ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s military paints a far different picture than the United States of Osama bin Laden’s final days: not the terror mastermind still trying to strike America, but an aging terrorist hiding in barren rooms, short of money and struggling to maintain his grip on al-Qaida.
Three of bin Laden’s wives were living with him in the compound and are being interrogated by Pakistani authorities, who took them into custody after Monday’s raid, along with 13 children, eight of them bin Laden’s.
Their accounts could help shed light on the U.S. military operation that killed the al-Qaida leader and reveal how he was able to avoid capture for nearly 10 years.
One of the wives, identified as Yemeni-born Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah, told interrogators she had been staying in bin Laden’s hideout since 2006 and never left the upper floors of the large but sparsely furnished building, said a Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the agency’s policy.
The official did not indicate whether bin Laden was with her the whole time, a period in which the Pakistani military says the al-Qaida chief’s influence and financial status eroded.
Disputes over money between bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, led the group to split into two factions five or six years ago, with the larger faction controlled by al-Zawahiri, according to two senior Pakistani military officials. Bin Laden was “cash strapped” in his final days, they said.
The officers spoke to a small group of Pakistani reporters late Thursday, and their comments were confirmed for The Associated Press by another top military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues. The officer didn’t provide details or say how his agency knew about bin Laden’s financial situation or the split with his deputy.
The image coming out of Washington based on information seized from bin Laden’s compound was far different. The confiscated materials revealed al-Qaida plans for derailing an American train on the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
They believe the plot, which seemed to be formulated in February 2010, was only in the initial planning stages, and there was no recent intelligence about any active plan for such an attack. The FBI and Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin with details of the plan to law enforcement around the country. The bulletin, marked “for official use only,” was obtained by the AP.
Both the U.S. and Pakistan have an interest in their version of bin Laden’s hidden life.
A weak bin Laden would make Pakistan’s failure to unearth his hiding place in Abbottabad, a military town just two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the capital, seem less of a glaring embarrassment, while a menacing bin Laden would make the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed him a greater triumph.
The proximity of the al-Qaida chief’s hideout to an elite military academy and the Pakistani capital has raised suspicions in Washington that bin Laden may have been protected by Pakistani security forces while on the run.
Pakistani officials have denied sheltering him and have criticized the U.S. operation as a violation of their country’s sovereignty. Pakistan’s army, a key U.S. ally in the Afghan war, threatened on Thursday to review cooperation with Washington if it stages any more attacks like the one that killed bin Laden.
Pakistani authorities found an AK-47 and a pistol in the house, with evidence that one bullet had been fired from the rifle, said one of the officials.
“That was the level of resistance” they put up, he said.
His account is roughly consistent with the most recent one given by U.S. officials, who now say only one of the five people killed in the raid was armed and fired any shots, a striking departure from the intense and prolonged firefight described earlier by the White House and others in the administration.