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.

Report Shows More Evidence That the United States Created ISIS

Photo: Conflict Armament Research

Photo: Conflict Armament Research

A new report finds that a significant portion of ammunition used by Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) militants was made in the United States. The study is more evidence that the U.S. government facilitated the rise of ISIS.

According to London-based Conflict Armament Research, China, Russia, and the United States are the top three manufactureres of the sample of small-caliber ammunition recovered from Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Of the 1,730 cartridges of ammunition collected, 20 percent was produced in the United States.

IMG_0261

Source: Conflict Armament Research

During just the 2000’s, the majority came from the United States. “IS forces appear to have acquired a large part of their current arsenal from stocks seized from, or abandoned by, Iraqi defence and security forces. The US gifted much of this material to Iraq,” the report said.

Source: Karen Yourish/The New York Times

Source: Karen Yourish/The New York Times

Though important, this report should come as no surprise. As Jeremy Scahill said on Democracy Now! last Friday, “the United States, through its policies, created the very threat that it claims to be fighting.” He pointed out that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri al-TakritI, a secular Baathist and former top military commander for Saddam Hussein, is now a top military commander for ISIS. One of Paul Bremer’s first actions after George W. Bush put him in charge of the occupation of Iraq was to fire 250,000 Baathist Iraqi soldiers. Then the United States put in power Nouri al-Maliki, who systematically slaughtered Sunnis. These Sunnis formed insurgent militias which eventually became the Islamic State.

The situation is worse under President Obama. During the Bush presidency, liberals held him and his allies accountable, bashing the administration for committing war crimes. Despite the fact that Obama is doing almost exactly same thing, liberals blindly support him. They can’t see past the “Democrat” label. He’s one of us, so we have to defend him, they say. What about standing up for your principles? Apparently that is not a thing for mainstream liberals. The result is a culture of endless war (and blowback).

Who benefits from this? Arms dealers (rich white men).

Source: Murtaza Hussain/Twitter

Source: Murtaza Hussain/Twitter

In the long run, our military interventions never bring about peace. Instead, our policies instigate violence and anti-American sentiment. We really need to examine the consequences of our foreign policy beyond “defeating” terrorists. The next time John McCain slut-shames a 16-year-old girl for having pre-martial sex, we should remind him of the consequences of bombing a country back to the Stone Age. Because guess what? You can’t put a condom on a bomb.

The Solution to ISIS Is Not Military Action

Source: The Intercept

Source: The Intercept

Originally published at the Fordham Observer.

“Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over,” President Obama announced to troops at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina on December 14, 2011, one day before the official end to the eight-year-long Operation Iraqi Freedom. I wish those words still held true. But, nearly three years later, President Obama became the fourth consecutive president to authorize military action in Iraq. Welcome to 16 years of George W. Bush foreign policy.

Whenever the United States bombs a Muslim country, it’s justified as “humanitarian intervention” (“to liberate the women!“). And President Obama can easily sell this propaganda to his liberal base. But bombing for “humanitarian” ends never actually helps anyone or defeats an enemy. We can’t just bomb our way to peace. Terrorist organizations use bombing to recruit more terrorists. When we order drone strikes on wedding ceremonies in Yemen to “kill terrorists,” when we detain Muslims at Guantanamo Bay without charging them with a crime (600 of the 779 were released without charges, many after being held for years), when we kill actual U.S. citizens without charging them with a crime, we’re actually creating more terrorists – the principle of blowback. Terrorists become terrorists because we are terrorists.

Source: University of Maryland / Zogby International

Source: University of Maryland / Zogby International

Also, has anyone considered that maybe we don’t actually care about solving “humanitarian” crises in the Middle East, considering that the U.S. government doesn’t oppose the violent subjugation of populations there? Example A: Israel. One thing that every elected official publicly agrees on is continued support for the apartheid state of Israel and its war crimes. Example B: Egypt. Not only did Hillary Clinton say, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” but also the United States has continued to militarily and economically support the dictators of Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster. Example C: Saudi Arabia. According to a secret National Security Agency (NSA) memo published by Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, the United States “has an interest in regime continuity” in the brutally repressive government of Saudi Arabia. With our history of supporting tyranny and oppression, why would anyone believe the propaganda about “humanitarian” goals in the region?

Let’s remember another fact: ISIS exists because of us. When a top State Department official said to House and Senate lawmakers in July that ISIS is “worse than al-Qaeda,” did he consider why? It’s because of the nearly nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq and, more largely, the Global War on Terrorism. At the time of 9/11, terrorist organizations (including al-Qaeda) were small and unorganized. Today they are powerful. During the occupation of Iraq, we destroyed its infrastructure, government, and military. These newly unemployed Saddam-era soldiers joined insurgent militias – eventually forming a coalition that has become ISIS. (Before ISIS was ISIS, it was called al-Qaeda in Iraq.) The United States also supported and installed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister in 2006, who ruled along strict Shia sectarian lines, squashed dissent, and thus convinced many Sunnis that their only hope was in the form of a military: ISIS. Moreover, when ISIS members were fighting a civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United States gave them weapons because it opposed the Assad regime. Sounds a lot like when we trained and armed Osama bin Laden and the Afghani mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

No one doubts that ISIS is reprehensible. So what can we do? A lot, actually, according to Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Call for an arms embargo on all sides. Work with Iran to put pressure on the Iraqi government to end sectarianism and human rights violations. Use the United Nations and Russian to help bring about a peaceful end to the civil war in Syria. Lastly, of course, increase non-lethal humanitarian aid to refuges across the region.

The end goal is to stop all wars – not create more of them. The only way to do that is to take all military action off the table. President Obama did indeed speak truth in that same speech at Fort Bragg when he said, “It’s harder to end a war than to begin one.” We must end our role as, in the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly one year before he was assassinated, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.