A Peaceful City? Scratching Beneath the Surface in Abbottabad

Is the city of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US Special Operations forces on May 1, really as bucolic as it has been described? The al-Qaida boss, as it turns out, was far from the only Islamist who sought refuge in the town.

REUTERS

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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.

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