Washington/Abbotabad: US forces finally found Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden not in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan’s border, but in a million-dollar compound, near a Pakistani military training academy, in an upscale suburb of Pakistan’s capital, with his youngest wife, US officials said early on Monday.
They were led to the fortress-like three-story building after more than four years tracking one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, whom US officials said was identified by men captured after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
“Detainees also identified this man as one of the few Al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with or protected by bin Laden,” a senior administration official said in a briefing for reporters.
Bin Laden was finally found -- more than 9-1/2 years after the 2001 attacks on the United States -- after authorities discovered in August 2010 that the courier lived with his brother and their families in an unusual and extremely high-security building, officials said.
“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound,” a senior administration official said.
“The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harbored a high-value terrorist target. The experts who worked this issue for years assessed that there was a strong probability that the terrorist who was hiding there was Osama bin Laden,” another administration official said.
The home is in Abbotabad, a town about 35 miles (60 km) north of Islamabad, that is relatively affluent and home to many retired members of Pakistan’s military.
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 Abbotabad’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.
Walls topped with barbed wire
Intense security measures included 12- to 18-foot (3.6 meters to 5.5 meters) 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.
“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.”
US 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.
A small US team conducted a helicopter raid on the compound on Sunday afternoon, officials said. After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden and an adult son, one unidentified woman and two men -- identified as the courier and his brother -- were dead, officials said, and Obama was preparing a television address to the nation.
Abbotabad is a popular summer resort, located in a valley surrounded by green hills near Pakistani Kashmir. militants, particularly those fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, used to have training camps near the town.
Dramatic night-time raid not
The Al Qaeda leader was killed in a dramatic CIA-led operation involving helicopters and ground troops on Sunday night.
The revelation that bin Laden was sheltering inside Pakistan is likely to ratchet up pressure on Islamabad.
The country’s arch-rival, India, was quick to comment, saying the news underlined its “concern that terrorists belonging to different organisations find sanctuary in Pakistan.”
A Reuters photographer in the valley town of Abbotabad said police had blocked the road leading to the area where the night-time raid at a huge compound took place.
“After midnight, a large number of commandos encircled the compound. Three helicopters were hovering overhead. All of a sudden there was firing towards the helicopters from the ground,” said Nasir Khan, a resident of the town.
“There was intense firing and then I saw one of the helicopters falling down,” said Khan, who had watched the dramatic scene unfold from his rooftop.
Senior Pakistani security officials said the operation, carried out at around 1:30 a.m., involved both helicopters and ground troops.
A Pakistani military helicopter crashed near Abbotabad on Sunday night, killing one and wounding two, according to local media. It was unclear if the crash was related to bin Laden’s death, but witnesses reported gunshots and heavy firing before one of two low-flying helicopters crashed near the military academy.
Express 24/7 television showed an image of what it said was bin Laden shot in the head, his mouth pulled back in a grimace.
Pakistan faces awkward questions
The fact bin Laden was apparently living in relative luxury not far from Islamabad could pose awkward questions for Pakistan.
Just 10 days ago Pakistan’s army chief addressed army cadets at the academy near where bin Laden was killed, saying the country’s military had broken the back of militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“For some time there will be a lot of tension between Washington and Islamabad because bin Laden seems to have been living here close to Islamabad,” said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst.
“If the ISI had known then somebody within the ISI must have leaked this information,” Gul said, referring to the Pakistani intelligence agency. “Pakistan will have to do a lot of damage control because the Americans have been reporting he is in Pakistan ... this is a serious blow to the credibility of Pakistan.”
However, defence analyst and former general Talat Masood said the fact bin Laden was killed in a joint operation would limit the damage to Pakistan’s image
“There should be a sigh of relief because this will take some pressure off of Pakistan,” said Masood. “Pakistan most probably has contributed to this, and Pakistan can take some credit for this -- being such an iconic figure, it’s a great achievement.”