Islamabad, June 24 (ANI): The cell phone recovered in the site where Osama bin Laden was killed and suspected to be owned by his courier contained contacts to a militant group with ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
This may be proved that Bin Laden used the Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen group as a support network inside Pakistan. Questions are now being asked about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of the ISI, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years.
In tracing the calls on the cell phone, American analysts have determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials.
According to the New York Times, the cell phone numbers provide leads in the hunt for an answer to the vexed question-How was Bin Laden able to live comfortably for years in Abbottabad, a town dominated by the Pakistani military and only a three-hour drive from Islamabad?
The paper quoted an American official, as saying that it was a serious lead that was worth investigating.
The revelation provides a potentially critical piece of the puzzle about Bin Laden's secret odyssey after he slipped away from American forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago.
It may help answer how and why Bin Laden or his protectors chose Abbottabad, where he was killed in a raid by a Navy Seals team on May 2.
The Harakat reportedly has deep roots in areas in and around Abbottabad, and according to the NYT, the network provided by the group would have enhanced Bin Laden's ability to live and function in Pakistan.
Senior American officials have not named the commanders whose numbers were in the courier's cell phone but said that the militants were in South Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and other groups had been based for years.
The Harakat is one of a host of militant groups set up in the 1980s and early '90s with the approval and assistance of the ISI, to fight as proxies in Afghanistan, initially against the Soviets, or against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Like many groups, it has splintered and renamed itself over the years, and because of their overlapping nature, other groups could have been involved in supporting Bin Laden, too, officials and analysts said. But Harakat, they said, has been a favored tool of the ISI.
It "is one of the oldest and closest allies of Al Qaeda, and they are very, very close to the ISI," the NYT quoted Bruce O. Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and the author of "Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad", as saying.
"The question of ISI and Pakistani Army complicity in Bin Laden's hide-out now hangs like a dark cloud over the entire relationship"between Pakistan and the United States, Riedel added.
This fresh disclosure could have an impact in deciding future flow of American aid to Pakistan.
Both the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers, and the panel's ranking Democrat, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said this month that they believed that some members of the ISI or the Pakistani Army, either retired or on active duty, were involved in harboring Bin Laden.
Bin Laden's relationship with the ISI dates back to the Mujahedeen insurgency that the Americans and Pakistanis supported against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Two former militant commanders and one senior fighter were convinced that the ISI played a part in sheltering Bin Laden. Because of their covert existence, they spoke on condition of anonymity.
One of the commanders belonged to Harakat. The other said he had fought as a guerrilla and trained others for 15 years while on the payroll of the Pakistani military, until he quit a few years ago. He said that he had met Bin Laden twice.
Art Keller, a former C.I.A. officer who worked in Pakistan in 2006, said he had heard rumors after he left Pakistan in 2007 that Harakat was providing "background" assistance with logistics in moving and maintaining the Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
It still remains unclear how Bin Laden arrived in Abbottabad, where American officials say he and his family lived for five years, beginning in 2006. The city is home to one of the nation's top military academies, which sits less than a mile from the compound where Bin Laden was killed.
It is also a transit point for militants moving between Kashmir and the tribal areas. The region is the prime recruitment base of Harakat, whose training camps and other facilities still exist nearby in Mansehra. (ANI)