After September 2011 there were reports that some of bin Laden’s closest family members were living in a secret compound in Iran. In December 2009, the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran informed Iranian authorities that one of one bin Laden’s daughters was in the embassy and wanted to leave Iran.

In April 2012 AP reported: Osama bin Laden’s youngest wife, 30-year-old Yemeni Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada “told investigators bin Laden lived in five houses while on the run and fathered four children, two of whom were born in Pakistani government hospitals. Al-Sada told investigators she flew to Pakistan in 2000 and traveled to Afghanistan, where she married bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks. After that, the family "scattered," she said, and she traveled to Karachi in Pakistan. She later met up with bin Laden in Peshawar and then moved to the Swat Valley, where they lived in two houses. They moved one more time before settling in Abbottabad in 2005. [Source: Zarar Khan, Associated Press, April 2, 2012]

Yossef Bodansky, the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, told The New Yorker in 2003: “He’s sending tapes and messages to his followers all the time, with instructions that could not have come from anyone else. They’re things like condolences to families of Islamic luminaries who have died. People from the Philippines to Indonesia to South America ask bin Laden questions, and they get answers from him.” Bodansky was struck by the meditative tone of the letters. “They are written with a tremendous amount of peace of mind. There are no mistakes. He is not a guy on the run.” [Source: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker July 28, 2003]

Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan Compound

Osama bin Laden compound
Bin Laden lived since 2005 in a three-story concrete house behind high-walls in an affluent neighborhood in the Pakistani hill station town of Abbottabad. The compound was five kilometers from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point and 60 kilometers north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Abbottabad is a popular summer resort, located in a valley surrounded by green hills near Pakistani Kashmir. Islamist militants, particularly those fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, used to have training camps near the town.

Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull of Reuters wrote: “The building, about eight times the size of other nearby houses, sat on a large plot of land that was relatively secluded when it was built in 2005. When it was constructed, it was on the outskirts of Abbottabad's center, at the end of a dirt road, but some other homes have been built nearby in the six years since it went up, officials said. Intense security measures included 12- to 18-foot outer walls topped with barbed wire and internal walls that sectioned off different parts of the compound, officials said. Two security gates restricted access, and residents burned their trash, rather than leaving it for collection as did their neighbors, officials said. Few windows of the three-story home faced the outside of the compound, and a terrace had a seven-foot (2.1 meter) privacy wall, officials said. [Source: Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull, Reuters, May 2, 2011]

In his book “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden” Peter L. Bergen wrote: “Whitewashed walls and large glass windows that looked out over the small, high-walled terrace kept things relatively bright in their bedroom. But the space was cramped for a man as tall as bin Laden.. The bedroom ceiling was low, no more than seven feet high. A tiny bathroom off to the side had green tile on the walls but none on the floor; a rudimentary toilet that was no more than a hole in the ground, over which they had to squat; and a cheap plastic shower. In this bathroom, bin Laden regularly applied Just for Men dye to his hair and beard to try to maintain a youthful appearance now that he was in his mid-fifties. Next to the bedroom was a kitchen the size of a large closet, and across the hall was bin Laden’s study, where he kept his books on crude wooden shelves and tapped away on his computer.” The compound had not telephone or Internet. It did have a satellite dish and seems plausible that bin Laden watched a lot television news. [Source: “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden---from 9/11 to Abbottabad” by Peter L. Bergen (Crown, 2012).

Associated Press reported: “Construction of the three-story house began about seven years ago, locals said. People initially were curious about the heavily fortified compound but over time they just grew to believe the family inside was deeply religious and conservative. The house has been described as a mansion, even a luxury one, but from the outside it is nothing special. Bin Laden may have well have been able to take in a view of the hills from secluded spots in the garden, though. The walls are stained with mold, trees are in the garden. [Source: Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan, Associated Press, May 3, 2011]

People Inside Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan Compound and the Compound’s Value

aerial view of Abbottabad compound
Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: “The compound in Abbottabad was a crowded place, with 28 residents---including the 54-year-old bin Laden, his wives, eight of his children and five of his grandchildren, according to Brig. Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani army officer who spent months researching the bin Laden raid and said he was given access to interrogation transcripts.The bin Laden children ranged in age from his son Khaled, who was in his 20s and was killed in the raid, to a 3-year-old born during their time in Abbottabad, said Qadir. Bin Laden's courier, the courier's brother and their wives and children also lived in the compound. Al-Sada, said to be bin Laden's favorite wife, was shot and wounded in the leg during the raid. [Source: Steve Coll, The New Yorker May 2, 2011]

The compound that Osama bin Laden lived was in the name of Arshad Khan. His cousin also lived there, The cousins, who are both forty-one at the time of the raid, regularly put in eleven-hour days, neighbors said. "That's longer than any man could stand to be next to his-wife!" one of the them told The New Yorker.

Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan wrote in Associated Press: “Neighbors said they knew little about those inside in the compound but bin Laden apparently depended on two men who would routinely emerge to run errands or to a neighborhood gathering, such as a funeral. There were conflicting details about the men's identities. Several people said they were known as Tariq and Arshad Khan and had identified themselves as cousins from elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan. Others gave different names and believed they were brothers. Arshad was the oldest, and both spoke multiple languages, including Pashto and Urdu, which are common here, residents said. "It is also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it," an administration official said. "The brothers had no explainable source of wealth." [Source: Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan, Associated Press, May 3, 2011]

U.S. analysts realized that a third family lived there in addition to the two brothers, and the age and makeup of the third family matched those of the relatives---including his youngest wife---they believed would be living with bin Laden. "Everything we saw, the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers' background and their behavior and the location of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden's hide-out to look like," another Obama administration official said. [Ibid]

Value of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan Compound

Osama bin Laden compound
Local people, Eliza Griswold wrote in The New Yorker, “dismissed reports that described bin Laden's compound as a palace. "No way that cost one million dollars," Sardar, a neighbor, said... "Let's add up the numbers." Sardar said. Ahmad. A local real estate agent, got out a calculator. First, the land. The plot spans about six and a half kanals, which is around thirty-six thousand square feet. "I'm no good with figures," Sardar said. [Source:Eliza Griswold, The New Yorker , May 16, 2011]

“The compound's neighborhood, called Bilal Town, isn't prepossessing. Open sewers line the dusty lanes, and services, such as water, gas, and shopping, are lacking. Ahmad estimated the land to be worth roughly two hundred and thirty-seven thousand dollars. A few hours later, a visit to the town's land-revenue office... yielded more information: Arshad Khan, the man who had been sheltering bin Laden, had paid the equivalent of about sixty-six thousand dollars for the land, which he bought in three parcels, in 2004 and 2005. One of the plots had been purchased from a doctor named Qazi Mehfooz ul Haq. When Haq was reached at his clinic, he reluctantly said, "Yes, I sold it to Arshad," adding that Arshad had approached him several times about buying the land "for his uncle." Haq finally agreed to sell, making a profit of almost twelve thousand dollars. [Ibid]

"He was a very ordinary man," Haq said, of Arshad. "He had a little beard, like that man there." He pointed to a local with a bushy goatee. "He just very simply gave me a good offer." Haq said that he was tired of the chaos that had descended. Terrorism, the Taliban - these were issues for the governments to handle. "A typical man is worried about his daily living," he said. 'What difference does it make to him if it is Osama bin Laden or not?" [Ibid]

20120711-800px-Bin_Laden_Compound.png Back in the real-estate office, where Ahmad was still working on his calculation, discussion turned to a joke going around town-that Abbottabad should change its name to Osamabad. Ahmad said that building costs ranged from nine dollars a square foot, for an average house, to fourteen dollars a square foot, for a high-quality structure. He figured that building bin Laden's house would have cost, at the most, forty-one thousand dollars. So, allowing for appreciation of the amount paid for the land, Ahmad and Sardar estimated the compound's value at under three hundred thousand dollars. [Ibid]

“The statement that John Brennan, the President's top counterterrorism adviser, made about the house-"Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this milliondollar-plus compound"-seemed intended to shame the dead man. Ahmad and Sardar found it funny that the United States was portraying the house as opulent."Osama was living here in this bullshit compound inside a military base with a TV from 1994!" Ahmad said. The cousins had seen the television set in news footage. Sardar didn't care about such characterizations. "We need light, water, health, education," he said. ''Not visas to America and war equipment." That day, there had been power for only two hours of the workday, and a small generator whirred in the corner. [Ibid]

Life in Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan Compound

Associated Press reported: “Although the house is large, it was unclear how three dozen people could have lived there with any degree of comfort.” One of bin Laden’s wives, identified as Yemeni-born Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah, told interrogators she had been staying in bin Laden’s hideout since 2006 and never left the upper floors of the large but sparsely furnished building, said a Pakistani intelligence official. [Source: AP, May 7, 2011]

close up of Osama
bin Laden watching TV
Munir Ahmed of Associated Press wrote: “Bin Laden spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below.” [Source: Munir Ahmed, Associated Press, April 13, 2012]

Dina Temple-Raston wrote in the Washington Post: “Contrary to gossipy news reports, there was harmony in the household. Bin Laden’s three wives accepted polygamy and believed, as he did, that the arrangement was sanctioned by God.

Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: Bin Laden “had always lived surrounded by family and children, so it is not surprising that he had managed to do so even as a fugitive... Bin Laden’s Syrian and Saudi wives were said to have gone home before or immediately after the September 11th attacks, and the Saudi wives were said to be living in the kingdom, without contact with Osama. When I visited Yemen in 2007, to conduct research on the bin Laden family, Yemeni journalists told me that his youngest wife had returned home and was living in the region either of Tai’zz or of Ibb, significant cities to the south of Sanaa, the capital. It seems that she may have found her way to Pakistan to live with her husband. My own guess had been that bin Laden would have accepted informal divorce from his older wives on the ground of involuntary separation, and would have remarried a local woman or two while in hiding in Pakistan, perhaps a daughter presented by one of his Pathan hosts. That is at least conceivable as well. Apparently, one of his adult sons was killed in the raid. Osama has more than a dozen sons. Some have returned to Saudi Arabia, but others have appeared in videos with their father, vowing to fight alongside him. It is conceivable that one of his sons could make a claim on Al Qaeda leadership in the years ahead.

To ensure that tranquility reigned, Bergen wrote “bin Laden created a dedicated living space for each wife in all his homes. On the Abbottabad compound, each wife had her own separate apartment with its own kitchen.” This domestic arrangement was a source of genuine solace for bin Laden, Bergen reports. So much so that he allegedly used to joke to his friends: “I don’t understand why people take only one wife. If you take four wives you live like a groom.” Bergen writes that this is the only recorded joke bin Laden ever made. [Source:Dina Temple-Raston, Washington Post, May 4, 2011]

bin Laden watching TV
Greg Miller wrote in the Washington Post: “Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden employed remarkable discipline in his efforts to evade detection. “You’ve got to give him credit for his tradecraft,” said a former senior CIA official who played a leading role in the manhunt. When spotted by surveillance drones a decade earlier, bin Laden “had bodyguards, multiple SUVs and things like that. He abandoned all of that.” [Source: Greg Miller, Washington Post , May 17, 2011]

Others think maybe bin Laden got too overconfident. “Bin Laden got lazy and complacent,” a senior U.S. official told the Washington Post. “I don’t think he thought he would meet his maker in that house. And he certainly didn’t make any preparations to escape a raid or destroy the information found inside, the official said. [Source: Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, May 12, 2011]

AP reported: “Those who live nearby said the people in bin Laden's compound rarely strayed outside. Most were unaware that foreigners---bin Laden and his family are Arabs---were living there. Khurshid Bibi, in her 70s, said one man living in the compound had given her a lift to the market in the rain. She said her grandchildren played with the kids in the house and that the adults there gave them rabbits as a gift. [Source: AP, May 3, 2011]

But the occupants also attracted criticism. "People were skeptical in this neighborhood about this place and these guys. They used to gossip, say they were smugglers or drug dealers. People would complain that even with such a big house they didn't invite the poor or distribute charity," said Mashood Khan, a 45-year-old farmer.

Porn Found in the Bin Laden Compound and Osama bin Laden Watching Himself on TV

AP reported: “From a shabby, makeshift office, the world's most wanted man watched newscasts of himself from a tiny television perched atop a rickety old desk cluttered with wires. A few days after his death the U.S. released a handful of videos, selected to show bin Laden in a much more candid, unflattering light. In the short clips, bin Laden appears hunched and tired, seated on the floor, watching television wrapped in a wool blanket and wearing a knit cap. Outtakes of his propaganda tapes show that they were heavily scripted affairs. He dyed and trimmed his beard for the cameras, then shot and reshot his remarks until the timing and lighting were just right. [Source: AP, May 7, 2011]

Osama bin Laden
watching himself on TV
One video clearly shows the terror leader choosing and changing channels with a remote control, which he points at what appears to be a satellite cable box. U.S. officials have previously said there was a satellite dish for television reception but no Internet or phone lines ran to the house. Cellphones were prohibited on the compound.

A videos showing "out-takes" - the miscues by bin-Laden that were destined for the cutting room floor - were offered as further proof of bin Laden's death. But by selecting unflattering clips of bin Laden, the U.S. is also working to shatter the image he worked so hard to craft. "It showed that bin Laden was not the superhero he wanted his people to think," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

AP and Fox News reported: “A stash of pornography was found in the Pakistani compound of Osama bin Laden. The pornography taken from the compound, first reported by Reuters, is said to have included modern, electronically recorded video and is described as fairly extensive. But officials told Reuters they did not know if the terror leader acquired the porn himself or even viewed it. It was unclear who it belonged to. Bin Laden’s son and two other adult males lived at the compound. [Source:AP, Fox News, May 13, 2011]

Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound did not have Internet connection or other hard-wired communication networks. But the compound was equipped with televisions after the U.S. government released videos taken from the raid showing the Al Qaeda leader watching himself on TV. The discovery of pornography taken during raids on Islamic militants is not uncommon, officials told Reuters.


Abbottabad View
AP reported: “Like many Pakistani towns where the army has a strong presence, Abbottabad is well-manicured, and has solid infrastructure. Street signs tell residents to "Love Pakistan." The city also is known for its good schools, including some that were originally established by Christian missionaries.”

Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: Abbottabad is essentially a military-cantonment city in Pakistan, in the hills to the north of the capital of Islamabad, in an area where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistani Army and retired Army officers. Although the city is technically in what used to be called the Northwest Frontier Province, it lies on the far eastern side of the province and is as close to Pakistani-held Kashmir as it is to the border city of Peshawar. The city is most notable for housing the Pakistan Military Academy, the Pakistani Army’s premier training college, equivalent to West Point. Looking at maps and satellite photos on the Web last night, I saw the wide expanse of the Academy not far from where the million-dollar, heavily secured mansion where bin Laden lived was constructed in 2005. The maps I looked at had sections of land nearby marked off as “restricted areas,” indicating that they were under military control. It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army. [Source: Steve Coll, The New Yorker May 2, 2011]

Abbottabad is also a transit point for militants moving between Kashmir and the tribal areas. The region is the prime recruitment base of militant groups such as Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, whose training camps and other facilities still exist nearby in Mansehra. At least two other top al-Qaida leaders were sheltered in Abbottabad. Al-Qaida's No. 3, Abu Faraj al-Libi, lived in the town before his arrest in 2005 elsewhere in northwest Pakistan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. Earlier this year, Indonesian terror suspect Umar Patek was nabbed at a house in the town following the arrest of an al-Qaida courier who worked at the post office. It is not clear whether Patek had any links with bin Laden. [Source: Carlotta Gall, Pir Zubair Shah and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, June 23, 2011]

Why Did Osama bin Laden Choose Abbottabad?

Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan of Associated Press wrote: “Also unclear was why bin Laden chose Abbottabad.... The bustling streets are dotted with buildings left over from British colonial days. These days it attracts some tourists, but is known mostly as a garrison town wealthier than many others in Pakistan. Bin Laden found it safe enough to stay for up to six years, according to U.S. officials, a stunning length of time to remain in one place right under the noses of a U.S.-funded army that had ostensibly been trying to track him down. Most intelligence assessments believed him to be along the Afghan-Pakistan border, perhaps in a cave. [Source: Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan, Associated Press, May 3, 2011]

Greg Miller wrote in the Washington Post: U.S. government officials “outlined emerging theories as to why bin Laden apparently selected the Pakistani military garrison city of Abbottabad as the place that afforded him the greatest chance to stay alive. The city, about two hours north of Islamabad by car, offered a number of advantages for the al-Qaeda leader, officials said. Chief among them is that Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan’s borders, is a safe distance from the tribal regions that are patrolled by armed U.S. drones. [Source: Greg Miller, Washington Post , May 17, 2011]

U.S. officials said they are convinced that bin Laden, who had long immersed himself among the Pashtun tribes along the border with Afghanistan, was driven from that part of the country by the escalating drone campaign. “Even five years ago things were dropping from the sky” in Pakistan’s tribal region, a U.S. official said. “He probably felt that if he could conceal his presence [in Abbottabad] it would be an unlikely area for the United States to pursue him.”

Strikes by conventional U.S. aircraft would have carried enormous risks, both because Pakistan has invested heavily in air detection and defense systems---to counter any threat posed by India---and because of the perils of an errant strike. “All it has to be is about 1,000 yards off and it hits the Pakistan Military Academy,” said a CIA veteran of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The city is also home to two regimental compounds, and suburbs occupied by military families.

Osama bin Laden hideout

U.S. officials said there were also disadvantages for bin Laden in residing in Abbottabad, including the fact that the area is relatively welcoming to outsiders, including Pakistanis on vacation, military families being transferred to bases there and even U.S. soldiers who have at times been sent to Abbottabad to train Pakistani troops. “Abbottabad is not a place where Islamic extremists went, because it wasn’t a stronghold,” said the former U.S. intelligence official involved in the bin Laden pursuit. “They preferred places like Peshawar, Quetta or Karachi.” When analysts would consider likely locations for the al-Qaeda chief, the official said, “Abbottabad wouldn’t be on that list.”

Osama bin Laden Leading Al-Qaida from His Pakistan Compound

AP reported: Evidence seized by Navy SEALs after the raid that killed bin Laden in his walled Pakistani compound reveal that bin Laden was still actively involved in planning and directing al-Qaida's plots against the U.S., according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. The notes and computer material showed that bin Laden's compound was a command and control center for al-Qaida, where the terrorist mastermind stayed in contact with al-Qaida affiliates around the world through a network of couriers, the intelligence official said. Bin Laden was eager to strike American cities again and discussed ways to attack trains, officials said, though it appeared that plan never progressed beyond early discussions. [Source: AP, May 7, 2011]

Osama bin Laden “was in touch with key members of al Qaeda, playing a strong role in planning and directing attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, senior US officials said citing documents found during the raid in which bin Laden was killed. It shows that bin Laden was a lot more involved in directing al Qaeda personnel and operations than sometimes thought over the last decade, officials said. And it suggests bin Laden was “giving strategic direction” to al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, one defense official said. [Ibid]

U.S, counterterrorism officials have long debated how big a role bin Laden and core al Qaeda leaders were playing in the attacks launched by affiliated terror groups, particularly al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and al-Shabab in Somalia. Bin Laden’s first priority, an official said, was his own security. But the data shows that he was far more active in providing guidance and telling affiliated groups in Yemen and Somalia what they should or should not be doing. [Ibid]

Based on documents found in Osama bin Laden’s compound, David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post: It’s clear bin Laden “was paranoid about being found and killed: He ordered his subordinates to restrict movements to help preserve what remained of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Fear of being discovered was a subject of regular conversation between bin Laden, Atiyah, Zawahiri and others.” [Source: David Ignatius, Washington Post, August 23, 2011]

Bin Laden family

Pakistan Says Osama bin Laden was Weak and Marginalized in His Final Days

AP reported: Pakistan’s military paints a different picture than the United States of Osama bin Laden’s final days: far from the terror mastermind still trying to strike America, he’s seen as an aging terrorist hiding in barren rooms, short of money and struggling to maintain his grip on al Qaeda. [Source: AP, May 7, 2011]

Pakistani officials told AP that disputes over money between bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, led the group to split into two factions in 2005 or 2006, with the larger faction controlled by al-Zawahri. Bin Laden was “cash strapped” in his final days, they said.

A weak bin Laden would make Pakistan’s failure to unearth his hiding place in Abbottabad, a military town just two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the capital, seem less of a glaring embarrassment, while a menacing bin Laden would make the US Navy SEAL raid that killed him a greater triumph.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2012

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