ISLAMABAD — The United States wants access to Osama bin Laden’s three widows and any intelligence material its commandos left behind at the al-Qaida leader’s compound, a top American official said in comments broadcast Sunday that could add a fresh sticking point in already frayed ties with Pakistan.
Information from the women, who remained in the house after the commandos killed bin Laden, might answer questions about whether Pakistan harbored the al-Qaida chief as many American officials are speculating. It also could reveal details about the day-to-day life of bin Laden, his actions since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the inner workings of al-Qaida.
The women, along with several children also picked up from the house, are believed to be in Pakistani army custody. A Pakistani army official declined to comment Sunday on the request, which U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon revealed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The CIA and Pakistan’s spy agency, known by the acronym ISI, have worked uneasily together in the past on counterterrorism, but the unilateral U.S. raid — done without Pakistan’s advance knowledge — has exposed the deep mistrust that scars a complicated if vital partnership for both nations.
Even before the May 1 raid, the ISI said it was cutting cooperation with CIA to protest drone strikes close to the Afghan border, among other things. In the current environment, Pakistan could use the fact it has something Washington wants — bin Laden’s widows — as leverage to reduce some of the pressure it is under.
Bin Laden was found in a large house close to a military academy in the army town of Abbottabad where he had been living for up to six years. His location raised U.S. suspicions that he had help from some Pakistani authorities, possibly elements of the powerful army and intelligence services.
Donilon said Washington had seen no evidence that the Pakistani government had been colluding with bin Laden — the public line taken by most U.S. officials since the raid, including President Barack Obama in comments also broadcast Sunday.
“But they need to investigate that,” Donilon said. “And they need to provide us with intelligence, by the way, from the compound that they’ve gathered, including access to Osama bin Laden’s three wives, whom they have in … custody.”
Donilon also said Pakistani authorities had collected other evidence from the house which the United States wanted to “work with them on assessing.” U.S. commandos managed to seize a large and valuable intelligence haul that included videos, telephone numbers and documents, along with the body of bin Laden, before flying back to Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials.
The Pakistani government has strongly denied it knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but Western governments have long regarded Islamabad with suspicion. Its armed forces have historical — some say ongoing — links with Islamist militants, which they used as proxies in Afghanistan and India.
The allegations of Pakistani collusion pose an acute problem for the Obama administration because few can see any alternative but to continue engaging with the country. Unstable and nuclear-armed, it remains integral to the fight against al-Qaida as well as to American hopes for beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan later this year.
“We need to act in our national interest,” Donilon said. “We have had difficulty with Pakistan, as I said. But we’ve also had to work very closely with Pakistan in our counterterror efforts.”
The American commandos killed bin Laden and up to four other people, including one of his sons, at the compound.
Pakistani officials have given little information, some of it conflicting, about the identities of the women and children left behind, including exactly how many there are and what they allegedly have been saying.
One of the wives is Yemeni, Pakistani officials have said. A copy of her passport, leaked to the local media, identifies her as Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah. She allegedly has told Pakistani investigators that she moved to the home in 2006 and never left the upper floors of the three-story compound, where bin Laden was living.
She is from the southern Yemeni province of Ibb, about 120 miles south of the capital, Sanaa. A family member there has sought a meeting with Pakistan’s ambassador to Yemen to ask about her fate and whether she is to return to Yemen. The relative, a cousin named Walid al-Sada, said the ambassador did not know and promised to get back to the family.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tahmina Janjua said no countries have asked for the return of bin Laden’s relatives. The Foreign Ministry in a statement last week said they were being well looked after and will be returned to their countries of origin.
When the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, they collected computer equipment and videos, including one that showed bin Laden huddled in a blanket and wearing a knit cap while seated on the floor watching television — an image that contrasts with the bin Laden seen in propaganda videos released over the years, which depicted him as a charismatic religious figure unaffected by the world’s scorn.
But many Pakistanis, who are routinely misled by their government and live in a country where television and newspapers report conspiracy theories about the malign intentions of the United States uncritically, don’t believe bin Laden has died.
“I think Osama did not die,” said Mohammad Khan at a newspaper kiosk in Rawalpindi city. “I don’t believe even 1 percent that he was martyred in Abbottabad. The making of a video is not a big thing for America. They can do what they want because they have the latest technology. They can make impossible things seem possible.”
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Zarar Khan in Abbottabad and Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.