What Bin Laden's wives could tell

The night-time swoop on Osama Bin Laden's hide-out in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad on 2 May has left a tangled web of complications and questions.

May 16, 2011


May 12: The night-time swoop on Osama Bin Laden's hide-out in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad on 2 May has left a tangled web of complications and questions.

Foremost among them: who gets access to the surviving family members of the al-Qaeda leader and the fund of information they possess?

The Americans reportedly intended to fly survivors out of the country along with Bin Laden's body, but the loss of a helicopter left key witnesses in Pakistani custody.

In the aftermath of the raid, there has been a flurry of confusing leaks to the media, both by Pakistani military officials and the Americans, over how many people were in the compound, who died and who survived, and whether or not Bin Laden made an attempt to fight off the attackers.

Treatment in custody
Now there are conflicting reports about whether the Americans will get access to what senior Pakistani officials say are three surviving widows of Bin Laden and other members of the household.

American officials say they have made a request. Pakistanis say they are yet to receive a formal request.

Image from inside compound What could Bin Laden's family tell about what went on in the compound?

The question is, what are the implications of the Americans gaining access?

Given the various views being expressed by experts on how much the Pakistanis knew about Bin Laden's hide-out, there are various angles on how they are likely to regard the survivors of the raid on his compound.

Everyone agrees that Pakistanis are not likely to treat the women and children in their custody as suspects, or even as victims.

There are no formal accusations against any of them, though they could be charged with illegal residence in a foreign country.

But the survivors do hold intelligence value.

Commentators who believe the Pakistanis did not know that Bin Laden was living here say the survivors could yield plenty of information about their support system in Abbottabad.

But these commentators are in a minority.

Most experts suspect that Pakistanis, at some level, did know where Bin Laden was hidden.

They say the Pakistanis' main concern now would be to find out how much the survivors actually know, and how to restrict them from disclosing compromising intelligence now or in the future.

Americans keen
They say the release of the survivors from custody would depend on the depth of their knowledge, and their willingness to comply with the debriefing sessions that may be in progress right now.
A grab of a passport picture purporting to show Osama Bin Laden's youngest wife Bin Laden's youngest wife - believed to be pictured here - has been talking to Pakistani investigators

Whatever the intelligence value of the survivors to Pakistan, there's no doubt about how keen American interrogators would be to talk to them.

As Pakistani officials have themselves told the media in off-the-record briefings, Bin Laden's youngest wife, who was with him when the raid took place, has said the family was living in the Abbottabad compound for five years.

She will have a treasure trove of information on how they lived there for so long.

She could name the people who were in touch with the family: people who arranged for their welfare, such as domestic help, healthcare and education for the children.

She may also have an explanation for why the otherwise all-knowing Pakistani police kept away from the compound, and why the local cantonment officials failed to turn up to collect the property tax, which officials say was not paid for years.

Many experts believe the Americans could learn about the entire network that sustained Bin Laden in Abbottabad if they got access to the survivors, as well as getting leads to big names in the al-Qaeda network and beyond.

This is the reason Pakistan would be reluctant to let the Americans interrogate them without properly debriefing them first, they say.

Many in the West suspect the Pakistani military of protecting the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as part of its regional strategy to control Afghanistan and destabilise India.

Many in Pakistan agree with this assessment.

They believe that if Bin Laden's wives reveal to the Americans an official Pakistani connection - at whatever level - it will push the country perilously close to being declared a rogue state.


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