WASHINGTON (AFP) – A cellphone used by Osama bin Laden’s courier appears to show that he was aided by Pakistani militants linked to the country’s powerful intelligence agency, The New York Times said Thursday.
Citing US officials briefed on an investigation into the phone, the Times said calls from the device were traced to Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, a militant group linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
It cited US officials as saying the cellphone showed that the group’s commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials. The newspaper cited one US official who said the two parties had met.
“It’s a serious lead,” one US official told the Times. “It’s an avenue we’re investigating.”
Another US official told the daily that the link was not, however, a “smoking gun” that definitively linked bin Laden to the ISI, as it was unclear whether any calls were related to him.
The phone was seized during a daring US commando raid in Pakistan early last month in which the Al-Qaeda chief and his courier were killed.
A Pakistani intelligence official told AFP that the ISI did not have the phone records and joked that “anybody can have contacts on his phone.”
Beyond that, the official declined to comment on the New York Times story or provide any information on the nature of the current relationship between Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the ISI.
The Islamist militant group, which features on both US and UN terror blacklists, is based in Pakistan but operates primarily against Indian targets in Kashmir.
According to the group’s website, it was founded in 1985 during the jihad to expel Soviet troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Like the Pakistani government, it became an ally of the Taliban, which took power in 1996.
HUM was officially banned in Pakistan in 2002.
Reportedly under pressure from the Pakistani government, its long-time leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil stepped down in January 2005.
Khalil has been linked to the late Al-Qaeda leader, and his signature was found on bin Laden’s February 1998 fatwa calling for attacks on US and Western interests.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States, tense at the best of times, deteriorated sharply over the bin Laden raid, which humiliated the Pakistani military and invited allegations of incompetence and complicity.
As US President Barack Obama seeks to bring an end to the war in Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan, US and Pakistani officials have sought to play down any unease between them.