Steve Coll on the killing of Osama bin Laden

Four years after U.S. special forces assassinated Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, famous for exposing the My Lai and Abu Ghraib scandals, published an explosive 10,000-word report in the London Review of Books that challenged the official narrative of the raid presented by the Obama administration.

The U.S. did not discover bin Laden’s location through one of his couriers, Hersh’s reporting claimed, but rather through a senior officer in Pakistan’s intelligence agency (I.S.I.) who wanted to claim the $25 million bounty. Despite claims to the contrary, Hersh reported that Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, heads of the Pakistani army and I.S.I. respectively, knew about the American raid ahead of time and provided assistance. According to Hersh’s reporting—whose sources were a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad” and  two “longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command… who had access to corroborating information”—bid Laden was a secret prisoner of I.S.I. in the Abbottabad compound since 2006. Hersh also claimed that there was no firefight in the compound, that bin Laden did not use one of his wives as a human shield, that bin Laden was unarmed, and that U.S. forces did not dump his body in the sea.

Keen observers pointed out that a writer named R.J. Hillhouse made the same main assertions as Hersh, though using ostensibly different sources, a few months after the raid.

Next week, Penguin Press is publishing a 757-page sequel to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (2004), the Pulitzer Prize-winning exhaustive account of the C.I.A. program to arm and equip the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Coll’s new book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, picks up right where Ghost Wars left off: the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban alliance, two days before the September 11 attacks.

In Directorate S, Coll does not reach the same major conclusions as Hersh and Hillhouse did. Based on interviews with “senior Pakistani military and intelligence officers and civilian officials,” “Pakistani journalists who spoke with Pasha and Kayani during May about the raid,” and “senior American military officials,” Coll reports that I.S.I. did not know about the raid ahead of time, repeating earlier claims that President Obama thought that “there was too much danger that I.S.I. would leak the information and allow Bin Laden to escape.”

“It will forever remain a very deep scar in our national memory and our military’s memory, that we failed to detect the raid,” Kayani reportedly told Mike Mullen, U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, shortly after the raid.

By “humiliat[ing] the Pakistani military and [Kayani],” the allegedly unilateral American raid “would change public opinion and stir emotions in the army’s officer class,” Coll writes. “It was the end of an era between the United States and Pakistan.”

As for whether I.S.I. knew about bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Coll—a meticulous reporter and precise writer—does not rule out the versions reported by Hersh and Hillhouse. “It is entirely possible,” Coll writes, “that I.S.I. ran a highly compartmented, cautious support operation involving a small number of case officers or contractors who could maintain deniability. Yet there remains no authoritative evidence—on-the-record testimony, letters, or documents—of knowing complicity by I.S.I. or the Pakistani state.”

Coll’s reading of the documents obtained at bin Laden’s compound offers fuel to the claim that I.S.I. knew about the compound, but do not confirm it. According to Coll, bin Laden’s documents

do contain references to negotiations between Al Qaeda and Pakistan about a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. Bin Laden wrote to Al Qaeda colleagues about the position they should take in such talks, but the letters provide no proof of who was negotiating on the Pakistani side, if anyone. ‘Our stance was essentially: We are ready to quit the fight with you, as our battle is primarily with the Americans; however, you entered into it with them,’ Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan-born Al Qaeda operator who wrote regularly to Bin Laden, reported in July 2010, referring to apparent contacts with the Pakistani state. ‘If you leave us alone, then we will leave you alone.’

Coll doesn’t have anything to say about how the U.S. discovered bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He offers only a paragraph on the raid itself, based primarily on the account written by Matt Bissonnette, a Navy SEAL on the mission, in his book No Easy Day.

UPDATE, 2/6/18:

Coll answered many of the questions raised in this piece in an interview with Slate:

Your book covers the Bin Laden raid. What’s your current opinion on what knowledge the ISI had about Bin Laden’s whereabouts before he was killed?

The way I approached it here was just to try to lay out what evidence I could find on both sides of the hypothesis that the ISI knew that he was there. I’m perfectly willing to accept the strong possibility that they did know, but as an empiricist I would want some evidence to confirm it other than other people’s anonymously sourced interviews, which I can’t assess. They may be accurate, but I don’t know who those people are or what the basis for their knowledge was. I never found direct sources who were able to describe from their own experience an ISI protection operation.

Then the other thing that we’ve got that we didn’t have a few years ago were all these translated letters that Bin Laden wrote while in exile. To go through them paragraph by paragraph and really take note of what the letters reveal about his own security anxieties and his own relationship with the Pakistani state was fascinating. I tried to deliver some flavor of what the evidence is.

It’s certainly not dispositive that he had no relationship with the Pakistani police, but it does make clear that if he did have a relationship with ISI it was not a relationship that he could call upon to maintain the security of his closest family members as they traveled in Pakistan. He was really quite worried about his family members bumping into the Pakistani state.

Now, his worry is not inconsistent with the possibility that there was a small ISI cell that looked after him, but their message to him obviously would have been, “Don’t count on us for anything else and please stay out of trouble and lay low.” If you put a gun to my head and I had to make a guess …

I would if this were an in-person interview.

I guess I think the totality of evidence about ISI’s conduct over the years would make me assume the worst. I just can’t see the shape of what that relationship would have been in the letters. It doesn’t have a political flavor, it doesn’t have an al-Qaida–negotiating flavor. It certainly doesn’t have a security aspect because he’s so concerned about his son, in particular, but also his wives’ travel.

Have you seen evidence that calls the official American narrative of the raid into question, as Seymour Hersh and others have written?

I don’t see any evidence to call the official narrative into question. The idea that the Pakistanis knew about the raid and it was all staged is one possibility that I’ve heard or seen written about. That doesn’t make sense to me. If the U.S. wanted to protect the Pakistanis they could have done it a completely different way, as the Pakistanis pointed out. They could have had the Pakistanis take credit for some of this. Pakistanis probably would have been ambivalent about that but they had no problem hauling in a lot of other al-Qaida fugitives in the past and they would have been rewarded in the international system for their cooperation. Significant sums of money would have flowed Pakistan’s way if they had done the right thing and been publicized for it.

The idea that the whole raid was phony or that there were no documents or something—that just doesn’t make sense to me.