away in the Himalayan foothills, Abbottabad was Pakistan's best kept
secret — until last Sunday. That's when Osama bin Laden was killed in a
three-story house within walking distance of the Pakistan Military
So why Abbottabad? And how was the
world's most hunted man able to live near a guarded military post
without raising more suspicions?
officials, along with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, have
accused the Pakistani government of incompetence. Others have gone
further, arguing that high-level officials must have been complicit in helping bin Laden go undetected—allegations that the government has denied.
is eventually learned about the role of the Pakistani government or its
military, there are clues in Abbottabad's culture, history and
geography as to why it might have been one of the few places in the
world—maybe the only place—where bin Laden could successfully hide in
(pronounced "Ahb-ta-baad" or "Apt-abaad") is a mountain city of
approximately 120,000 people in the northern region of Pakistan. It has
a reputation for greater tolerance than many other cities in the
conservative northern region—largely because it has been home to many
foreigners and outsiders over the years. It is a retirement town known
for protecting the privacy of its wealthier inhabitants—the Jackson
Hole of Pakistan, to put it in American terms. Nestled between several
mountains, Abbottabad is a place thriving with lush greenery and
freshwater springs—reminiscent of the lower French Alps.
is not uncommon that you would find the vacation homes of foreigners
here," says one former college professor who grew up in Abbottabad.
"And since some of them could have been in the drug trade, you never
asked questions." She owned property in Bilaltown, near the bin Laden
compound, until 2004 and last visited early this year; she asked not to
be named for security reasons.
reports have questioned how a house with barbed wire surrounding the
walls failed to raise more questions. But houses with fortified walls
are the norm in the region. People familiar with the region say bin
Laden's house blended in with others, despite the fact that it was the
largest in the immediate vicinity.
mother's house had sharp glass embedded into the walls, so that robbers
couldn't climb the walls," says the former professor, explaining why
bin Laden's compound, with its walls topped with barbed wire, may not
have attracted much notice.
military presence may have contributed to local residents'
live-and-let-live attitude. Who would suspect the world's number one
fugitive taking up residence near the military?
just doesn't have a reputation for hiding terrorists, especially
because the military is right here," says the former professor.
"People would assume that it was probably someone with black money who
didn't want to be disturbed."
woman, who lives within sight of the compound and declined to be
identified out of fear for her safety: "We all just assumed it was a
secret military building. We didn't ask questions and didn't really
one telling trait of many Abbotabadis is that they are generally not
overly pre-occupied with things that don't concern their immediate
daily lives. The general attitude in Abbottabad is such that
showing-off or displaying curiosity about other people's affairs or
wealth is considered abhorrent behavior. Thus, the compound may not
have gone unnoticed; instead, it simply may not have been discussed in
"Abbottabadis aren't the paranoid or
suspicious type. They assume the best in everyone and talk to you like
they're your best friend, even if you've only met once," says 25-year
old Shahzad Sadiq, who lives two hours away in Rawalpindi. "It's not
like that in Rawalpindi or other large cities."
Shahzad's mother, Dr. Ghazala Sadiq, an Abbottabadi-born obstetrician
now also living in Rawalpindi also points out that the invasion of Swat
Valley in 2007 by the Taliban brought many outsiders to
Abbottabad—outsiders who often remained cloistered in massive,
multi-family compounds. "Since many of their women observe purda
(i.e. segregation) and live in large, multi-family compounds, nobody
would ever question a large building with high walls," Dr. Sadiq says.
"If it's true that he was hiding here, he couldn't have picked a better place to deceive the world," she adds.
Maryam Khan Ansari has family roots in Abbottabad and both her
parents grew up there. She currently has several close family members
still living there and speaks to them on a weekly basis. She last
visited in 2004 and spent much time in Abbottabad as a child. She is
the granddaughter of well-known Abbottabadi poet, the late Hafeez Asar.