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Abbottabad: A perfect place to hide in plain sight

• Yahoo! News blog
by Maryam Khan Ansari

Tucked 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 Academy.

So why Abbottabad? And how was the world's most hunted man able to live near a guarded military post without raising more suspicions?

Some U.S. 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.

Whatever 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 plain sight.

Abbottabad (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.

"It 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.

Many news 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.

"My 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.

Ironically the 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?

"Abbottabad 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."

Adds another 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 care."

Indeed, 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 public.

"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.

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