05.02.11

Osama Was My Neighbor

Residents from the upscale neighborhood where bin Laden spent his last days talk to Newsweek/Daily Beast about hearing the firefight, living next to bin Laden, and mourning the loss of a leader.

Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight after all, far from his most obvious redoubts: the well-worn terrorist trails of North and South Waziristan and the other remote and militant-infested tribal agencies along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It would be difficult to think of a more unlikely place for him to sequester himself than the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad, where he was killed by U.S. Special Operations troops just after midnight on Monday.

The Pakistani army and police quickly sealed all roads near the large, three story, cream- colored house that sits on more than an acre of land surrounded by a high cement wall topped with concertina wire. A solitary soldier stood guard on the house’s roof while teams of the CIA and Pakistani intelligence went over the house and the expansive grounds with a fine tooth comb looking for more forensic evidence that could lead to more anti-terror operations. But some journalists, including a Newsweek reporter, got close enough to the house by walking through a series of back alleyways running through the Bilal Town neighborhood of relatively new and expensive multi-storied houses.

Bin Laden had picked one of the best and most upscale neighborhoods in town. From the third floor of one of those houses, the bin Laden compound was clearly visible about one-quarter of a mile away across an expanse of vegetable and wheat fields. The security forces had erected a red wall of plastic or cloth sheeting to block from view a vacant lot that is located just in front of the bin Laden house’s high outer wall. Neighbors say the security forces put up the cloth barrier at first light to hide the wreckage of an American Apache helicopter gunship, which had crashed during the operation to capture or kill bin Laden, that was either brought down by mechanical troubles or gunfire from inside the compound.

“But [bin Laden’s death] won’t affect us. He was created by the U.S. and has been killed by the U.S.”

Several neighbors who talked to Newsweek separately and who claim to have witnessed part of the operation from their rooftops or second story windows told slightly differing stories. But they all basically agreed that there were three helicopters involved; that they heard an exchange of gunfire between the helicopters, or the attacking ground force, and bin Laden and his protectors; that one of the choppers was shot down or crashed, causing a loud explosion and fire; and that the entire operation lasted about 40 minutes at most. None of their accounts can be independently verified.

Dr. Haroon Rashid, a local physician, whose house is located some 500 meters from the target, said he was awakened by gunfire and a loud explosion just after midnight. He ran to the second story window of his house to see what was happening. He told Newsweek that he thought he saw a “missile or something” that was fired from the ground that hit the one helicopter that went down. Soon after that he said a larger helicopter, probably a CH-47 or Chinook dual rotor transport helicopter, landed inside bin Laden’s compound and stayed for about three minutes before it lifted off again and was followed by another helicopter. He said he and his neighbors had no idea who was living in the large house and the sprawling grounds, but that the local speculation was that they were money changers. He talked to some of his neighbors though who said they had seen charred helicopter parts scattered in the lot behind the freshly erected red fence.

Saifullah, a 21-year-old student who is studying commerce, gave a more detailed account of the operation. He said just after midnight he went to the roof of his house that was some 200 meters away from bin Laden’s when he heard the unusual sound of helicopters in such a peaceful place as Abbottabad. He saw three helicopters flying low, almost hovering over the bin Laden house. “I knew they were searching for something,” he said. The next thing he heard was a firefight going on. He too believes one chopper, which he called an Apache gunship, was hit by an RPG fired by bin Laden’s men. It suddenly crashed, causing a loud explosion and fire. “There must have been a lot of explosives in the helicopter to make such a loud blast,” he said. “The noise was so loud it must have awakened living several kilometers away.” Next he says a double rotor Chinook landed inside the compound. It left a few minutes later. He speculates it carried away bin Laden’s remains and important documents.

Another young man named Usman also claimed to be living in the neighborhood and to have caught glimpses of the operation from his nearby rooftop. He said it was too dark to see much. But he, too, reports that he heard sounds of a firefight at about 1:15 a.m., and saw two to three helicopters hovering low over the compound.

Reaction to bin Laden’s death seemed muted. At least in Abbottabad there were no celebrations and no protests against his death. On the surface Abbottabad seemed completely unaffected. There was the normal heavy flow of traffic on downtown streets. Markets and shops were crowded with shoppers. But the dozen or so Abbottabad residents interviewed by Newsweek expressed a sense of both disbelief at the reports that he was dead and a hint of sadness as well. “No one believes he’s dead. It’s just American propaganda,” said a young man who gave his name as Ali. “No one has shown us any proof yet.” Nadim Gul, who lives in a multi-story house near bin Laden’s, said he was mourning for the al Qaeda leader. “I wholeheartedly support him,” he said. “He was a Muslim hero. God bless him.” Salahuddin, who sports a thick, bushy beard, says he too lives in bin Laden’s neighborhood and heard five loud blasts during the operation. He claims he walked by the house with a policeman early Monday morning but did not see any remains of a downed helicopter. But he did see several burned-out cars inside bin Laden’s compound. “No one supports this killing,” he said. “But it won’t affect us. He was created by the U.S. and has been killed by the U.S.” At the Bilal Mosque not far from the site of the operation, the dozen religious students inside refused to comment on bin Laden’s death. They seemed afraid that they would land in trouble with the police if they said anything favorable about bin Laden. “You never know who is listening,” one said.

Bin Laden had clearly picked what seemed to be a perfect place to hide. But his luck finally ran out after nearly a decade on the run. Unlike other Pakistani towns and cities there has never been a terrorist attack in Abbottabad and the town has had no links with militancy. “This is the safest place,” says the student Saifullah. “It’s so safe there have never been any police or army searches for militants. No doubt bin Laden must have felt very safe here.”

Bin Laden’s death is a crushing blow to his terrorist organization. But the impact of his death may be largely psychological, lowering morale and perhaps stirring his lieutenants to try to strike back with a vengeance and without proper planning. If so that could expose more al Qaeda operatives to U.S. counterterror operations. His death will not have a direct impact on the Afghan battlefield. The Afghan Taliban do not rely on al Qaeda for much of anything anymore. They are running their own show inside Afghanistan. But Taliban commanders and intelligence agents interviewed by Newsweek are profoundly shocked and saddened by the death of someone they revered as a great Islamic and anti-American warrior.

"For the Taliban this is truly the saddest news in 10 years,” says a member of the Taliban's ruling Quetta shura. "We will remember Sheikh Osama as one of the heroes of Islam and spiritual father for the all jihadis and anti-U.S. and anti-Jewish elements." "Last night the biggest voice of the Muslim world was silenced,” he added. “It’s a spiritual loss for us and a happy day for the U.S."

"His loss is the biggest of the century," says a former Taliban minister who says he met bin Laden on Sept. 3, 2001 and calls him a “great and inspiring person.” “This is the second time in my life I am truly sad. The first was when our Islamic regime collapsed.” “But his death will not have an impact on the struggle against the West,” he added. “The Mujahideen will take his revenge worldwide and make the sheikh’s soul happy."

“His death is [a] huge disaster not only for al Qaeda but also for [the] rest of the jihadist and Muslim world," says a Taliban intelligence officer. "I am sorry for his holy death, but I’m glad the U.S. did not capture him alive and send him to Guantanamo.” But that’s small consolation for the grieving jihadists.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.