foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. He has won three National Newspaper Awards, Canada’s highest prize for print journalism.
Numerous questions have been raised on how Osama bin Laden could have been living in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad just down the street from Pakistan’s premier military academy. CIA Director Leon Panetta has reportedly said Pakistan was either "knowledgeable or incompetent" when it came to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Some evidence has emerged to indicate that the Pakistani military may have had a direct role in harboring bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is claiming it warned U.S. intelligence two years ago about the compound where bin Laden was killed. We go to Pakistan to speak with Graeme Smith, an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. He was in Abbottabad yesterday investigating the mystery behind the bin Laden compound. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show with more on the death of Osama bin Laden. Numerous questions have been raised on how the al-Qaeda leader could have been living in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad just down the street from Pakistan’s premier military academy. CIA Director Leon Panetta has reportedly told members of Congress in classified briefings that Pakistan was either, quote, "knowledgeable or incompetent" when it came to bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Some evidence has emerged to indicate that the Pakistani military may have had a direct role in harboring bin Laden. The journalist Steve Coll, who has written extensively on the bin Laden family, reports that local maps show land near the bin Laden compound as "restricted areas," indicating that they were under military control. Coll writes that the initial circumstantial evidence suggests, quote, "that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control."
AMY GOODMAN: The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail is reporting a local police source in Abbottabad said bin Laden’s compound was also used by Hizbul Mujahideen, a Pakistani militant group active in Kashmir that many believe has the support of Pakistani security services.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is claiming it warned U.S. intelligence two years ago about the compound where bin Laden was killed. In a statement, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said it had shared intelligence with the CIA about the compound since 2009. The statement says, quote, "The fact is that this particular location was pointed out by our intelligence quite some time ago to the U.S. intelligence."
We’re going right now to Pakistan to Graeme Smith, an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. He was in Abbottabad yesterday investigating the mystery behind the bin Laden compound. He’s joining us now on the phone from Islamabad.
Graeme, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you found.
GRAEME SMITH: Well, you know, what we found is really a mystery. Abbottabad is now a city of whispers, in some ways. You know, people are being stopped on the street many times a day and being asked, you know, "What did you know?" And sometimes the people asking the questions are journalists, and sometimes they’re security forces. And so, it becomes very hard to sort out truth from rumor. Neighbors have started to regurgitate what they’ve heard from other neighbors, and so the sort of the information swirling around this high-walled compound, in quite a lovely, scenic part of Abbottabad, is — the information is getting rather murky.
And so, what we’ve been trying to do, actually, is to run down some of the documentary evidence, and that’s proven rather difficult, because although there were at least four gas meters on the outside of the compound and a few electricity meters, so presumably, therefore, there should be, you know, a gas company account and electricity company account, and there should also be a land registry document and all these things, these documents are proving really hard to find, because the Pakistani government has instructed local officials not to disclose them.
Now, we have been able to get through that problem a little bit by finding a friendly local administrator in Abbottabad, who read off the name and family name and home town listed on the land registry document, which suggests that whoever registered themselves as the owner of the bin Laden compound claimed to live in a district called Charsadda just north of Peshawar in the tribal areas. And at the moment, we’re trying to figure out whether that was an alias, as Pakistani officials claim, or something else. So we’re sending a reporter right now, as we speak, up to Charsadda.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Graeme, you noted that while the Pakistani officials say that it was an alias or false identity, that it would be very difficult, given not just the land transfer itself, but all of the other things that had to be done in terms of getting permits for construction, getting utilities hooked up to the compound, that this would require quite a bit of review by various officials in terms of identifying the actual individuals who own the place.
GRAEME SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it’s not impossible to falsify these things. Quite a lot of Afghans, especially, use fake ID cards in Pakistan, and the government has been trying to set up a sort of electronic database of all national identity cards. But there remain a lot of these sort of older generation, non-databased cards, and so it is possible that whoever set up the compound could have used a fake ID card and then sort of built this elaborate sort of system of fraud, basically, you know, paper upon paper upon paper — you know, a land transfer paper, a note from the cantonment board authorizing the connection of a gas line, all of these signatures and stamps and so forth, all of the mundane paraphernalia of bureaucratic life in Pakistan. It’s possible that this was entirely faked.
But what’s interesting is that all along the way, you know, there would have opportunity to check. One guy who has built 25 homes in Bilal Town, which is — he’s a contractor who works in the area, said that, you know, typically, your ID would be checked about seven times along the way. And what also struck me was that, in that area — it was built on military land, which is not unusual. There’s a lot of suburban development on military land in Pakistan. But in those areas, your application to build something has to be reviewed by a cantonment board, which is chaired by a serving colonel in the Pakistani military. And so, it really does seem like bin Laden was living for years right under their noses and, you know, that these checks and balances were either missed or overlooked.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the potential links of the two brothers to Hizbul Mujahideen? And what is that group and its potential connections to Pakistani intelligence?
GRAEME SMITH: This was a tantalizing lead that we got earlier in the week. A police official in Abbottabad told us that the compound, as he put it, belonged to Hizbul Mujahideen. Then that police official became abruptly unavailable when we tried to talk to him further about that. And police officials, of course, in Abbottabad have been instructed not to get into, you know, who owned the compound or who controlled it. So, it’s been rather difficult here, I have to say, researching the story, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on. The Pakistani military has now taken over the investigation and will presumably make their own inquiries.
Hizbul Mujahideen, by the way, if there was some link to them, it would be quite embarrassing to Pakistan, because Hizbul Mujahideen is one of these militant groups that has operated with some impunity in Pakistan for many years. It was originally set up to fight the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then morphed into a liberation movement in what Pakistanis call Azad Kashmir and in what they call Indian-occupied Kashmir. And so, that’s a group that has enjoyed a fair bit of freedom to act, and it has not really been — the members have not really been rounded up by the Pakistani security forces. And some analysts say that Hizbul Mujahideen has been, in fact, directly supported by the Pakistani state.
AMY GOODMAN: Graeme Smith, you have lived in the region for years. Can you talk about the press reaction and the popular reaction? And also, in Abbottabad, I mean, it’s a military town — retired military, current military — next to the equivalent of the U.S.'s West Point, so it's not just average civilians that live around him, not to mention his house is so much vastly bigger than everything in the environs, it would certainly stand out and make people wonder who’s living there.
GRAEME SMITH: Yeah, it did stand out in the neighborhood, you know? And I was struck when I went there actually how ugly it is. You know, it was described initially as a mansion, but, you know, it really did look more like a security compound of some kind, almost like a small prison. And I couldn’t help thinking that, you know, whoever constructed this thing may not have had bin Laden’s comfort in mind. You’re right, Abbottabad is an otherwise very pretty town. You know, even the neighborhood where bin Laden was apparently living is, you know, on a dirt road lined with poplar trees and the smell of crushed mint underfoot, you know, just this lovely bucolic setting.
The town of Abbottabad is wealthy. It’s the sort of place where, you know, you sense that Pakistan is westernizing. You know, it has Shell gas stations and all kinds of other comforts that you might associate with the Western world. It’s nowhere near as sort of ramshackle as some of the places like Quetta and Peshawar, where most of the sort of war on terrorism has been focused. You know, it’s — Abbottabad is known for being a cantonment town, as you said. It’s a garrison outpost. And yeah, this Pakistani military college was very well respected. In fact, just a week before the raid, the head of the Pakistani military, General Kayani, visited this military facility for its graduation ceremony, I believe it was. And he announced, very proudly, that the Pakistani military had broken the back of terrorism in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, former reporter, addressing the claims that Pakistan was knowingly harboring Osama bin Laden.
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: What John Brennan said and what I will repeat is that we obviously are interested in finding out the details of the support network that obviously helped Mr. bin Laden hide in Abbottabad. We don’t know the members of that support network. We also note that the Pakistani government has launched an investigation of its own, and we think that’s a good thing. And we will work to find out as much as we can about how that happened.
I would then further state that our relationship with Pakistan, while complicated, is very important. And it is very important precisely because of our need to continue the fight against al-Qaeda, to continue the fight against terrorists. The fight is not done. And we look forward to cooperating with Pakistan in the future. As others have said, more terrorists have been killed on Pakistani soil than probably any other country. And the cooperation we’ve received from Pakistan has been very useful in that regard.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. This is Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, speaking on Charlie Rose Show on Tuesday.
AMBASSADOR HUSAIN HAQQANI: I think that — well, first of all, let me just say that I did make those phone calls. And what I’m told is, we just dropped the ball. And there is going to be an inquiry of sorts. There will be a — we will get to the bottom of it. How did it happen? But the most important concern here right now is to reassure people in the United States that Pakistan and Pakistanis as a nation did not look upon Osama bin Laden favorably. And that’s very important. I’m getting threatening phone calls. My embassy is getting threatening phone calls. There are people who have gone berzerk. They’re sending emails saying — instead of recognizing what Pakistan has contributed, the failure is being pointed out.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States on PBS. Your response, Graeme Smith, to both the White House press secretary and the Pakistani ambassador?
GRAEME SMITH: Well, first of all, I find it funny that the White House insists on calling this place Abbottabad pron. Abb-ott-abad_], when it’s actually Abbottabad [_pron. Abtabad.
I was in Quetta, Pakistan, when all of this happened. And a security official visited my hotel room and urged me not to leave, for my own safety. On the streets, members of the JUI, a religious political group, were holding demonstrations in favor of Osama bin Laden, burning U.S. flags and holding up photographs of Osama bin Laden. And, you know, you can’t help but feel that Pakistan is a nation torn in different directions. You know, on the one hand, there are people who will take to the streets and, you know, demonstrate in favor of this terrorist mastermind. And on the other hand, there are very urbane, intellectual, moderate men like Husain Haqqani, the ambassador you’ve just clipped there, you know, people who completely disagree with bin Laden’s philosophy. And so, it’s really difficult, I think, to run a country like that. And I think some of the bifurcation in the country’s policies that you’ve seen are part of a bifurcation of the country itself, that Pakistan is fundamentally a country at war with itself.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what about this whole reaction of the Pakistani press? I think in one article you quoted The Nation magazine in Pakistan saying, quote, "The presence of the world’s most wanted terrorist in such a strategically sensitive city is beyond the understanding of a sane man." Is that typical of the reaction in the national press there?
GRAEME SMITH: It’s reasonably typical, yeah. I mean, I think the outrage in the Pakistani press, especially the Urdu press, is focused a lot more on the violation of sovereignty and this question of, you know, how Americans are able to fly helicopters into our country without us noticing, and could this happen again? Specifically, could it happen again to, say, our nuclear installations? But yeah, I mean, on the question of, you know, were our security services complicit in some way with hiding Osama bin Laden, that’s a question you’ve seen really openly expressed in the Pakistani press, which is kind of remarkable, actually. You know, the Pakistani press is relatively free, but, you know, I think this incident has galvanized some sort of — especially liberal sections of the media and encouraged them to speak openly about whether or not their own government is pursuing a double policy on it. And that sort of openness has already been there, but yeah, this is definitely a watershed moment politically, I think. You’re starting to see people talk about that a lot more boldly than they were before.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Graeme Smith, the issue of drone attacks. I mean, on the one hand, you have the U.S. moving in, as President Obama promised he would even before he was president, if they knew where Osama bin Laden is, with or without the approval of Pakistan. But you’ve been writing also about the drone attacks. While it was just said in the clips we just heard that Osama bin Laden is not popular in Pakistan, neither is the United States, with the majority of Pakistanis considering the United States the enemy, even as it gives the Pakistani government something like $3 billion a year.
GRAEME SMITH: Well, yeah, but giving money to the government is very different from being popular with the people. The government itself here is not particularly popular at the moment, either. People are always very reassured when I tell them I’m Canadian, not American, in Pakistan. You know, it is not a very great thing to be American on the streets of Pakistan at the moment.
Now, on the other hand, I think the next generation of Pakistanis is very much — they may hate me for saying this, but they’re similar in some ways to the next generation of Indians. You know, they’re growing up watching satellite television. They’re growing up learning English. And you may find that, within a generation, that Pakistan, like India, is much more aligned with the interests of the Western world than, for instance, China will be.
AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of the aid, as you pointed out, giving money to the government doesn’t mean that it’s supporting the Pakistani people. We’re seeing this Arab Spring, where despots who are shored up by the United States are falling one by one. Is there that feeling in Pakistan, that the U.S. government is shoring up unpopular leaders and has sort of put a coat of armor around them? And what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan?
GRAEME SMITH: Ah, well — yeah, I mean, certainly, U.S. support for the regime in Islamabad does not make it any more popular with ordinary people. You know, the idea of American money and American weapons coming in and being used to prop up Islamabad certainly does not endear the government at all, especially, you know, in places like Balochistan, which has active insurgencies going on, places like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you know, which also has active insurgencies.
So, overall, though, I think the events of the last week will be a net positive for the region as a whole, especially when it comes to changing the debate in America about Afghanistan. You know, I spent three years living in Kandahar, and I just — I couldn’t help feeling that American fears about terrorism were driving some policy in southern Afghanistan that was not necessarily helpful for the people living there. And so, I think, you know, especially my friends in Kandahar, my friends in Quetta, those who believe that Osama bin Laden is dead are breathing a sigh of relief, because they think — they think maybe the Americans are going to relax and go home.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, that’s one thing I wanted to ask you, since you mentioned your time you spent in Kandahar. Your sense of whether the death of Osama bin Laden will increase pressure on the United States to leave Afghanistan or whether there will be this attempt to say we’ve got to continue this war until the last member of al-Qaeda is either in jail or dead?
GRAEME SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I’m not an expert on U.S. politics. I’m much more at home with the tribes of southern Afghanistan, so I can’t really tell you how that will play out domestically in America. But that is certainly how people are viewing it on the ground. You know, some of my Pashtun friends were telling me, "Look, we think that America has staged this event, because we think they had Osama all along, but this is the moment when they want to leave Afghanistan, so they’ve chosen this moment." You know, and which obviously that’s typical sort of wild conspiracy talk that you hear among the Pashtun tribes. But yeah, I mean, this is being seen by them certainly as a sign that America intends to withdraw.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Graeme Smith, the debate in the United States about whether President Obama should show the picture of Osama bin Laden dead — he has said he will not. What is the feeling in Pakistan?
GRAEME SMITH: I mean, nobody here really believes anything the Americans say, to be honest. So, on the streets of Pakistan, you know, they want proof. They want evidence. And from all sides, not just the Americans. They want to see documents. They want to see photos. They want to know exactly what was up at that compound. And they’re not going to take our word for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Graeme Smith, I want to thank you for being with us, foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail in Canada, has won three National Newspaper Awards, Canada’s highest prize for print journalism, speaking to us from Islamabad.