Osama bin Laden: Inside his Pakistan Compound

When he was killed Sunday, Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight—in a small town next to Pakistan’s military academy. David A. Graham on the clues that gave him away, and how the U.S. Navy practiced for the raid.

When the end came, it wasn’t in the desolate cave of popular imagination, and it wasn’t in a remote, rocky moonscape but in a picturesque military town. Months of work by U.S. intelligence agencies, beginning with a tip in August 2010, eventually led a team of Navy SEALs to a huge compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where they found—and killed—Osama bin Laden Monday night.

Photos: Inside Osama bin Laden's Hideout

The location came as a surprise to many: Abbottabad is the center of Pakistan’s military training, and it’s just over 30 miles from Islamabad, the nation’s capital, as the crow flies: at first glance, an unlikely location for a wanted fugitive. But the compound where bin Laden was found offered some key clues as to who might be inhabiting it.

It was largest home around, and its inhabitants reportedly kept to themselves and kept the house incredibly well fortified. American intelligence officials were shocked to discover the compound’s elaborate security. Photos reveal a drab, boxy white house, but one surrounded by high walls, ranging from 12 to 18 feet tall and topped with barbed wire. The mansion was valued at around $1 million, but had no telephone or Internet service—although it did have a large satellite dish. Besides the building itself, a large perimeter was marked off with high walls. In one part of the yard, residents reportedly burned their trash, presumably to avoid detection, while neighbors set theirs out for curbside collection.

Those living nearby expressed shock at learning who their famous neighbor was. One, Zahoor Ahmed, told Reuters that an old man who never mixed much and “kept a low profile” had lived at the compound for 10 years

The mansion, now ravaged and partly burnt, is relatively new, having been built in 2005. Despite the precautions the residents had taken, its size immediately led U.S. officials to conclude that it had been built as a haven for a high-profile target—perhaps specifically for bin Laden himself. “We were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound, that sits on a large plot of land, relatively secluded, and which is eight times larger than other homes in area," one official told Yahoo News.

There are around a dozen homes nearby, but it was by far the largest and tallest, with its three stories sticking up for some distance amid a landscape of wheat and vegetable fields. None of its windows faced the street, and there was even a privacy wall around a terrace.

It’s still not entirely clear how the whole operation went down. American forces swept in after midnight Sunday, under cover of darkness. The U.S. government offered a dramatic account: as the SEALs arrived, their helicopter malfunctioned. They were able to get off but had to blow up the craft, cutting off—at least temporarily—their escape route. The ensuing firefight, administration official say, lasted around 40 minutes and ended with five people, including bin Laden, dead, and 17 captured. Other accounts suggest a longer battle, perhaps as much as 80 minutes long. There were reportedly two or three helicopters involved. ABC released graphic footage of a blood-spattered room where bin Laden was killed, apparently the first one inside the house.

The elite team of soldiers who carried out the raid were acting under intense pressure, but they had some idea what they would find when they arrived. The Naval Special Warfare Development Group built a full-scale model of the one-acre compound at their base in Dam Neck, Va., just south of Virginia Beach, where they practiced the raid. The government had satellite photos of the site before and after construction, and also released a schematic diagram of the compound.

Those living nearby expressed shock at learning who their famous neighbor was. One, Zahoor Ahmed, told Reuters that an old man who never mixed much and “kept a low profile” had lived at the compound for 10 years, although the timeline conflicts with the building’s more recent construction. Another said, “It’s hard to believe bin Laden was there. We never saw any extraordinary movements.”

In addition to its size, the compound’s proximity to the Pakistan Military Academy has raised eyebrows. The two complexes are just a couple miles apart, and CNN reported that just a week ago Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the Pakistani Army, had told graduating cadets that the “back of terrorism” in the country had been broken. It’s a stunning juxtaposition—analogous to one of America’s most wanted criminals hiding out minutes from West Point. Although its scenic location in Pakistan hills has made it something of a domestic tourist destination, Abbottabad is and always has been a military town, tracing its name to Maj. James Abbott, a British officer who founded the town in 1853.

Experts in the region have already begun pointing fingers at Pakistan, which the U.S. government has described as a key ally in the war on terrorism but has also accused of sheltering terrorists and funneling arms and money to the Taliban and related groups. How could anyone, much less the world’s most wanted terrorist, have escaped notice while living in a huge house in a heavily militarized town of little more than 100,000 people? “Abbottabad is essentially a military cantonment city in Pakistan, in the hills to the north of the capital of Islamabad, in an area where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistan Army and retired army officers,” wrote Steve Coll, a New Yorker reporter who penned the definitive Ghost Wars, a chronicle of American involvement with bin Laden and Afghanistan. “It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without it coming to the attention of anyone in Pakistan’s Army.”

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Pakistani officials were not informed before or during the raid, the U.S. government says, and President Ali Asif Zardari learned of bin Laden’s death during a phone call with President Obama. Pakistani officials initially indicated they had been involved in the raid, but then retracted their claim, saying simply that Pakistani intelligence had contributed to the discovery of bin Laden’s location. Now, Pakistani soldiers have secured the compound and are controlling the area and keeping out curious or spurious visitors. The question Zardari, Kayani, and others will have to answer in the coming days and months is why they’re only getting around to that now.

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.