On the night of May 1, 2011, United States Special Forces launched a raid to kill or capture al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, deep inside Pakistani territory, in a compound within the garrison town of Abbottabad. Following the event, the Pakistani government set up a Commission to establish how US forces could have violated Pakistani sovereignty without repercussions, and how Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, came to reside secretly in Pakistan for so long.
The report you are reading, looking at the second of these aspects, is drawn from witness testimony and the Commission’s own investigations, obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera.
Osama bin Laden, the former al-Qaeda chief and once the world’s most wanted man, lived in Pakistan for nine years, staying in at least six different locations. While maintaining a very low profile, he evaded detection thanks to multiple failures of the Pakistani civil and military establishments, the Abbottabad Commission report shows.
Through the testimony of Bin Laden’s wives, the wife of one of his couriers, intelligence officials and various others who came in contact with the family and its support network, the commission was able to piece together an image of what life on the run was like for the Bin Ladens and their Pakistani guards.
The story starts in early 2002, when Osama bin Laden was suspected to have entered Pakistan’s northwestern areas, having narrowly evaded capture by the United States in the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001. It is unclear where he initially stayed, but intelligence officials say they believe he spent time in both the South Waziristan and Bajaur tribal areas.
The trail picks up in mid-2002, when Maryam, the wife of Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti, a trusted Bin Laden guard and courier, confirms that she travelled with a tall, “clean-shaven Arab” from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the Swat Valley. Swat was home to Kuwaiti and his brother, Abrar. Both Pakistanis acted as Bin Laden’s couriers and guards throughout his stay in Pakistan. They were also associates of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks against the United States, who is thought to have recruited them into al-Qaeda.
It was in Swat that Bin Laden was reunited with one of his baby daughters and his third wife, Amal Ahmad Abdul Fattah al-Sadah, a 29-year-old Yemeni. When Bin Laden joined Maryam, Ibrahim and Amal, he was accompanied by two other men: one a driver, the other wearing a police uniform. The identities of these men remain unknown.
A close shave
The group lived in Swat for between six and eight months, during which time “the tall Arab” did not mix with the couriers’ families. It was during this time that Amal, Bin Laden’s wife, became pregnant, and that Abrar al-Kuwaiti married a Pakistani from Kohat, named Bushra, who joined the group.
While the groups’ activities outside the house were described as being limited, Maryam did testify that, on one occasion, when they were visiting a nearby bazaar, their car, with Bin Laden inside, was stopped for speeding by a traffic policeman. Ibrahim, however, “quickly settled the matter”, according to the report, and the world’s most wanted man continued on his way.
In early 2003, Osama bin Laden was visited by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Mohammad, travelling under the alias “Hafeez”, was accompanied by his wife and seven children, and stayed with the group in Swat for two weeks. A month later, in March 2003, while watching Al Jazeera, they saw that Mohammad had been arrested in Rawalpindi in a joint CIA-ISI operation.
The news jolted Bin Laden, and three days later, accompanied by the brothers Ibrahim and Abrar, he left Swat. Two days after that, Ibrahim returned to pick up their wives and children, bringing them to Peshawar. Here they separated, with Amal staying on in Peshawar and Maryam and Bushra travelling on to Kohat, where they stayed in separate houses. The whereabouts of Bin Laden at this point remain unknown.
, and to develop a whole case load of information. Apparently, this was not the case.”]
About three months later, Maryam and Bushra travelled to a house in the outskirts of the town of Haripur, about 35km south of Abbottabad, where they found Osama bin Laden and his wife Amal, with the brothers Ibrahim and Abrar. Also in the house were Bin Laden’s second wife Siham Sabar – a Saudi national known locally as “Sharifa”, her son Khalid bin Laden, and two other Bin Laden daughters – Sumayya and Mariam, both adults in their early 20s.
The two-storey house, in the Naseem Town area, is described as being spacious, with three bedrooms and a lawn. The group stayed here for almost two years, during which time Amal twice gave birth to children. The children were delivered at a local clinic, but Amal never stayed the night there, and all conversation with the doctors was handled by Abrar al-Kuwaiti and his wife Bushra, who told the doctors that Amal was deaf and dumb.
In Haripur, the men never used mobile phones to make calls. Instead, they would travel to Peshawar, 150km away, or Rawalpindi, a distance of 65km, to make phone calls from Public Call Offices (PCOs). They watched Al Jazeera via a satellite dish, according to Maryam. No “guests” ever visited the men during that time, although Maryam said Ibrahim’s mother visited at least once.
The brothers, paid Rs9,000 a month (about $150 at the time) by Bin Laden, as well as some “additional money” and gifts “from time to time”, seldom spent a night away from him.
While in Haripur, however, Bin Laden was already planning his next move. In July 2004, land for the construction of a new house was purchased in Abbottabad, an army garrison town located about 85km north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Construction began in August 2004 on a two-storey structure, custom-built with walls as high as 18ft in some places. The building was completed in 2005.
In August 2005, the group moved to the newly constructed house. Abrar and Ibrahim took their families there first, with Bin Laden and his family following soon after. The brothers posed as businessmen, purchasing the land under a false identity (Abrar posed as one “Muhammad Arshad”, and his brother was known as “Tariq Khan”). They fled the tribal areas, their story goes, as a result of a family feud – and this is the reason they gave for the high walls and isolation of the residents from their neighbours.
In October 2005, the northeast of Pakistan was hit by a devastating earthquake, the effects of which were felt in Abbottabad. The event had two positive repercussions for the group: first, under the guise of repairing the house, they were able to add an additional, unauthorised, storey to the structure; and second, the earthquake resulted in an influx of Pashtun migrants to the town, fleeing the destruction behind them, allowing the group to better blend in among the flood of non-native Abbottabad residents.
To the locals, the house came to be known as “Waziristan House”, or, to others, simply “The Big House”.
Life with ‘Miskeen Baba’
Life in “Waziristan House” was kept strictly private. The brothers had utility companies install four separate meters for electricity and natural gas respectively, in an apparent attempt to ensure that none of the meters showed an excessive amount of activity, betraying the true number of residents. These were procured under the false identities of “Muhammad Arshad” and “Sahib Khan”.
Abrar and Ibrahim saw to the procurement of food and provisions. Khalid, Bin Laden’s son, looked after plumbing and other maintenance services. There was, accordingly, seldom any contact with the outside world. On occasion, a local named Shamraiz, who lived in a house opposite the compound, would do odd jobs in the compound’s garden for Rs350/day (less than $5). He also reportedly sold a cow to the group, which was subsequently looked after by Khalid.
Ibrahim and Abrar were the only people to regularly leave the compound to interact with the community. They would “regularly” offer their prayers in the local mosque, according to Shamraiz, and “their conduct was polite and kind”.
The group lived, according to the testimony of the wives, “extremely frugally”. Bin Laden himself, before moving to Abbottabad, reportedly owned only three pairs of shalwar kameez (local Pakistani dress) for summer, and three pairs for winter – in addition to a single black jacket, and two sweaters.
He also owned “a cowboy hat”, which he wore when he moved around the compound to avoid detection from above. Bin Laden, who reportedly suffered from various ailments, particularly in his kidneys and possibly his heart, would sometimes complain of sluggishness, and, on those occasions, he would eat some chocolate and/or an apple, according to the commission’s findings. There is no evidence to suggest he was ever visited by a doctor, and he almost certainly never left the compound.
Bin Laden’s children lived “extremely regimented and secluded lives”, according to the Commission’s report. He saw to the religious education of his grandchildren personally, and even supervised their playtime. Part of those playtime activities were competitions in cultivating vegetables in the compound’s garden, with “simple prizes” for the best tended plants.
The Bin Laden family’s women also lived very secluded lives, and, according to one account, began observing the veil from the age of three. Maryam, Ibrahim’s wife, went as far as to suggest that they even observed purdah – an Urdu term implying seclusion – from men on television.
Khairiyyah Sabar, a 61-year-old Saudi national and Bin Laden’s first wife, joined the group just three months before the US raid, having spent the eight years between 2002 and 2010 in detention in Iran. She never mixed with the couriers’ families.
The couriers’ families, meanwhile, had slightly more freedom. While their children, too, did not go to school and were instructed by their fathers, they were also allowed to leave the compound from time to time. According to local journalists interviewed by the commission, a number of local children said they had played cricket with the children.
The families of Ibrahim and Abrar were, however, kept almost entirely separate from Bin Laden’s family, with some exceptions among the children. Even the women would only socially interact with each other for about 15 minutes every month.
One incident, as described by Maryam, stands out as being illustrative of the deliberately maintained disconnect. Rahma, the nine-year-old daughter of Maryam and Ibrahim, once asked her father why “the uncle who lives upstairs” in the main house, meaning Bin Laden, never left the house to go to the bazaar. Ibrahim told her it was because the man was too poor to buy anything. From that day onwards, Rahma referred to the man as “Miskeen Baba” [literally: Poor Uncle].
On one occasion, Rahma accidentally happened upon “Miskeen Baba” while receiving lessons from Sumayya, one of Bin Laden’s daughters, and greeted him. From that day, she was banned from the main house.
Unlike in Haripur, in the Abbottabad compound, the women did have access to television. One day, approximately in January 2011, Rahma saw a picture of Bin Laden while watching Al Jazeera, and immediately recognised him as her “Miskeen Baba” from the main house. The incident troubled Ibrahim greatly, who was upset with his daughter and immediately banned all the women of his household from watching television. The incident also resulted in a complete block on any interaction between the Bin Laden and al-Kuwaiti families.
It was only then, almost nine years after first seeing him, that Maryam realised that the tall Arab she had met in the Swat Valley and had lived with for years was Osama bin Laden. According to her testimony, no-one other than Bin Laden’s own family, Ibrahim, Abrar – and now herself – knew his true identity.
‘Complete collapse of governance’
Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then Director-General of Pakistan’s premier Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, testified before the commission, saying that ISI analysis indicated that, while in Pakistan, Bin Laden “was to a degree actively planning al-Qaeda’s future operations”. Evidence suggests that, while he had cut off personal contact with other al-Qaeda operatives following the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in 2003, he was still electronically in communication with them.
It was, ultimately, this electronic communication, carried out through his couriers, which led to his downfall, when US intelligence services obtained phone numbers of public phone boxes used by the al-Kuwaiti brothers, and were able to track them.
The Pakistani Army Board of Inquiry brought to investigate Bin Laden’s killing concluded that the al-Qaeda chief was able to escape detection in Abbottabad “due to the phased construction and occupation of the compound, the extremely low profile that was maintained, including very low technical signatures that might have indicated the presence of a High Value Target (HVT) [and] the clever selection of the OBL compound in an area few might suspect an HVT would choose to reside in”, according to the Commission’s report.
Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone committed to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance.
Moreover, the board and the commission both found that a mixture of negligence and incompetence shown by several government departments – including the Revenue Department, the local Cantonment board, the local police, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), local utility providers and the Excise & Taxation Department – allowed Bin Laden to escape detection, despite multiple times at which officials in said departments had cause to investigate the house and its inhabitants.
In one particularly telling section of the report, the Commission summarises the situation: “Either OBL was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone [c]ommitted to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance.”
As for his support network in Pakistan, the Commission concluded that, while he may have maintained a small and dedicated group of people who were helping him, the fact that he had been in the country for nine years left no excuse for the country’s intelligence services to have made no progress in tracking him.
“Over a period of time,” the report reads, “an effective intelligence agency should have been able to contact, infiltrate or co-opt [his support network], and to develop a whole case load of information.
“Apparently, this was not the case.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim