Finding Bin Laden: Did Pakistan Know

Hiding in Plain Sight

For almost a decade, Osama Bin Laden eluded escape, despite a $25 million bounty on his head. That ended in May 2011, when two American helicopters touched down outside a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. American soldiers stormed Bin Laden’s safehouse, shooting and killing him. Bin Laden’s death raised more questions than it answered. The most glaring question: did the Pakistani government realize that Bin Laden was hiding under their noses?

The Rootclaim analysis of this question looked at extensive evidence. This included information reported about the Bin Laden compound, leaked communications, US behavior following the raid, statements by Pakistani leaders, and the findings of the Abbottabad Commission Report.

Starting Point

It is estimated as most likely that the government wouldn’t have known that Bin Laden was there. There have been cases of governments being aware of fugitives and opting not to pursue them. However, such cases are rare. Moreover, they have never involved anyone as high profile as Bin Laden. There have also been many accusations about the ISI allowing militant groups to remain active in Pakistan and neighboring areas. Therefore, it’s more likely that only the ISI, Pakistan’s most well-resourced intelligence unit, would have known about Bin Laden’s presence. It is least likely that the central government would have known.

Examining the Evidence

However, the hypothesis that the government of Pakistan was unaware of Bin Laden’s presence is more difficult to reconcile with the actual evidence. For example, Bin Laden’s location–close to a military academy, in a major city, is far less likely under the hypothesis that the government was not complicit. Moreover, a number of key figures, including the former head of the ISI, made incriminating statements years later, once leaving their official positions.

Addressing all the Questions

Often, analyzing one question requires addressing several others. In this case, examining the question of whether the government of Pakistan knew about Bin Laden’s presence leads to the question of whether the US suspected the government of Pakistan of complicity.

In order to account for the evidence, under all hypotheses it is assumed that the US suspected Pakistan’s complicity. Of course this assumption is more likely under the hypothesis that Pakistan did in fact know of Bin Laden’s presence. This assumption in turn makes some of the evidence, such as US behavior following the raid, more likely.


A second question is also raised: did the US inform Pakistan before undertaking the raid? In this case, a sub-analysis examines related evidence. Factoring in an additional twelve pieces of evidence, Rootclaim concludes that it is likely that Pakistan was informed of the raid in advance (despite the US suspecting Pakistan’s complicity in Ban Laden’s taking up residence in Abbottabad).

The Evidence Outweighs the Prior

After considering all of the evidence, the Rootclaim analysis finds it 84% likely that Pakistani intelligence was aware of Bin Laden’s location and less than 9% likely that the government was totally unaware. This ordering is the reverse of the initial likelihoods. This is because of the cumulative effect of many pieces of evidence, and the assumption that the US suspected Pakistan of complicity. This assumption is far more likely if the Pakistani government actually knew that he was there.


  1. “the assumption that the US suspected Pakistan of complicity. This assumption is far more likely if the Pakistani government actually knew that he was there.”

    I do not understand the logic of this statement. While not completely independent, the US suspicions and actual state of Pakistani knowledge are two quite separate things.

    • Steven

      August 24, 2017 at 11:47 am

      Thanks for your comment, Mark.

      As you acknowledge, these are separate but related occurrences. After considering the evidence and the circumstances, we reached the conclusion that a. Pakistani knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts would make evidence of such knowledge far more likely, and b. such evidence (which could manifest itself in many relatively small ways) would make it far more likely that the US would harbor such suspicions. Therefore, US suspicions are far more likely if Pakistan did know about Bin Laden’s presence.

      You may still disagree with the numbers we use. In that case, by all means please visit the actual analysis ( and challenge the assessment.

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