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Bin Laden was talking to terrorists. So?

That may not seem like a big deal. But a New York Times scoop today does advance the case that Pakistan's intelligence services may have known of bin Laden's whereabouts.

By Staff writer / June 24, 2011

In this Oct. 7, 2001 file photo, Osama bin Laden (l.) and his top lieutenant Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri are seen at an undisclosed location in this television image broadcast. The New York Times reports, that a cellphone used by Osama bin Laden's courier was recovered after the raid that killed bin Laden and shows possible links to a Pakistani spy agency.

Al-Jazeera/AP/File

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The New York Times reports today, citing unnamed US officials, that a cellphone recovered after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden shows that one of his trusted couriers was in touch with a Pakistani militant group that, in turn, has long had close ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

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The Times itself said this isn't necessarily a "smoking gun." There's nothing new or surprising about ties between Al Qaeda and the militant group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen. Solid evidence of collaboration has been presented in the past. For instance, a militant detained by Pakistan seven years ago said a Harakat offshoot and Al Qaeda were closely coordinating their activities. Prior to that, US strikes on Al Qaeda compounds killed Harakat members working alongside the group.

What's interesting is the fact that there was one degree of separation between bin Laden personally and ISI members while he was living, supposedly in hiding, in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. His ability to survive on the run for so long was driven by an obsessive secrecy, the avoiding of the kinds of telephone and Internet communications that US intelligence are so good at intercepting.

As a matter of security, one would think he would have avoided contact with friends and allies so as not to give his location away, notwithstanding what lower profile members of Al Qaeda were doing to maintain that relationship. That his courier felt comfortable about these sorts of contacts is somewhat suspicious. Or perhaps not.

Maybe bin Laden and those around them felt their security procedures were robust enough that such contact was a risk worth taking. Bin Laden and his friends in the compound needed some method to contact the outside world. They also needed access to the funds that allowed them to survive in that location for years.

That they were potentially using Harakat for that support (there's no evidence of that beyond the phone calls) doesn't necessarily mean some faction in the ISI knew anything about it. Think of FBI informants in the US who have used their position of partial trust to cover up their own criminal activities even as they provide evidence against others.

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