05.02.11

Osama bin Laden's Pakistan Haven

It’s not shocking that Osama bin Laden was found in a comfortable Pakistan mansion—what’s shocking is that the U.S. pretends the country isn’t a harbor for terrorists.

It’s not shocking that Osama bin Laden was found in a comfortable Pakistan mansion—what’s shocking is that the U.S. pretends the country isn’t a harbor for terrorists. Plus, full coverage of bin Laden’s death.

To me, as an American Muslim, it’s significant that bin Laden is dead. American-Muslim groups zipped out statements through the night after news of his death: Muslims for Progressive Values said it “expresses great relief” at the death, saying, “Osama Bin Laden has singularly disgraced Islam and dragged our faith through the mud…” Islamic Information Center called him “one of the greatest enemies of Islam, if not the entire world.” American Islamic Forum for Democracy said it “applauds” the news.

Photos: Inside Osama bin Laden's Hideout

For me, what’s as important, however, is where bin Laden was killed: the hill-station town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the heartland of Pakistan in the province of Khyber Paktunkhwa, a province formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province. He wasn’t found in a cave in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but rather in a comfortable home in a hill station that could be a mini-Colorado Springs, Colorado, of Pakistan, complete with a military academy, numerous military installations, a St. Luke’s church and the Taj Majal Cinema.

Bin Laden’s refuge in Pakistan speaks to the safe haven the nation has given to militants and terrorist operatives for decades and, most troubling, in recent years in a culture of denial that the U.S. has enabled in its prickly relationship with Pakistan. In making the announcement, Obama said America’s “friendship” with Pakistan allowed the operation to assassinate bin Laden, even thanking Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

As a journalist who has traveled Pakistan and tracked its links to militancy and terrorism, including the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, I consider this sugarcoating just another chapter in America’s peculiar choice to pull its punches regarding a harsh but obvious reality: Pakistan has been a safe haven not only for bin Laden but for dozens of men involved in attacks on the U.S., including the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose ethnicity is rooted in the western Pakistani province of Baluchistan. For almost two years, I’ve been working as a cultural trainer to the U.S. military, teaching that the U.S. must know the heartland of Pakistan, from Karachi, a teeming city where so many operatives hide, to places such as southern Punjab, the heart of the country and home to the “Punjabi Taliban” and the foot soldiers involved in Pearl’s kidnapping. As a journalist, I choose to do the cultural training, because I’ll never forget the name Pearl put on the last picture I have with him. We were in Karachi, and he called it, “Clueless in Karachi.”

To know where so many men on the U.S. Most Wanted list have hidden is to know the geography of Pakistan—and not just the wild, wild west of the country’s border region with Afghanistan, but in its heartland and some of its finest neighborhoods, including military cantonments like the one near which bin Laden was killed. I created a Google map outlining cities where al-Qaeda operatives have been picked up. Zoom into Abbottabad, find St. Peter’s church and Gammi Adda Stop, a bus stop, and behind both spots you’ll see a neighborhood where a user had labeled “Osama bin Laden’s compound,” off Awami Road. It’s near the intersection of roads named for Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and the country’s Walt Whitman, poet Allama Iqbal.

Photos: The World Reacts

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While I haven’t been to Abbottabad, a city of about 125,000 people, it’s like hill stations I’ve visited around the nation’s capital, scenic, peaceful and home to top schools and resort hotels. I’ve driven not far from it on the highway to Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a magical land that writer Rudyard Kipling traveled and wrote poetic prose about.

Located on the Silk Road, known as the Korakoram Highway, it’s no outpost outside central government authority, like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where so much U.S. military strategy and media attention has been focused. It’s home to the Pakistan Military Academy, the equivalent of Pakistan’s West Point. It’s also got an important military cantonment as the headquarters of a brigade in the Second Division of Pakistan’s Northern Army Corps.

The namesake for Abbottabad, British Army Major James Abbott, founded the town in 1853, the “abad” in its name meaning “a place of living” in Urdu. Abbott wrote a poem called Abbottabad, enshrined in a city plaque, that has an eerie ring today: “I remember the day when I first came here/And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air/The trees and ground covered with snow/Gave us indeed a brilliant show/To me the place seemed like a dream/And far ran a lonesome stream/The wind hissed as if welcoming us/The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss/And the tiny cuckoo sang it away/A song very melodious and gay/I adored the place from the first sight/And was happy that my coming here was right/And eight good years here passed very soon/And we leave our perhaps on a sunny noon/Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now/ To your natural beauty do I bow/Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear/My gift for you is a few sad tears/I bid you farewell with a heavy heart/Never from my mind will your memories thwart.”

Bin Laden is no longer a threat to the U.S., but a deeper problem remains: Pakistan’s safe harbor for men intent on harming the U.S.

In much the same whimsy, we act as if Pakistan has just had a simple “friendship” in America’s fight against al Qaeda, but the truth is that its role as a safe space for ideologues dates back to 1979. That year, an Islamist movement came to Pakistan under a military dictator, Gen. Zia ul Haq. Pakistani intelligence began supporting the mujahideen, or “freedom fighters.” In the years after, men from bin Laden to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) found an ideological and operational base in Pakistan. As a nation, we turned a blind eye because the freedom fighters were battling the U.S. enemy, the Soviet Union, after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In 1989, the Soviets were defeated, and ideologues, including bin Laden, turned their eyes to attacks on the U.S.

Since then, bin Laden’s killing is the latest in a long string of bad guys found, killed, or snatched in Pakistan. In 1993, we had our first attack on the World Trade Center, and on Feb. 17, 1995, according to media reports, U.S. officials raided room number 16 in the Su-Casa Guest House in the city of Islamabad and captured the operational leader of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, Ramzi Yousef, before he headed off for the border city of Peshawar. He was a Pakistani, and he was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In 1994, British-Pakistani Muslim militant Omar Sheikh was arrested in India for allegedly kidnapping an American in New Delhi. On Dec. 31, 1999, he was freed in exchange for prisoners taken captive on an Indian Airlines jet hijacked from Kathmandu, Nepal, and diverted to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the headquarters for the Taliban in their emergence to power in Afghanistan. At the airport to give the men a welcome home party, according to Sheikh’s FBI report: bin Laden, who was a guest of the Taliban in Kandahar. From Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Omar Sheikh slipped easily into Pakistan, was feted at a party in the coastal city of Karachi and then settled down, marrying and welcoming a son, in the Punjab province capital of Lahore. He moved freely in Pakistan, though the U.S. pressed for extradition on the 1994 kidnapping charge. In early January 2002, Sheikh met Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl at the Akbar Hotel in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, outside Islamabad, and hatched his plot to kidnap him. On Feb. 5, 2002, Sheikh turned himself into Pakistani intelligence in the city of Lahore, and the ISI secretly held him for a week before telling the FBI and the CIA.

The next month, in March 2002, FBI agents and CIA officials raided a safehouse in the city of Faisalabad, also in the province of Punjab, and picked up a senior al-Qaeda operational leader, Abu Zubaydah, who offered the U.S. its first clues that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind 9/11. He disclosed something we hardly ever acknowledge: al-Qaeda operatives, from “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to failed “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, freely traveled the roads through Pakistan to get operational instructions from KSM in Karachi.

That spring, KSM and another senior al-Qaeda operational leader Ramzi bin al-Shibh secretly gave an audacious interview to al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda, taking credit for 9/11. The interview aired on the first anniversary of 9/11, and, sure enough, on Sept. 11, 2002, U.S. officials picked up Ramzi bin al-Shibh in a safehouse in the posh Defence Housing Authority neighborhood of Karachi, not far from where I had rented a home months earlier.

The next year, on March 1, 2003, where did CIA officials pick up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? A comfortable home in a military cantonment in the city of Rawalpindi. The list goes on and on. It’s not shocking to me that bin Laden was killed in the heart of Pakistan. As a Muslim dedicated to defeating the ideology of men like bin Laden, I said to myself what it is we are taught to say as Muslims whenever anyone dies: "Innalilahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon." It means: “To God we belong and to Him we will return.”

Bin Laden is no longer a threat to the U.S., but a deeper problem remains: Pakistan’s safe harbor for men intent on harming the U.S. What matters now is that the U.S. stop enabling this very serious problem of Pakistan’s culture of denial for its base as a safe space for militants and al-Qaeda operatives. “Never from my mind will your memories thwart,” Major Abbott said of the city where, about 150 years later, Osama bin Laden, America’s No. 1 enemy in the world, was killed.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace . asra@asranomani.com