ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Osama bin Laden spent nine years as a fugitive in Pakistan, hopscotching among safe houses in big cities and small towns with his growing family before U.S. forces killed him in his final hideout, according to an account one of his widows has given to investigators.
A newly surfaced confidential police report summarizing the testimony of bin Laden’s youngest wife, who was taken into custody after his death, has renewed debate over how the world’s most notorious terrorist could have eluded detection by Pakistan’s powerful security services.
“Who facilitated his movement and his stops, and were they ordinary citizens or members of law enforcement or intelligence agencies?” asked an editorial Friday in the English-language newspaper Dawn, which broke the story here.
The report is based on the interrogation of Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, a Yemeni national and the last of bin Laden’s five wives, three of whom were living with the al-Qaida chief at the time of the raid on his villa in the garrison town of Abbottabad last May.
The women, who could be jailed for up to five years, face charges of illegally entering Pakistan. They, their children and bin Laden’s grandchildren are among those now confined to a home in Islamabad provided by the government, officials have said.
Sadah, who bore bin Laden five children and was shot in the leg during the Navy SEALS operation, has been the most cooperative of the widows, according to a security official familiar with the investigation. The others, Saudi nationals Siham Saber and Khairiah Sabar, said Islam does not permit women to talk to non-related men, the official said.
Since bin Laden’s death, the military establishment — especially the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI — has faced accusations it was aware of bin Laden’s presence. But nothing proving its complicity has emerged in documents seized from the compound and analyzed by U.S. intelligence officials.
Sadah’s narrative, if accurate, reveals the extent of bin Laden’s travels in Pakistan before his six-year-long stay in Abbottabad. She said that starting in 2002, she lived with him in the country’s northwest, including in the Swat Valley and Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She said they also lived for more than two years in a village in the Haripur district, 20 miles from Abbottabad.
Sadah bore bin Laden children in 2003 and 2004, both delivered in government hospitals in Haripur, she told the investigators. She later gave birth to two other children, evidently at private hospitals in Abbottabad. (Her eldest child was born in Afghanistan, where she had married bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2011.)
Retired Brig. Gen. Asad Munir, a former ISI official who was involved in tracking bin Laden after 9/11 until 2005, questioned at least one part of Sadah’s account.
“I knew that Osama bin Laden was in the tribal areas in 2002 somewhere, but not in Peshawar,” he said.
Asked why the ISI didn’t find bin Laden during six years in Abbottabad, Munir offered an explanation heard often from those who doubt complicity by the state.
“Sheer negligence and incompetence,” he said.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the 10-year hunt for bin Laden called the widow’s account “very plausible” and “consistent with the previously held theories on where bin Laden may have been hiding during those years.”
The police report, dated Jan. 19, was prepared as part of a joint probe by civilian and military authorities into the raid on bin Laden’s compound, which blindsided and humiliated the Pakistani military.
The document, however, appears to be ancillary to the focus of the investigation, which has confined itself to intelligence failures connected to the May 2 operation. Critics of the probe say it should have been expanded to include the entire period bin Laden was in Pakistan.
“We need an absolutely complete review of what happened, why it happened, and when it happened,” said Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier general who conducted his own investigation into bin Laden’s death and also had access to the interrogations of the youngest wife. “We need to know.”
Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.