Mobile phone links Pakistan's ISI to Osama bin Laden courier - 06-29-2011, 12:03 AM
The villa in Abbottabad where the courier would visit Bin Laden Photo: AFP
By Dean Nelson, Rob Crilly in Karachi5:15PM BST 24 Jun 2011
They are now treating the discovery as a vital lead in their investigation into how the al-Qaeda leader was able to hide for more than five years in the army garrison town Abbottabad.
The disclosure is likely to widen the rift between Washington and Islamabad amid growing suspicions that some elements of the country's security services helped to shield bin Laden. Senior analysts believe the he could not have lived in a high-security army town without a network of powerful supporters.
Bin Laden was shot dead in a raid last month by US Navy Seals in a prominent mansion close to the army's military academy where he had senior army officers as neighbours.
According to US officials quoted by the New York Times, the mobile phone seized in the raid belonged to the al-Qaeda leader's most trusted aide and courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was known to the villagers surrounding the compound as Arshad Khan.
Call records revealed he had called a number of South Waziristan-based commanders from the militant group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), which was blamed for the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight which led to the release of a number of jailed militants in a deal brokered by Afghanistan's Taliban government, the 2002 suicide bombing of the US consulate in Karachi and the murder of Daniel Pearl. The British terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh was involved in the group which has had long-standing connections with al-Qaeda.
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According to the officials, the HuM commanders had separately been in contact with Pakistani intelligence figures. Despite the group's historical links with al-Qaeda – it had arranged trips for journalists to meet bin Laden before 2001 – it has long been regarded as a 'Pakistani asset' used to attack Indian forces in Kashmir.
The group was listed as a terrorist group by President George W Bush shortly after the September 11 2001 attacks. It was banned in Pakistan by General Musharraf the following year, but its training camps continued under different names and its leaders were not targeted by the Pakistan government.
Its leader Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil was recently found living openly in an Islamabad suburb. He has addressed militant rallies and his group's website, which urges volunteers to join its jihad, lists accounts at the Muslim Commercial Bank in Karachi's Shershah neighbourhood for donations. The manager confirmed the account to the Daily Telegraph yesterday but said it was currently inactive.
"It's a serious lead. It's an avenue we're investigating," a US official told the newspaper, but admitted it was "no smoking gun" – it did not prove the courier discussed bin Laden's presence in Pakistan with the HuM commanders, or that they in turn passed on information to the country's ISI intelligence officials.
A spokesman for HuM later denied any contact with the courier or with al-Qaeda.
"al-Qaeda had their own discipline, their own thinking, their own organisation. We have never ever been in touch with Osama," he told the BBC.
Imtiaz Gul, an analyst who has studied Pakistan's extremist groups, said the ISI had moved away from Harakat since 1998, when the US bombed its training facilities.
"It is unlikely there is an ISI connection at an institutional level but there may well still be links at an individual level," he said.
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