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10 May 2011

What did Musharraf know?

His memoirs, written while he was still military president of Pakistan, are a fascinating source of

By Catriona Luke

How much did Pervez Musharraf and his then head of intelligence (from 2004-2007), Ashfaq Kayani, now head of the army, really know? Musharraf’s 2006 memoir, In the Line of Fire, suggests they may have had more than an inkling that Abbottabad was something of an al-Qaeda hotbed.

As president of Pakistan, Musharraf describes how the army was pursuing Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the alias of Mustafa Muhammad, who, after the death of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had stepped into his role as number three in al-Qaeda. Musharraf held Libbi responsible for attempts on his life while he was president of Pakistan.

He writes that they narrowly missed Libbi in April 2004.

The second miss was again in Abbotabad [sic]. We were tipped off that someone important in al-Qaeda was living in a house there, and that someone else, also very important, someone we were looking for, was supposed to come and meet him. We did not know that the second someone was Abu Faraj al-Libbi, but we had enough information to attempt an interception. Our team members stationed themselves around the house in Abbotabad. When the expected visitor turned up, the person in the house came out to meet him. But as he approached, the visitor acted suspicious and tried to run away. There was an exchange of fire, and he was killed. The visitor was not Libbi. Later, when we arrested Libbi and interrogated him, we discovered his pattern: he would always send someone ahead as a decoy while he imself stayed behind to observe. He was undoubtedly watching his decoy perform the fatal pantomime of the day. (pg 258)

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Musharraf narrates how they finally got Libbi in Mardan in May 2005, at a shrine.

Christina Lamb, writing in the Sunday Times on 8 May (yesterday), has more details. “Bin Laden is supposed to have been living in the house in Abbottabad since 2005-2006 when General Nadeen Taj was commandant of the military academcy. Taj (who went on to succeed Ashfaq Kayani as head of the ISI in 2007) was a close confidant of Musharraf. He was on the plane with him that was refused entry into Pakistan airspace in 1999, provoking the military coup in which Musharraf seized power.”

She continues that Taj allowed a number of radical ideologues associated with jihadist groups to use Abbottabad as a transit hub, including Hafiz Saeed, head of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the organisation behind the bombings of Mumbai in 2008.

Christina Lamb’s 1991 portrait of political Pakistan (Waiting for Allah) traces an ISI history that stretches back to 1972 in Afghanistan, as the organisation backed Daoud in a coup against the king Zahir Shah to begin the formation of a fundamentalist client state. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, tried in the 1980s to get the fundamentalist (Engineer) Hekmatyar to dominate the Alliance and drive out the moderates.

There are still internet rumours that the then US ambassador, Arnie Raphael, who went down in Zia’s plane when it crashed in August 1988, apparently favoured the hardline Gul to take over from Zia. In fact, it was General Beg who survived the wipe-out of military top brass and brought on elections.

Old military habits perhaps die hard. In his 2006 memoir, Musharraf refers disdainfully to “the dreadful decade of democracy” that began in 1988.

And on page page 221 the former president remarks, perhaps referring to the fact that elements in the national army were genuinely and in all innocence looking for Bin Laden: “I have said, half-jokingly, that I hope he is not caught in Pakistan, by Pakistan’s troops.”

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.