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Bin Laden raid gets little credence in conspiracy-minded Pakistan

The skepticism of many Pakistanis is rooted in deep distrust of the U.S., a desire to protect their nuclear program, impressions of world events and devotion to preachings of hard-line clerics.

May 31, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Pakistani Ali Raza sits on the rooftop of his house as he views the city of Abbottabad, where U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden on May 2. Pakistanis are prone to disbelieve American assertions about the raid.
Pakistani Ali Raza sits on the rooftop of his house as he views the city of… (Anjum Naveed, AP )

Reporting from Abbottabad, Pakistan — It was all a ruse, Ejaz Ahmad sniffed. Osama bin Laden never lived in Abbottabad.

To Ahmad, the secret night raid by U.S. commandos, the staccato bursts of gunfire, the crash of the stealth helicopter and the reported killing of the Al Qaeda leader in a whitewashed compound just down the road were pure theater. The Americans made it all up to convince the world that terrorism exists everywhere in Pakistan.

"Then they'll come in and take control of our nuclear weapons," the 20-year-old college student said as he walked along a dirt path near the compound.

In Abbottabad and across the country, many Pakistanis remain unconvinced that Bin Laden was killed in a raid May 2. A poll conducted by international market research firm YouGov found that two-thirds of Pakistanis do not believe Bin Laden was killed last month by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. Some people say either that Bin Laden died several years ago or that he's still alive, waiting for the right time to reappear in public.

Such resistance to official accounts is not unusual in a country with a collective propensity to get swept up by conspiracy theories, analysts say. The profound skepticism shared by many Pakistanis is rooted in their deep distrust of the United States, their desire to protect their country's nuclear program, their impressions of world events outside Pakistan and their devotion to the preachings of hard-line clerics.

The suspicions, analysts say, give life to conspiracy theories nurtured by free but reckless media that provide exposure for Islamist-minded observers and others willing to raise doubts. Many television talk shows try to gobble up ratings with sensationalism and demonization of the West. The result, analysts say, is often too much scapegoating and not enough self-examination of Pakistan's own problems, a form of denial.

One of the country's top conspiracy theory purveyors is Zaid Hamid, a defense analyst who wears a trademark red beret and routinely appears on Pakistani talk shows. Recently on YouTube, Hamid breathlessly talked of an Indian-Israeli-American axis that he said seeks to wrest control of the country's nuclear arsenal by secretly supporting terrorist groups within Pakistan to foment civil war.

One of those organizations, Hamid said in a telephone interview, is the Pakistani Taliban. The militant group has carried out scores of suicide bombings and assaults on Pakistani mosques, markets and security installations, including last week's militant siege of a Pakistani naval base in Karachi that killed 10 security personnel. Hamid doesn't doubt that the Taliban carried out the siege, but he insists that it did so at the behest of the U.S. and India.

"The Pakistani Taliban is a dirty gang of the CIA. They are assassins working for RAW," Hamid said, referring to India's main intelligence agency. "The Pakistani Taliban is doing the dirty work for the CIA, creating enough anarchy in Pakistan to create a global case that Pakistan's nuclear assets are not safe."

Adherence to conspiracy theories is especially pervasive at mosques run by hard-line imams who take advantage of an audience that is usually poorly educated. Nearly half of the country's population is illiterate, and nearly a third of all children who attend school drop out by the fifth grade.

"They preach all sorts of wrong things in the mosques," said Javed Hussain, a retired brigadier and former Pakistani special forces commander. "All over Pakistan, religious people have lionized Bin Laden. He became a hero. And now they refuse to believe he's dead."

But it's not just the poorly educated masses subjected to hard-line sermons who get swept up in conspiracy theories. A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable recently divulged by the WikiLeaks website and published in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper discussed the strong anti-American bias that lecturers at the National Defense University, a leading military college in Islamabad, the capital, pass on to colonels and brigadiers taking coursework there.

According to the cable, U.S. Army Col. Michael Schleicher, who took a course at the university, reported that "course instructors often had misperceptions about U.S. policies and culture, and infused their lectures with these suspicions." As a result, some students "thought the CIA was in charge of the U.S. media," the cable said.

Pakistani lieutenant colonels and colonels taking the university's junior course track "shared many of the biases prevalent in the Muslim world, including a belief that the U.S. invaded Iraq for its oil, and that 9/11 was a staged 'Jewish conspiracy,' " the cable continued.

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