Washington pressed Pakistan last night to cooperate fully in an investigation into how Osama bin Laden found shelter in countryside not far from the capital Islamabad and to determine if any Pakistani officials knew about his location or assisted the outlaw.
“How could this have happened?” national security adviser Tom Donilon asked hours after US intelligence officials made new claims that bin Laden had been personally directing al-Qaida from inside the walls of the Abbottabad compound where he was killed a week ago. “We need to investigate it. We need to work with the Pakistanis. And we're pressing the Pakistanis on this investigation,” he said.
Mindful of the strains now besetting the US-Pakistan relationship, Mr Donilon nonetheless stressed that, so far, the US has no reason explicitly to accuse the Pakistani government or military of bedding down with bin Laden. “I can tell you directly that I've not seen evidence that would tell us that the political, the military, or the intelligence leadership had foreknowledge of bin Laden,” he told NBC News.
Every day since the Navy Seals struck in Abbottabad has brought new tensions between Pakistan and the US as both countries endeavour to press home their own — increasingly divergent — versions of the final years of bin Laden and the circumstances of his death.
Yesterday Pakistani officials poured cold water on the American assertion that he was actively directing al-Qaida operations from his lair.
“It's bulls***,” one official told the Reuters news agency. Another Pakistani intelligence official said: “It sounds ridiculous. It doesn't sound like he was running a terror network.”
Adding to the scepticism about the US claims was the knowledge that the bin Laden retreat had neither telephone nor internet connection and that its infamous resident had to rely on one or two loyal couriers to get information in and out.
But the embarrassment for Pakistan may have deepened after one of bin Laden's widows told its intelligence services that while her husband had been at the compound for five years, he, his family and his inner circle were previously hiding in a small village not far from Islamabad for two and a half years. So by America's reckoning he was running his network from inside Pakistan for more than seven years.
“This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control centre for al-Qaida's top leader and it's clear ... that he was not just a strategic thinker for the group,” a US intelligence official said after releasing videos late on Saturday showing the terror chief rehearsing for video-taped propaganda sermons he periodically released and sitting in an old blanket watching himself on television.
US officials say they already have learned a lot from Osama bin Laden's computers and data, but would not confirm that it yielded clues to the whereabouts of al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Zawahiri is a leading candidate to take bin Laden's place as leader of the terror group.
US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon has declared al-Zawahiri the world's “number one terrorist” but added: “Our assessment is that he is nowhere near where Osama bin Laden was.”