First Omar Patek, then Osama bin Laden – the former captured by Pakistani forces on January 25 and the latter killed by US Special Forces on May 1. Patek and bin laden were both international Most Wanted terrorists who met their fate in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Omar Patek is less well-known than Osama bin Laden, but is no less lethal or committed to the killing of innocents. A Yemeni-Indonesian and an explosives expert, Patek was a long-time member of the regionally-mobile KOMPAK group within Jemaah Islamiyah. Also known as ‘Umar Kecil (Little Umar in Bahas Indonesia),’ Patek first made his name in the jihadist world when he masterminded the Bali bombings in Indonesia in 2002 that killed more than 200 people, mostly tourists.
For the next nine years Patek, like bin Laden, lived on the run until his capture in Pakistan. From 2002 until at least 2010, Patek was reportedly hiding in southern Mindanao, training terrorists from Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in return for protection. He evaded the militaries of Indonesia, the Philippines and the United States, despite a $1 million US bounty on his head.
When Pakistan announced Patek’s capture on March 29 this year, the news contradicted the popular belief that Patek was hiding out in Mindanao or Yemen. No prior reports tied Patek to Pakistan. In fact, Patek was considered a primary suspect in a Manila bus bombing as late as January 25, the same day he was actually captured in Abbottabad.
Philippines officials weren’t alone in not knowing Patek’s location. A terrorism expert from the International Crisis Group said at a panel discussion on radicalism in Jakarta on March 2 that she had heard from ‘credible sources’ that Patek had recently been sighted in Yemen. Other analysts believed that Patek was hiding in Sulu Province, Mindanao, while in 2006, he was believed by some to have been killed in Sulu.
Why was Patek in Pakistan, and specifically Abbottabad, for so long? Patek was allegedly ‘in transit’ in Abbottabad on the way to North Waziristan or Afghanistan to meet al-Qaeda’s leadership, but his stay in Abbottabad was more than temporary. He had been in Pakistan for more than a month – arriving in December 2010 – before his capture. Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro has now confirmed that Patek was trying to meet with bin Laden.
Patek’s meeting bin Laden was about more than just two elite terrorists sharing ideas — the two were comrades-in-arms. An expert from the State Intelligence Academy in Jakarta said after Patek’s capture that Patek ‘was one of the Indonesian citizens who is known to be close to al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.’ Patek trained in Afghanistan in the 1980s when bin Laden was a mujahedeen commander fighting the Soviets. Patek had also spent years with Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, a terrorist group known for its close financial and ideological links with al-Qaeda’s base. Their connection runs deep, and it may even have been Patek’s capture that closed the case on bin Laden.
It appears that bin Laden was living in the mansion in Abbottabad where he was killed for some time (at least since August 2010, but some reports suggest even longer). Considering the seniority of bin Laden and Patek in al-Qaeda, they would almost certainly had to have had mutual contacts – probably through couriers – in Abbotabad.
It seems possible that Patek or his wife may have divulged the game-changing information regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts that influenced US President Barack Obama’s final decision to go for bin Laden. This would also explain why Pakistan kept his capture a secret for two months and didn’t extradite him to Indonesia — Pakistan may not have wanted information gained from Patek leaked after his transfer to Indonesia, or bin Laden to have more time to arrange an escape.
Patek and bin Laden were likely connected by one or more al-Qaeda facilitators or couriers, based in Abbottabad. Pakistani security forces detained an al-Qaeda facilitator, Tahir Shazad, when he picked up two French militants who were intending to travel with Patek to North Waziristan at Lahore’s international airport in January 2011.
Pakistani intelligence, with support from the CIA, had placed Shazad under surveillance a year before his capture, when he was seen with an Arab terror suspect. The detainment of Shazad led directly to the capture of Patek and his wife, who were sheltered at the house of the parents of a university student in Abbottabad. If Pakistan had been monitoring Tahir Shazad for about a year, the time frame matches closely with Obama’s statement that he knew of bin Laden’s suspected hideout since August 2010.
But the story of Patek and bin Laden’s capture and killing isn’t over. Their terrorist web may unravel and lead to more al-Qaeda captures with the treasure of intelligence found at bin Laden’s hideout. At the same time, of course, al-Qaeda and Taliban attacks in retaliation may well increase. But the rapid loss of Patek and bin Laden may well mean that senior figures like Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders aren’t feeling quite so secure now.