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).
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.
The Harakat's ISI contacts, in fact, could have made it easier for them to support bin Laden even as they kept the ISI in the dark about that support. While Pakistan has nurtured groups like this over the years to threaten India or advance its interests in Kashmir, that doesn't mean they are puppets of the ISI or fully under their control.
The fact that groups like this have the ability and willingness to pursue their own agendas is one of the reasons that outside powers like the US worry so much about the militant groups the ISI has supported in the past. The groups' own strong ideological motivations for action are what make the potential for blowback so great.
Pakistan has long maintained that bin Laden is blowback from America's support for mujahideen during the Soviet war. It's a fact that Pakistan funneled arms and money through bin Laden during the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and later during the vicious civil war that saw the Taliban seize control of that country. All that served Pakistan's interest in having a trusty bulwark against Indian influence in Afghanistan. But bin Laden and his fellows were no puppets of Pakistan, as the 9/11 attacks made clear.
It's more than possible that even as parts of Pakistani intelligence continue to support, or at least tolerate, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen for its efforts in Kashmir, that the group is pursuing its own interests elsewhere.
To be sure, The New York Times said it interviewed two former militants (it didn't name them) who "were convinced that the ISI played a part in sheltering Bin Laden." One said he was a member of Harakat; the other that he'd trained militants on behalf of the ISI.
Most interesting in the coming days and weeks will be the question of why this information was shared. Senior US officials don't usually provide stories like this to the press on a freelance basis. Such leaks are used to signal displeasure, or to put pressure on governments the US is upset with, in this case Pakistan.
Going forward, if stronger evidence emerges that at least some senior members of the ISI were concealing Bin Laden's location from the US, the relationship is going to be severely strained.
Pakistan remains crucial to the US effort in Afghanistan, and billions of dollars have been given to them in recent years to help them build up their military.