There's an invisible trail running through Abbottabad. Those who follow it will eventually find themselves in the shadowy realm of al-Qaida.
The path starts at the house where Osama bin Laden was killed. From there, it winds through potato fields and dusty lanes into the eastern part of the city before coming to a villa behind a white iron gate next to Hadshi Noor's general store.
The villa's address is 497 Arambagh, and its inhabitant is Abdul Hamid Sohail. The retired director of an insurance company stands in the doorway wearing white baggy trousers and a shirt with a stand-up collar. He doesn't look like someone who would harbor terrorists. But the impression is mistaken.
A few months ago, Sohail hosted Umar Patek, the presumed mastermind behind the bomb attacks in Bali nine years ago -- a man who has a $1 million (€700,000) bounty on his head. On Jan. 25, 2011, Pakistani police arrested the Indonesian in Sohail's villa. The insurance director's home is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the raid.
Today, Sohail says that his son brought the freezing, hungry foreigner and his wife to the villa in mid-January. He describes his strange guest as someone who understood neither Urdu nor English, but who was undoubtedly in need of Muslim charity. How, he implores, was he supposed to know that he had handed his guest apartment over to the deputy commander of the southeast Asian arm of al-Qaida and that its chief, Osama bin Laden, had already found a hideout only three kilometers (1.9 miles) away?
Like puzzle pieces, recent events in Abbottabad can be pieced together to form a picture. What emerges is not the image of a peaceful, idyllic military city far removed from terror. This city of 150,000 in the Himalayan foothills is home to a military academy and elite schools. For years, it enjoyed a reputation for being a peaceful oasis -- until May 2, when US Special Forces tracked down, shot and killed bin Laden here.
The Bali Bomber
It was 11 days before the Islamists reacted. Last Friday, two suicide bombers killed at least 80 people -- most of them young police recruits -- and wounded 140 in the northwestern Pakistani city of Shabqadar. According to a statement by the Pakistani Taliban, the attack was meant to avenge bin Laden's "martyrdom" in Abbottabad.
The city of Abbottabad, the place where two of the kingpins of global terror had found refuge, isn't what it seems. At first glance, it looks like great powers have long wanted this wild stretch of land between the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush to look: well-kept and orderly. It is here that Pakistan's army, propped up as it is by US military assistance, has its most elite training academy -- a mere 900 meters from where bin Laden was living.
Was Patek, the suspected Bali bomber, on his way to meet up with bin Laden when he was arrested in January, as Indonesia's defense minister claimed two weeks ago? Is it possible that the terrorist knew more than Pakistan's seemingly omnipotent Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which still claims to have known nothing about bin Laden's hideout?
Sohail, the retired villa owner, says he was equally unaware of both bin Laden's presence and Patek's plans. According to Sohail, the Indonesian had only been a guest in his house for nine days before the police dragged him down the steps and outside covered in blood "like a butchered hen." Sohail's son was also jailed as a suspected accomplice.
The Mailman Jihadist
The man who is said to have led police to Patek lived just 500 meters away. In a dirty yellow house near open sewers in the poor part of town: It was here that Tahir Shehzad lived. The bearded young man worked as a clerk in Abbottabad's main post office, accepting packages and disbursing cash. Whenever there was time, he spoke about "holy war." One relative says that Shehzad was "a jihadist through and through," and that he suddenly disappeared in 2009. When he finally re-emerged, he was wearing handcuffs.
The ISI had supposedly been tailing Shehzad since August 2010, and it arrested him on Jan. 23, 2011 in the eastern city of Lahore. Within two days, the police already knew enough to be able to arrest Patek, the suspected Indonesian bomber, in Abbottabad.
It could have been him who provided another crucial clue about bin Laden's hideout, which the Americans had already learned about by trailing bin Laden's personal courier. But Pakistani officials continue to insist they knew nothing.
Was the arrest of the Islamists in Abbottabad at the beginning of the year the prelude to a closing act that would come in the early morning hours of May 2?
There is little evidence that all of the trails leading to Abbottabad had been followed. Including the path leading to one of the world's most-sought-after men: Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the successor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner behind the 9/11 attacks. According to Guantanamo files recently released by WikiLeaks, Al-Libbi told interrogators in Guantanamo that he had been appointed bin Laden's "official messenger" in July 2003, that he had sent his family "to Abbottabad" and that he had lived there himself until 2004.
Was al-Libbi an advance guard for bin Laden? In 2006, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president at the time, acknowledged that al-Libbi had used three houses in Abbottabad as a base. No one, it would seem, followed up on the lead at the time -- not even the ISI.
A Pakistani Failure
Since May 2, Pakistan has been a divided country. The larger part is made up of people who are upset because they believe the whole story about bin Laden's hiding out in Abbottabad is an American lie. The other part is made up of people seething with anger because, even if they don't regret bin Laden's death, they still aren't happy about how this has damaged the reputation of Pakistan's army and its supposedly all-powerful ISI.
How could Pakistan, both a sovereign nation and a nuclear power, they wonder, have been kept in the dark about a secret and deadly American military raid on their soil? The alternative isn't any better: namely that those in power knew about the raid before hand but don't want to admit it now.
Abbottabad, where generals and jihadists lived more closely together than anywhere, reflects perfectly the full spectrum of Pakistani sensibilities. But bin Laden's opponents and supporters agree on one thing: The army, the pride of the country, has failed.
In the 40 years since the lost war against India -- a war which resulted in Pakistan losing the eastern part of the country, today's Bangladesh -- Pakistan has doggedly pursued a single goal: destabilizing India, its powerful neighbor on the subcontinent, as well as Afghanistan, by providing support to Islamist terror groups. The more subtle details of this task have been left to the ISI.
The fact that extremist bomb attacks have killed an average of 1,000 Pakistani civilians annually in recent years has provided enough reason for criticism. Now comes the realization that bin Laden and other al-Qaida members were able to operate undisturbed right under the noses of both the army and the intelligence service.
The View of Osama's Allies
"I'm ashamed that I worked for an organization that is guilty of this," says retired Brigadier General Asad Munir. Munir was a high-ranking ISI official who was ultimately responsible for waging the war against suspected terrorists in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. He was also responsible for the search for bin Laden.
Munir says that, when he was in charge, all operations were jointly conducted with the CIA. "We had the intelligence from the ground, and they had the technology," he says. "At the beginning," he continues, "I found it hard to believe that our people said they knew nothing about the mission to kill bin Laden. Now it seems to me that this really was the case."
Munir, 61, numbers among a select group of well-established former senior officials whose retired status provides them with a safe distance from which to cast a critical eye on today's Pakistan. After 25 years in uniform -- some still in their mid-40s -- they can enjoy the pleasures of retirement. In Shimla Hill, Abbottabad's upscale neighborhood, the magnificent villas and the SUVs parked out front attest to the additional benefits that can result from serving in Pakistan's armed forces.
The envy of normal citizens in this garrison city, who have to make ends meet with only a fraction of the officers' income, had long remained in check. Now that the elite have been disgraced, however, their silence has come to an end. "For 10 years, we fought against terror and against Osama bin Laden alongside the Americans. Then the target is there, and what do we get for it? Nothing but international criticism and ridicule," says Raja Kamra Khan, an eloquent politician whose house lies not far from bin Laden's hideout. "Why can't the government say if we were involved or not?" he asks. "Osama here? Nobody could have imagined that."
Indeed, despite the constant stream of images broadcast from Abbottabad by CNN, the BBC and al-Jazeera, the locals still refuse to believe that the head of a terror network spanning the entire globe could manage to elude the curiosity of his neighbors for years. "If a cow bears a calf around here," people here say, "everyone in the village knows about it."
Osama's Remaining Comrade-in-Arms
The government in Islamabad, meanwhile, is doing its best to avoid transparency. It doesn't want to share any of the responsibility for killing a man widely viewed in this country as the standard bearer of the Islamic cause. But it also doesn't want to look like Washington's clueless lackey either. Last Monday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tried to free himself from this corner by telling Al-Arabiya TV that he only learned about the American raid "15 minutes after it had begun," while insisting that he had been kept in the dark about the mission's target.
This drama concerning Pakistan's identity and its duplicity vis-à-vis Islamist violence offers an opportunity for catharsis. But no one, it would seem, wants to take advantage of it. The country has fought alongside the Americans in the "war on terror" for almost a full decade -- even as some among Pakistan's elite tolerated the activities of radicals. Asad Durrani, a former head of the ISI and Pakistani ambassador to Germany, went on record recently as saying that the strategy is legitimate. Terrorism, he wrote, "is a technique of war, and therefore an instrument of policy."
A similar view is espoused by the man who starts to talk about bin Laden in a modest backyard apartment somewhere in Pakistan on this evening. The man was a close companion of bin Laden while the two waged jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan -- and they remained in touch with one another. Among Osama's long-standing comrades-in-arms, he is one of the last who isn't either dead or in prison.
Sitting cross-legged on his carpet, he says that even though Osama has been liquidated, his death will give rise to thousands of Osamas in every village and on every mountain. "An individual can be killed, but the ideology lives on," he says. "Because the roots are still there, the oppression, the murder and the unequal political treatment of Muslims by America and the Western world."
Visiting the Doctor?
The US government has released videos that make it look like bin Laden spent years idling in his house in Abbottabad. But the man says the videos are misleading. "He came and went," the man says. "This last time, he came back to Abbottabad because he wanted to get treatment. He still had problems with his left leg, which was wounded during the fight at Tora Bora. In addition, he recently became seriously ill, probably a hepatitis."
Less than 100 meters from bin Laden's house in Abbottabad is a villa belonging to a doctor named Amir Aziz. Fuel for speculation: A doctor named Amir or Amer Aziz was jailed in 2002 for providing medical assistance to bin Laden; he hasn't been seen at his job in Lahore for months. "Because he was temporarily in Abbottabad," reported a Pakistani parliamentarian. The army refuses to comment on suspicions that specialists in the military hospital in Abbottabad may have provided aid to Osama, their furtive neighbor.
"I would only visit the military hospital if I wanted to be killed," quips Mohammed Karim Khan, the highest-ranking police officer in the district of Abbottabad. "There are many who haven't come out alive."
His good mood is notable for the fact that he knew nothing about the biggest case in the history of his police department. Osama's helpers in the city? The arrest of the Indonesian Patek? The postal clerk Shehzad? The apartment rented by the CIA to observe Osama's compound? Never heard of it. "The army does all of that here," Khan says. "Our job is just to cordon off the area surrounding bin Laden's house."
Outside, in the narrow lanes of Abbottabad's bazaar, the merchants sit in their stalls as stoically as ever, arms and legs crossed like fakirs sitting on beds of nails. At the traffic circle in the city's center, a loudspeaker van is booming with the staccato demands of the Jamaat-e-Islami party that the "world's biggest terrorist," the United States, cease deadly drone attacks on targets in Pakistani territory.
Meanwhile, Father Akram Javed Gill sits in a quiet courtyard of a house off the city's main street talking of peace. The Catholic priest is in charge of the Parish of St. Peter Canisius, which has been here for over a century, as well as its grade school. It is the last of what were once several Christian educational establishments in Abbottabad; all the others have been taken over by the state or the army. It is thanks to these schools that the city's literacy rate is much higher than the national average.
But even in enlightened Abbottabad, the majority of residents doubt whether bin Laden's end can signal the beginning of better times for Pakistan. "We don't know what was really going on in this house," Father Gill says cautiously when discussing Osama's final sanctuary. The Christians in Abbottabad don't want to suffer because bin Laden was killed here. "This was a peaceful city," Father Gill says. "But now we've had to ask the police for increased protection."
Several years back, in the wake of furious Muslim protests, Father Gill had the walls raised around his church's property and the statue of Mary in its inner courtyard. But he has so far refrained from hiring a sharpshooter like the one that began crouching behind sandbags in front of St. Luke's Church a couple of days ago. Father Gill refuses to let the situation get him down.
At a quarter past ten, he appears for Sunday Mass wearing a bright-white alb and carrying a Bible under his arm. If you turn to Matthew 5:21, you will find: "Thou shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment."
Here in Abbottabad, it can be interpreted as a delayed warning. For Osama and for Obama.