Chirpstory is a website that facilitates reconstruction of events through a study of Tweets relating to that event. It has put out a compilation of "on-the-ground tweets from Abbottabad, Pakistan, compiled with very well-informed journalists/researchers' tweets." Most of the Tweets discuss the coming down of one of the helicopters participating in the raid. They discuss the following questions without being able to come to definitive answers:
- Was it an American or a Pakistani chopper?
- Did it come down due to technical reasons or was it brought down by ground fire?
- What was the source of the explosions heard around the same time?
One interesting thing that stands out is that the choppers which participated in the raid were very noisy, to the point of irritating some of the Tweeters. One of the Tweeters says: : "It was too noisy to be a spy craft, or, a very poor spy craft it was." He again says: "I started noticing the helicopter when the noise got irritating ". This Tweeter was interviewed by Barkha Dutt of NDTV in her "The Buck Stops Here" show on May 3. A transcript of her interview is available at .If the helicopters were so noisy, how is it the local security people including those in the local police stations and in the Military Academy did not hear the noise and try to make enquiries about the source of the noise?
There are also references in the Tweets to a black-out in the town, roads being blocked, telephones going dead and sirens being sounded. It is not clear whether these things happened during the raid or after the choppers had left with the dead body of Osama bin Laden. A taxi-driver has been quoted as saying as follows:
"The army has cordoned off the crash area and is conducting door-to-door search in the surrounding."
This was possibly after the raiding party had left. A sweeper has been quoted as saying as follows:
"A family also died in the crash, and one of the helicopter riders got away and is now being searched for."
There is also a reference to a plane flying over Abbottabad, but it is not clear whether this was a Pakistani or a US plane and whether it was during or after the raid.
During his media briefing on May 2, 2011, John Brennan, Assistant to President Barack Obama on Homeland Security, was asked about the incident involving the downed chopper. He replied as follows:
"Seeing that helicopter in a place and in a condition that it wasn’t supposed to be, I think that was one -- at least for me, and I know for the other people in the room -- was the concern we had that now we’re having to go to the contingency plan. And thankfully, they were as able to carry out that contingency plan as they were the initial plan."
Which was that place and what was the condition in which one of the two helicopters found itself to be, forcing the Navy Seals to move from the initial plan to the contingency plan? How did the contingency plan differ from the initial plan? Brennan did not give these details, Nor did the media personnel pose these questions to him.
Where did that chopper find itself to be which forced its being destroyed and abandoned? Was it in the court-yard of the house in which OBL was living? Or was it elsewhere? The Tweets give differing locations for the chopper crash. One of the Tweets says it was very close to the Pakistan Military Academy.
According to US official briefings, Pakistan was not associated with the planning and execution of the operation to prevent any leaks, It was informed of the raid after the raiding party in its remaining chopper had crossed back into Afghanistan. To quote Brennan:
"We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace. At the time, the Pakistanis were reacting to an incident that they knew was taking place in Abbottabad. Therefore, they were scrambling some of their assets. Clearly, we were concerned that if the Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else, they didn’t know who were on those jets. They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else. So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces. This operation was designed to minimize the prospects, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged and there was no other individuals who were killed aside from those on the compound."
The raiding party itself went in two choppers one of which found itself in a place where it was not supposed to be and hence had to be destroyed. The other chopper brought the raiding party back to Afghanistan with OBL's body and those captured. Brennan said that Pakistan was not informed till "all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace" This would indicate there were other US planes and /or choppers in the Pakistani air space during the raid.
One US claim can be accepted without any problem--that it was purely a US operation with no involvement of Pakistan in the planning and execution. The problem arises with reference to the US claim that Pakistan was informed only after the raiding party had re-entered the Afghan airspace. The entire operation in Abbottabad itself lasted at least an hour: 40 minutes of the fire-fight and at least 20 minutes for the time taken by the choppers to manoeuvre themselves. During this period there was the heavy noise made by the choppers as they came down near OBL's house, the noise made by the crashing chopper and the noise of the fire-fight. How come during this entire period none of the security personnel posted in Abbottabad for the protection of the PMA and the senior Army officers living in the town and in the campus of the PMA noticed that there was something wrong and alerted the local units of the armed forces, para-military forces and the police?
Only two explanations are possible: either there was total security incompetence at Abbottabad or the local security had been told by the Pakistani military leadership not to worry and keep quiet. If the second explanation is correct, the Pakistanis must have known of the impending raid before it took place.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.