The world of intelligence — spying to you and me — is by definition shrouded in secrecy, so that often what we know is limited or partial and the rest is, hopefully, what makes sense based on building up a longer-term picture of events. The question of who knew what and how that was handled in the tracking of Osama bin Laden is a case in point.
It is known that the US had been tracking Osama bin Laden closely for the past few years, had known where his hideout was since last August and had been planning how to neutralise him since that time. We also know that massive bombs were considered as one option, but that a highly detailed raid by two units of special forces operatives was chosen instead.
We also know that the US did not share any information about the raid with any of its allies; not Australia, not Indonesia and especially not Pakistan. While the US knew where bin Laden was, the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency, BIN, also knew in January that Umar Patek, the last key person involved in the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 2002 people including 88 Australians, was in Abbotabad.
Patek was arrested there on January 25 on his way to North Waziristan, on the Afghanistan border, to meet with al-Qaeda leaders. Indonesia’s Defence Minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, said that Indonesia had information that Patek was trying to meet with bin Laden.
Indonesia shares intelligence with the US, which would have known that the arrest of Patek could have compromised its planning to neutralise bin Laden. However, rather than the US requesting Indonesia to cancel its operation against Patek, no such request was made. The US would have had to explain its reasoning for such a request and possibly even have argued for it, given that Patek is a high-value target for Indonesia.
In this, operational secrecy was paramount, even at the risk of bin Laden being alerted to a potential risk from elsewhere.
The US not informing Indonesia makes sense, not least because the Indonesian intelligence network and its various political links have a long and reasonably well-documented history of engagement with a range of Islamist militant and terrorist organisations. US intelligence would have been deeply concerned about the potential for leakage, ultimately alerting bin Laden that his hideout was known.
It might have been thought that the arrest of Patek would have warned bin Laden that he was being closed in on. However, if Patek was on his way to North Waziristan, bin Laden could have taken comfort in assuming that well-known hotbed of Islamist jihadism would have diverted attention. The focus was not, he could reasonably have thought, on Abbotabad.
One of the rules of being such a fugitive is to stay mobile and bin Laden had long ceased being that. This then raises the question of why bin Laden believed he was able to safely stay in Abbotabad, despite the rule about mobility and even with the arrest of Patek nearby.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organisation has a long history of support for Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet era Mujahadeen and subsequently with the Taliban. Evidence also suggests that it has links with al-Qaeda.
The US has been angry with Pakistan for years over dragging its heels on Taliban fighters using the Pakistan border areas as an organisational base for their operations. It was this that prompted the US to use unmanned drones to attack Taliban targets inside Pakistan.
The ISI has a high degree of autonomy from the formally pro-US Pakistan government, which explains why the US would only inform the Pakistan government of the raid against bin Laden after the event. It also explains why US-Pakistan relations are now deeply compromised, which will have continuing implications for the war in Afghanistan.
Indonesia, in the meantime, will be wondering about its own flow of intelligence to the US and how much it gets back. In the final analysis, all countries have secrets, even from their closest allies.
Trust on intelligence is hard earned and easily lost, especially when one’s allies might be less than reliable.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is a director, Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, Deakin University.