officials, in particular, cite several calls in Arabic in 2009 that may have been crucial, including at least one from the general vicinity of Abbottabad.

Communications intercepts have always been crucial to U.S. operations against al-Qaeda. In some instances, such as wireless calls, the United States can collect signals unilaterally. But in intercepting some landline and Internet communications, the United States had secret official cooperation, according to a Pakistani source. The source says this led to the sharing of many hundreds of useful calls and numbers.

As another sign of anti-terrorist operations in the region, a Pakistani official cites the Jan. 25 capture in Abbottabad of Umar Patek, a leader of the Indonesian affiliate of al-Qaeda that planned the 2002 Bali bombing.

The final irony was the presence in Abbottabad of Special Forces in late 2008. They were part of a clandestine mission to train members of the Pakistani Frontier Corps. The training camp was later moved to Warsak, northwest of Peshawar, but for a few months American warriors apparently were living and working less than two miles from bin Laden.

What angers U.S. officials is that the ISI may be helpful with one hand, but with the other assists groups that threaten Americans. One example is the Haqqani network, the deadliest Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan; another is Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Kashmiri group whose alleged links with the ISI will be explored in a trial scheduled to open next week in Chicago.

The fact that bin Laden lived for so long under the military’s nose, as it were, has prompted some stinging commentary in Pakistan, such as this riposte in the newspaper Dawn last week from columnist Cyril Almeida: “If we didn’t know, we are a failed state; if we did know, we are a rogue state. But does anybody really believe they didn’t know?”

And what happens next, as the United States begins to exploit the “treasure trove” of information found in bin Laden’s compound? Among other things, that cache may reveal what, if anything, Pakistani officials knew, and when they knew it.