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Interview with War Artist George Gittoes about Bin Laden arrest


George Gittoes has over 20 years of experience living and traveling in Pakistan and currently lives in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Q: Sharon Abella:

On our last interview on February 10, 2010, you mentioned that George Bush and President Obama said that, “Bin Laden was in Bajaur, but that everyone in Bajaur knows one another, and if Bin Laden were living there, they would all know, because it is a closed society”.

Do you think residents of Abbottabad, Pakistan knew Bin Laden was living there?

A: George Gittoes:

“Umar Patek, the mastermind behind the Oct 12, 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people, 88 of which were Australian, was arrested in Abbottabad, Pakistan back in January, 2011. Being an Australian, I was interested in that.

Umar Patek is a member of the Jemmaah Islamiyah or JI Organization, a Southeast Asian militant Islamic organization dedicated to the establishment of Daulah Islamiyah. JI was added to the United Nations 1267 Committee’s list of terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

The ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA, arrested Umar Patek back in January, 2011, BUT they only made it known to the world two weeks ago. Although America’s CIA offered a $1 million reward for the head of Patek, they kept his arrest secret, and did NOT give the CIA access to him, even though logically, he would have been a very good source for them. I think the ISI did not do this because Patek was probably going to see Bin Laden. He knew Bin Laden was there. He was arrested in Abbottabad, which is the same town where they found Bin Laden. When I heard this a couple a weeks ago, I thought that is interesting, because I know Abbottabad very well. I thought to myself, that’s probably where they have Bin Laden. That’s probably why Patek was there and also probably why they haven’t let the CIA near him.

The last few weeks I have been screening my film here in Houston, TX, I have a big museum show here. Every American who comes out says they are sure that Bin Laden is dead and then ask me what I think. I say I don’t think he is dead. They ask me where do I think he is? I said, “I think he is in Abbottabad, Pakistan”. Of course that was a wild guess, but it turns out I was right. I think the Pakistani’s have had Bin Laden all this time. The reasons they kept this Patek arrest from the CIA, was because the CIA would have gotten the information that Bin Laden was really in Abbottabad.”

Q: Sharon Abella: Discuss the town of Abbottabad. It sounds like a high end summer resort destination.

A: George Gittoes:

“The population may be about 30,000 during the non-tourist season, and perhaps a bit more during the height of the tourist season. It’s at a high altitude 4,134 ft or 1,260 meters and safe. The people there are Hazara, and they speak the Hindko language. They are very gentle, non-militant, and not overly religious people. That’s why people go there for holiday. It’s beautiful, it’s elevated, and has a cooler climate. The Pakistani summer is unbearable. Most of the military leaders spend their weekends in Abbottabad, and many retire there, because it is such a beautiful area and a resort place. You can imagine similar places in America. There are very expensive houses, guest houses and hotels catering to the tourist industry. It’s not like the rest of Pakistan. There’s no large groups of urban poor, it’s not densely populated. I’ve driven past that place where Bin Laden was many times, because whenever I go there I’ve never booked ahead, and it’s always hard to get accomodations in the small number of guest houses that are there, because it is so popular. I’ve often driven past looking for a guest house. His place is quite close to the big military academy which is an elite military academy. The army rules Pakistan, and all the sons of rich people in the army go there. The richest people are army people. There’s kind of an elite West Point there. The place he was in was very close to this military academy. It would have been impossible to hide him there. A lot of senior people MUST HAVE known he was there. There is no doubt about it. For example, being both the place where lots of rich people are, and people high in the government, I wouldn’t be surprised if Musharif had a place there, Zadari, and so on. It’s the only place he could go to be cool. It’s high in restaurants and so on. There is a huge security police presence there. If I just go to 3 or 4 hotels trying to find a room pretty soon the intelligence people have figured out that I’m there, and everyone in the town knows I’m there, and I’m not famous, so, there’s NO WAY BIN LADEN could have been there, that long, secretly.

Also, a lot of retired ISI (the Pakistani intelligence) live there. They never really retire. I go there because when we need to film the dancing girls in our film, the people are tolerant, you can actually have women dancing a little in the field, whereas, if you go anywhere else you run the risk of the Taliban killing and shooting you. There are no Taliban in Abbottabad. There is no terrorist presence there. It’s the least terrorist place. There have never been any bombings and there have never been any terror attacks in Abbottabad. It’s the safest place in Pakistan.”

Q: Sharon Abella:

What do you think this means for the US/Pakistani relations and foreign policy if in fact they did know he was there for an extended period of time? Can the US trust Pakistan?

A: George Gittoes: “There is no doubt they knew. Basically, it will probably never be sorted out, but any intelligence person can figure it out. Right from the beginning, America said they will never give up until they get Bin Laden. They have been pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan while the hunt was on, therefore, Pakistan had no interest in handing him over. It’s not a matter of millions, it’s a matter of billions of dollars. I’ve been reading the Pakistani papers today, and I have a lot of friends there, and the government is claiming that if people knew, they are people who are sympathetic to Bin Laden’s cause, etc. I don’t believe that. Zadari, who is the President of Pakistan, is one of the richest men in the world. It’s documented that he has $ 1.8 Billion in his personal fortune. These guys are interested in the money. If Bin Laden was their way of milking it, I’m sure they were going to try and hang on to him for as long as they could, rather than just killing him. I suppose they needed this sense of him being alive and sending out messages in order to keep America interested.”

Q: Sharon Abella; So the reward money of $25 million was not enough incentive?

A: George Gittoes: “That’s peanuts. $25 million is nothing like the billions of dollars America has been giving Pakistan military and government in order to stay in the war on terror. The government wouldn’t get that anyway. They recently got 2 and 1/2 million dollars of blood money for handing in Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor held in Pakistan after two deadly shootings in January, 2011. The US paid more than $2 million dollars for his release. The Pakistani government cut a deal with the families of the 2 men and agreed to payments totaling 2.3 million dollars. America is in a very difficult position now. Every intelligence person in America must have figured it out, but on an official level, they can’t say it. Certainly Obama can’t say it, because that would be in the dialogue with Pakistan. There is still a war in Afghanistan.”

Q: Sharon Abella: Can we pull our troops out of Afghanistan? How important is it to keep a presence there?

A: George Gittoes:

“Personally, I don’t think America is managing it’s presence in Afghanistan. I think it would be good if there was a reconstructive presence rather then a destructive presence. At the moment, what we’ve done there is like what we’ve done everywhere else, like Hamid Karzai. I’m living in Jalalabad, Afghanistan at the moment, and I’m going back there next week. They are talking to war lords and Taliban, what they should be doing is talking to the youth of Afghanistan who really do want a modern country, where they can get educated and make some money. America hopefully learned a lesson in Tunisia and Egypt, which is that a very valuable revolution is going on in places like Afghanistan and Palestine. That it’s the youth that can make the difference. I predict in Palestine there will finally be a youth movement which will supercede Hamas and the Palestinian authority and will say we want a future. I would like to think that that would be possible for Afghanistan. When I asked the youth of Afghanistan why can’t they do what the youth did in Tunisia and Egypt, they say that it is because of the American occupiers, because they are giving guns and weapons and support to the government security. It’s all of America’s army that we’ve been training, who will be the ones who will stop protesters and youth movements in the country. A lot of what America is doing in Afghanistan is very negative. They are arming dictatorial repressive power structures in a way that makes it almost impossible to have a youth rising. The youth in Afghanistan want to control their own destiny, and don’t want the Taliban. They want to normalize the country and end war. So if America could change their tasks a bit, and start to realize that there are a lot of good, positive young people in Afghanistan who need help, if they start talking to them, I think there is hope. However, if they continue to only talk to the old guys, I think they are wasting their time and they may as well come home. Because of the Bin Laden thing, there may be a new policy you will see in Afghanistan rather then the old policies. If they don’t look at a new policy they may as well go home.”

Q: Sharon Abella: What have you been up to since, “Miscreants of Taliwood”?

A: George Gittoes:

“I went back to Pakistan, and filmed three new dramas there. The film series I made is called, “Love City”. They are all love stories. They have good scripts, featuring female leads, and there’s no shooting or violence. “Miscreants of Taliwood” supported the freedom of speech to make an art film in Pakistan, and I continue to dedicate to helping that industry develop. I’ve been in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and am going back next week. I moved to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. I’ve only been in Houston, TX these last two months, because I have an exhibition currently on display at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, TX, which is running until September. It is very interesting. There is a mosque in the middle of it.”,

Article by Sharon Abella


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