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Did rogue spies or 'Pakistani Blackwater' shield Osama bin Laden?

AP, file

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is seen in an image taken from a video found at his walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The first anniversary of bin Laden's killing by U.S. Navy SEALs is on Tuesday.

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan -- A year after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan, one key question has yet to be answered: how did the world's most wanted man manage to move and live, undetected, in this country for so long?

Journalists, analysts, and others have been working to fill in the narrative holes over the last 12 months. Leaked and strategically released nuggets of information have helped to paint a vague picture of what life was like inside the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden spent his final years, living with three of his wives, and several children and grandchildren. We've learned of the austere conditions inside the home, the restricted lifestyle led by all inside, and the discipline with which the head of al-Qaida communicated with a trusted few. But the crucial questions -- how he got to that compound in the first place and who helped him to do so -- remain unanswered.

Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, believes the idea that bin Laden moved around without a network of individuals organizing his transportation and logistics is simply not possible.

"If you're a six-foot-five Arab, and the most wanted man on the planet, you can't just walk into a place like Pakistan without support," Bokhari said. "So what's the nature of that support?"

U.S. officials publicly state they have no evidence that any Pakistani institutional leaders had any knowledge of bin Laden's presence here, nor played any role in helping to move him. Privately, however, some admit that the deep mistrust between the two nations has led to strong, lingering suspicions within many in the U.S. that Pakistan's premier intelligence agency -- Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI -- must have known, at some level.

Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. forces found and killed the al-Qaida leader in the affluent Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where he had been living in a large compound.

"There are deep suspicions on both sides," says retired General Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former national security advisor and ambassador to the United States. "I think the biggest concern in the U.S., if I put it in a phrase, is that Pakistan is hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. That is the perception."

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That perception has not been helped by what seem to be Pakistan's action priorities over the last year. The prevailing public dialogue among military and government officials in the immediate raid aftermath focused on how the U.S. had managed to breach Pakistan's borders, not how bin Laden had. The Pakistani doctor who ran a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad for the CIA in an effort to secure DNA samples from inside the bin Laden compound was swiftly tracked down, arrested, and remains in detention, possibly to stand trial for treason. Authorities quietly began work after dark to demolish the compound in February, keeping press behind a security cordon half a mile away, and after a year in custody, the widows and their families were shuttled out of their house in the dead of night and deported to Saudi Arabia.

The wives and children of Osama bin Laden are taken to a chartered flight out of Islamabad after being deported to Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan did immediately launch a formal commission with wide-reaching powers soon after the raid, pledging to investigate both the U.S. border breach and bin Laden's presence here. The Abbottabad Commission, as it's come to be known here, has enjoyed unparalleled access to anyone and everyone associated directly or peripherally with either issue, interviewing over 100 witnesses over the last year, including bin Laden's widows, the detained doctor who worked for the CIA, and high-level Pakistani officials.  But there is no working deadline and expectations vary as to how blunt and definitive an account commission members will be able to put forth.

"Given how previous commissions in Pakistan have behaved, I'm not really hopeful that much will come out of this," Bokhari said. "This is not like the 9/11 Commission or anything similar elsewhere in other countries where there's a process and transparency and rule of law."

Nearly a year after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, President Barack Obama spoke exclusively to NBC's Brian Williams inside the Situation Room and reflected on the raid. The full report airs Wed., May 2 at 9pm/8c on NBC's Rock Center.

Durrani, who's been in touch with members of the commission, says the length of time it's taken for them to compile findings speaks to their determination to fulfill their mandate to the best of their ability.

"If the report comes out tomorrow and it's a whitewash, then people will ask -- what have you done?" Durrani said. "They [the commission members] are keen to get to the bottom of this, to find out what happened, why it happened, who's at fault, and what needs to be done so we don't have such embarrassment and such issues in the future."

Arshad Butt / AP

Osama bin Laden is dead following a military operation in Pakistan and the US has recovered his body, US President Barack Obama announced Sunday night.

Driving the investigators' query is a widely-held belief here in Pakistan that bin Laden was never here at all -- that the entire raid was an effort by the U.S. to defame and destabilize Pakistan's security establishment. Residents of Abbottabad with whom NBC News spoke reiterated that skepticism, saying they don't believe the U.S. claim that bin Laden was living in their midst, particularly in the absence of any evidence of his death.

Low expectations
Commission members have been reluctant to speak with the media until their findings are complete, but the head of the commission, retired Supreme Court Judge Javed Iqbal, confirmed to NBC News that one of the key issues his team is investigating is whether bin Laden was ever really here at all.

PhotoBlog: Abbottabad -- One year after Osama bin Laden raid

Despite low expectations for the pending report, Bokhari admits the commission is tasked with an enormously difficult job, one that will have repercussions for generations to come in the form of Pakistan's official narrative of this historic event.

"This is the biggest event in recent history since the fall of the Soviet Union -- 9/11 and its impact, the killing of Osama bin Laden -- so I'm not surprised it's taken them this long to come up with a report," Bokhari said. "It may take decades before anybody can actually come up with a comprehensive view of what was really happening."

Nearly one year after the death of Osama bin Laden, some Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of using the event for political gain. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports


The few specifics that have emerged from Pakistan in the last year in effect lead to more questions officials here must attempt to answer, through the commission or otherwise.

The U.S. moved quickly on the message-control front after the Abbottabad raid, releasing selective video clips and pieces of information from the "treasure trove" of evidence seized from bin Laden's compound. An NBC News team was given an exclusive briefing by a senior U.S. counterterrorism official on currently classified intelligence from the raid, including details of the role bin Laden played in al-Qaida from his hideout in Pakistan, who he was in touch with, and more on the life he lived within that compound. Those details will air on Discovery Channel on Tuesday as part of a one-hour special on the anniversary of the U.S. raid.

U.S. counterterror officials say that after years of drone strikes and other activities against the leaders of Al Qaida, the group is no longer able to pull off a major attack against U.S. interests, such as 9/11. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

But the details from within Pakistan have been few and far between. A rare piece of evidence -- a confidential interrogation report of bin Laden's youngest wife, Amal, obtained by NBC News -- did reveal some surprising details about the family's life on the run after the attacks of September 11.

According to the report, Amal told investigators that the family scattered after 9/11, bouncing from house to house and place to place in Pakistan. In her complicated timeline, she moved across multiple residences in the southern mega-city of Karachi, then moved on to Peshawar to link up with her husband. From there, the family moved to Swat, then to Haripur, and finally settled in the Abbottabad home for about six years until the U.S. raid that killed her husband.

On the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, there have been no signs of plotting by any terrorist groups, but officials say there is always a concern that homegrown terrorists could do something on their own. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

"These people are fanatics. They're ideological but keep in mind that they are also very professional at what they do," Bokhari explained. "They're in a business where if you make a small error in judgment it can easily translate to death for many people. There are people waiting for you to make a mistake. You have to be highly disciplined."

But the pace of movement believed to have been followed by bin Laden and his family -- traversing entire provinces in Pakistan, and including rural, tribal, settled, and urban areas while remaining completely undetected -- would be difficult without some sort of network of support. Current and former Pakistani officials and analysts have offered up the possibility of "rogue or retired" elements from within Pakistan's military or intelligence establishment as possible facilitators or co-conspirators helping to hide bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Zakaria al-Sadah, spoke to NBC News in Islamabad in his first interview with an American television network. He said he is concerned for his sister, who was shot in the raid that killed the al-Qaida leader, and frustrated she and her children have been in custody ever since. NBC's Amna Nawaz reports.  

The nature of Pakistan's retired uniformed corps, many of whom stay involved with the work of the agencies long after they leave as the new leadership continues to make use of their experience and contacts, albeit in unofficial capacities and with limited authority. As the largest employer in Pakistan, it follows that the Pakistan army also has the largest pool of retirees, some of whom spent significant time working closely with and gaining the trust of jihadi groups in the 1980s and 1990s.

"If it's a retired network of people, what I call the 'Pakistani Blackwater,' that's not that bad. It's bad, but not that bad," Bokhari said. "But if it's someone who's serving, or more than one person, then [Pakistan's leaders] have a leak in [their] system and that's terrifying. Anyone who's a very nationalistic, Pakistani leader who doesn't want al-Qaida or the CIA to be able to get into their house will want to get to the bottom of that."

Bin Laden's widow's condition worsens, brother says

As potentially worrying or damaging as some of the information in the commission's report may be for Pakistan's institutions, it is also widely believed that the organizations cannot survive without taking a hard look at their own potential faults, and admitting mistakes where they did occur. The military and intelligence establishments were already raked over the coals by the government and media after last year's raid in Abbottabad, and are now under the highest level of scrutiny in the country's history.

January 16, 1997, nearly four years before the 9/11 terror attacks,  NBC Nightly News aired the first network television report on Osama Bin Laden.  NBC's Tom Brokaw referred to Bin Laden as "maybe the most dangerous man in the world."  NBC's Andrea Mitchell profiles Bin Laden who commanded a business empire dedicated to terrorism.

A failure, at this point, to produce a credible, official version of events will only damage Pakistan, according to Durrani.

"Pakistan wants to move forwards not backwards. They have to get to the bottom of this, in their own interest," he says. "If they don't, it will be another major issue buried in the sands of history. And people will forever be looking for answers."

NBC's Fakhar Rehman contributed to this report from Abbottabad.