If a senior Afghan Taliban commander is to be believed, Osama bin Laden was not as isolated in his final years as many people think. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, the guerrilla chieftain, who for years has provided information that proved reliable, says he visited the late al Qaeda leader two years ago in his high-walled hideout in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad. He says bin Laden, who was killed in a midnight raid by Navy SEALs on May 2, also received occasional visits from al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and Arab fundraisers.
Although U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that bin Laden was “an active player,” operating an “active command and control center” at his compound, their assumption was that he communicated with his followers almost exclusively via computer memory sticks delivered by relays of couriers. On the contrary, however, his meetings now seem not to have been limited to one or two trusted couriers, but instead to have included face-to-face huddles with fellow plotters right under the noses of the Pakistani military and its intelligence agents.
The commander, a member of the Peshawar shura that controls insurgent operations in eastern Afghanistan, still refuses to disclose just what he discussed with bin Laden, but says the meeting was arranged by an unnamed senior al Qaeda leader. Asking not to be named for security reasons, he says that he and bin Laden became close in the late 1990s, when the al Qaeda founder was based in eastern Afghanistan’s largest city, Jalalabad. At the time, the commander held an important position in the region, and bin Laden came to trust him. “The Sheik [as bin Laden’s followers call him] was my best friend,” the commander says. “We used to meet in Jalalabad.”
When the commander saw him again in Abbottabad, he seemed healthy enough, and well briefed on recent developments. “The Sheik was in good shape in mind and body,” the commander recalls. Nevertheless, he was struck by how bin Laden had changed in the years since 9/11. “The Sheik was not the same Sheik I had seen before the Americans attacked,” he says. “He looked tired and certainly was concerned about his safety and financial matters.” Nevertheless, bin Laden displayed more energy than the commander had expected before the Abbottabad visit. “I was surprised,” he says. “He seemed much more alive and active than I had thought.”
Bin Laden said he had been forced to keep working hard because he had lost so many of his senior lieutenants. “The Sheik told me of all of his top aides who had been killed or captured,” he says. “So he said he had no choice but to be active and meet people, despite the security risks.” The visitors included senior aides: “He said he was meeting with other top al Qaeda leaders who could get access to Abbottabad without endangering their safety.” The commander recalls that two other men were present during the meeting but that neither one said a word. They were not bin Laden’s sons, he says. And bin Laden spoke of having direct contacts with money men from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. “He said fundraising was crucial, but he limited the number of contributors he saw because of the risk,” the commander says. “He was afraid these face-to-face meetings would lead his enemies to his house.”
In fact, the world’s most-wanted fugitive said, he had chosen to live in Abbottabad just because he considered it such an “unexpected” place for him to hole up. What scared him most wasn’t America’s spy agencies, he told the commander; it was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. “The Sheik feared the ISI more than the CIA,” the commander says.
While discussing the Afghan insurgents’ war against the Americans, bin Laden said he had heard no news of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, since 2001. Even so, the al Qaeda leader seemed upbeat. “The Sheik told me not to worry,” the commander recalls. “He said things will get better for the Taliban.” He nevertheless insists that although al Qaeda has provided moral and spiritual support to the insurgents, as well as some manpower, the Taliban never received “a single dollar” from bin Laden.
Separately, a senior ISI officer tells The Daily Beast that Pakistani interrogators have learned little from questioning bin Laden’s three wives, who were picked up by Pakistani security forces after the American raid on the compound. “The interrogations of the women have been rather useless,” says the officer. “The women had no idea of his jihadi activities.” He says the women were sequestered in the house and were not privy to bin Laden’s activities or interactions with any of his lieutenants. This is not surprising, he says; the ISI had learned equally little from interrogating the wives of other al Qaeda operatives, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh. “These Arabs traditionally don’t share much if anything at all with their women,” the officer says. “We only know that the wives were kept in the house for a long time, never allowed to leave and were never involved in his meetings or work.”
Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.
Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.