How Osama bin Laden was hidden in plain sight

Al-Qaeda leader was steps away from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point

Hidden in plain sight

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It was around midnight on Sunday night when Naveed’s house suddenly went black. The 24-year-old student thought little of it—Pakistanis have gotten used to power cuts over the past few years as the country struggles with an energy crisis—but it was an odd time for it. Load shedding, as it’s commonly called here, happens on a schedule, and this blackout was not on schedule.

Out on the quiet streets of the Kakul neighbourhood in Abbottabad, nothing seemed amiss. Nothing ever happened in Kakul, which was part of the reason Naveed had gone to Britain to study: he needed to get away from the boredom of living in a part of the city officially under military control—a cantonment zone—where residents were required to report regularly to the army about who lives where, and intelligence officers regularly harassed people they deemed suspicious. He felt suffocated.

Being back at home, he was again feeling the walls closing in on him, and the darkness only made it worse. Stepping onto the roof of his family home, he breathed in the cool mountain air. The smooth, rolling silhouette of the Himalayan foothills to the east had a calming effect, as it always had, so when he heard the dull thump of helicopter blades, he was taken a little by surprise.

The sound came from the west, in the direction of the Afghan border where a war was playing out, though to be in the peaceful hills of Abbottabad one would never know it. Naveed turned toward the sound, expecting to see Pakistani helicopters hovering over the city centre. That would not be odd: Abbottabad is a garrison town, home to the Pakistan Military Academy and, outside of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, 75 km to the south, probably the most militarized city in Pakistan.

But what he saw was something strange. The two helicopters he could make out appeared to be flying right toward him. And they were dark—none of their lights were on. When they flew over his head, so low he could feel the downdraft of the rotors, Naveed panicked. Running downstairs, he made for the front gate of his house. It was then that the thunderous explosions, from what he thought was rocket fire, struck.

Stepping onto the street, he saw other neighbours, equally gripped by fear, emerging from their gated homes. No one knew what was happening; their quiet corner of the city was supposed to be secure against attack. This was a military district. But Pakistan was in a state of war with Islamic militants, and many thought that the war had finally arrived on their doorsteps.

Little did they know that a mere 300 m to the east, in a million-dollar compound built in 2005 that Naveed had walked past dozens of times, the world’s most wanted terrorist had been living the quiet, family life. He’d always wondered about that house: the towering perimeter walls up to six metres high in places, barbed wire, and surveillance cameras marked it out as different. But he, like many of his neighbours, assumed this was some kind of military installation. They never questioned it—no one questions the Pakistani military—despite their apprehensions.

And nothing particularly out of the ordinary had ever happened there. In fact, Naveed found it creepy that a house so well fortified would also show so few signs of activity. Sometimes, clean-shaven, well-dressed men would come out, walk to the local grocery store and return with their bags of supplies—rice and vegetables, all the basic items a household needs to survive; other times a tinted 4 x 4 might be seen arriving or leaving, but these visits were few.

Now, in the dead of night, that house was under attack, with the sounds of automatic gunfire mixing with screaming, including the high-pitched wails of women and children. Naveed, his curiosity overcoming fear, edged closer to the house.

It was a dangerous move. He could see flames rising from the compound but, with the electricity still down, little else. The sound of gunfire got louder the closer he managed to approach, but suddenly it dissolved into silence, broken only by the hum of a helicopter. And then that sound turned to fury as the helicopter lifted into the air, followed by an explosion so powerful that it sounded like an airplane had crashed into the compound. Naveed, now frozen with fear, watched what he thought was a Chinook helicopter rise into the night and roar back in the direction from where it had come, west, back toward Afghanistan.

That helicopter, unbeknownst to him, was carrying the lifeless body of Osama bin Laden, a bullet to his head having accomplished what millions of dollars in intelligence and military operations had previously failed to do.

After recounting his harrowing experience to Maclean’s, Naveed is still perplexed that something like this could happen in Abbottabad. “How is it possible for someone like Osama bin Laden to live in a place like this?” he says. “The officers at the military academy, the security agencies, they must have known he was there.”

His confusion is accompanied by an equal measure of disdain for what his town has now become: the tree-lined Kakul Road leading to the military academy has been completely shut down, transforming what was a bustling thoroughfare into a barren strip of asphalt. News crews have swarmed the city, setting up cameras on rooftops and in tomato and potato fields. Scuffles occasionally break out between the military police guarding the access routes into his neighbourhood and overzealous journalists.

“It’s a circus,” Naveed says. “We never wanted bin Laden here and we don’t want all of this attention now.”

But the significance of what’s happened is not lost on him. And he sneers at the Pakistani foreign office contention that authorities had no idea bin Laden was there.

Indeed, the thought of them not knowing defies common sense. Rawalpindi, that other garrison city adjacent to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, may be general headquarters for the Pakistani military establishment, but Abbottabad is, for many Pakistanis, GHQ North. That Osama bin Laden was here, living in a heavily guarded army cantonment district steps away from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, without the knowledge of at least some members of the military and intelligence services, seems surreal.

And yet he was here, for years. In late November 2009, a former jihadist with links to Lashkar-e Taiba, the militant group accused of carrying out the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, told this reporter bin Laden may have been in Abbottabad. “I hear he’s hiding out somewhere here,” he said, while driving through the city on his way to Islamabad. “That’s what my friends in the LeT tell me.” It was easy to discount that at the time. With the myriad rumours about bin Laden’s location, it was impossible to imagine that the world’s most wanted terrorist could find refuge in this city, where every other road sign points to a military compound and the streets hum with the sounds of army trucks packed with soldiers.

No one would have believed it. Army cantonments like Kakul are Pakistan’s safe zones, home to senior retired officers and their families, as well as wealthy Pakistanis who can afford the luxury of living in an area guarded by the military and closely monitored by the intelligence community. This is why many of them move there, especially at a time when security is foremost in their minds. To live in a cantonment is to be safe from the likes of Osama bin Laden. Maybe that was the allure for the terrorist chief, and for those—whoever they were—who helped him relocate here.

Kakul is, in addition, a restricted area, so sensitive that it is a designated no-fly zone. “No one can fly over that area without the military’s permission,” a military source with knowledge of Abbottabad’s security protocols told Maclean’s, requesting anonymity. “This is a very sensitive area.” And yet, according to senior U.S. administration officials, U.S. Navy Seals were able, without first getting clearance from the Pakistani military, they claim, to chopper in, engage in a very loud and explosive firefight with those protecting bin Laden (including blowing up one of their own damaged helicopters), and chopper out with his body—a process that took nearly one hour—with no Pakistani response.

The inconsistencies hint at things playing out in the background. What those are will be crucial to the future of Pakistani-U.S. relations. That bin Laden was being protected by elements in the Pakistani military seems incontrovertible. U.S officials, including White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, have already indicated as much: questions need to be answered. As Akbar Ahmed, who once served in Abbottabad and is a former Pakistani high commissioner to London, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., “That is a cantonment area, where any building being constructed has to pass through regular bureaucratic procedures, which means people would know who’s living in the building. It is highly unlikely that the authorities didn’t know who was in that building.” And that, said Ahmed, raises another question: “If they knew who was in the building, why, at this particular time, was this operation allowed, as it were, to proceed? I don’t believe Pakistan had no idea about the operation.”

Was there a change of heart over protecting bin Laden? Who was protecting him? How deep does sympathy for al-Qaeda run within Pakistan’s security apparatus? For bin Laden to find refuge in such a sensitive military zone would indicate that it runs very deep indeed.

The implications for the region and beyond could be devastating. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has been teetering for months. Pakistanis themselves have become so anti-American that even the death of a terrorist they despise, someone who many of them see as soiling the image of Islam, is secondary to the fact that U.S. forces carried out an operation on the doorstep of their capital. Their anger is palpable on the streets of Abbottabad.

Naveed has escaped that anger, slipping away to his ancestral village in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. Kakul, once a quiet and unassuming neighbourhood, is now choked with military, living in tents around the smouldering remains of bin Laden’s compound, setting up checkpoints at every road leading into the neighbourhood, demanding identification from every individual who attempts to enter. It has achieved fame throughout the world, but not the kind of fame any of its residents would want—as the place where Osama bin Laden mysteriously lived and, ultimately, died.

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