WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A cell phone found in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan contained contacts to a militant group with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, The New York Times reported on Thursday, citing senior U.S. officials briefed on the findings.
The discovery indicated that bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside Pakistan, the newspaper said, citing the officials and others sources it did not identify.
The cell phone belonged to bin Laden’s courier, who was killed along with the al Qaeda leader in the May 2 raid by U.S. special forces on bin Laden’s compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, the Times said.
“We cannot confirm this account,” a U.S. official in Washington said when asked about the report.
The United States kept Islamabad in the dark about the raid by Navy SEALs until after it was completed, humiliating Pakistan’s armed forces and putting U.S. military and intelligence ties under serious strain.
In tracing calls on the cell phone, U.S. analysts determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials, the Times reported, citing the senior American officials.
The officials added the contacts were not necessarily about bin Laden and his protection and that there was no “smoking gun” showing that Pakistan’s spy agency had protected bin Laden, the newspaper said.
The newspaper quoted one of the officials as saying the cell phone analysis was a “serious lead” in the hunt for answers about how bin Laden managed to evade notice by Pakistan’s spy agency or military for years in the town, only 30 miles from the capital.
The newspaper quoted analysts familiar with Harakat as saying it had deep roots in the area around Abbottabad. Its leaders have strong ties with both al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, the Times said.
Writing by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney