Editor’s Note: This is the third of three posts from Fareed Zakaria on the death of Osama bin Laden. The other posts are Al Qaeda is dead and Vindication of Obama's strategy. You can follow Fareed on Facebook and Twitter for timely analysis of global events.
Osama bin Laden was not killed in a remote cave in Waziristan. He was living in a large compound near Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in the city of Abbottabad, which houses a prestigious Pakistani military academy.
It is beyond belief that there could be a compound like bin Laden’s in that location without some elements of the Pakistani military knowing about it.
The house was eight times the size of the surrounding houses. It was newly constructed. And according to a senior Obama administration official, even though the compound was valued at about $1 million, no telephone lines ran to it.
All of this should have attracted the attention of the Pakistani authorities in some way or another. The fact that it didn’t makes it very difficult to believe that there was not some Pakistani knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
From the beginning, the Afghan government argued that top al Qaeda leadership was not in Afghanistan - was not even in Waziristan - but was instead in urban Pakistani cities like Quetta. Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me that Osama bin Laden would be found in a Pakistani city. He turned out to be right.
This raises two points. The first point is on the fundamental issue of whether the Pakistani military has truly decided to cooperate in the war against terrorism, al Qaeda and Islamic extremism or whether it is playing a selective game. I think this is just one more powerful piece of evidence that Pakistan is engaged in a fairly selective kind of cooperation with the United States.
The second point is more broadly that these terrorist networks really rely either on state support or the total absence of a state to thrive. Look at where al Qaeda has been able to remain active. In a world in which governments are pursuing it, where its funds are being tracked, where its people are on visa watch lists, al Qaeda is able to thrive in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and that’s about it.
Why? In Yemen and Somalia you have the absence of the state. The state does not control vast swathes of territory. Al Qaeda can set itself up as long as the local warlord or chieftain is willing to accommodate it.
In the Pakistani case, I am left with the conclusion that there was some level of state support for al Qaeda. It may not have been at the highest levels. It may have been just certain elements of the state. It’s difficult to tell. But the idea that you could have the kind of compound necessary to house bin Laden in the middle of a Pakistani city near a concentration of Pakistani officers suggests that there was some state involvement in protecting bin Laden.
President George W. Bush focused a great deal on the state-sponsored element of terrorism. This focus got a bad name because President Bush ended up fingering the wrong state in Iraq. But the basic point that terrorist networks cannot achieve scale or enduring power without some involvement of a state is fundamentally true.
Without a state sponsor, terrorist networks have much less capacity to acquire weapons of mass destruction, to engage in multinational operations, to fund projects for years on end and, most importantly, to have some kind of a base.
That’s why Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan and paid the Taliban’s bills for so long. He needed a physical base where the local government would be cooperative.
When the local government in Afghanistan became uncooperative, he moved to the place where he found a more receptive political environment. This ironically turned out to just miles from Islamabad.