The Mystery of Bin Laden’s Compound

Why didn't the U.S. detect it years ago?

Many political observes are pointing out that Bin Laden’s hideout was so obvious that the Pakistanis had to have known that the chief of al-Qaeda was living there. Did the Pakistanis know? The answer appears to be obvious. But new information from documents released by Wikileaks raises another serious question: Shouldn’t we have known?

A file dated September 18, 2008, shows that Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who replaced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as Al-Qaeda’s third-in-command, told his interrogators at Guantanamo Bay that he was tasked with finding safe havens for Osama Bin Laden. Al-Libbi, who was captured in 2005, offers the first hint that Abbottabad was being used to refuge top Al-Qaeda officials.

“In mid-2003, detainee [al-Libbi] moved his family to Abbottabad and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar,” the document states. His family was moved in mid-2004 to Bajaur.

This fact should have immediately placed the city on the long list of havens in Pakistan where Bin Laden could be hiding. If al-Libbi felt safe there, it is reasonable to assume that he’d also assume it’d be a suitable spot for his leader. The capturing of other top Al-Qaeda leaders in affluent areas outside of the tribal areas, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, should have indicated that there was a strong possibility that Bin Laden would go to the same types of areas. After all, he’d obviously want to get out of range of the drones that were killing members of his group left and right in the tribal areas.

According to the information in the press, the name of Osama Bin Laden’s live-in courier was discovered in 2007. Two years later, the general region of his location was found out and in August 2010, the compound was identified as his home.

We need to be asking why this order of events didn’t happen in reverse.

Once Abbottabad was marked as a safe haven for a top Al-Qaeda leader, why didn’t the compound come under heavy surveillance from its construction in 2005 until August 2010 as a likely hiding spot for Bin Laden or another very important terrorist operative? If it was under surveillance, we would have noticed the suspicious movements of at least one courier which would indicate the importance of the site.

It is hard to believe that analysts looking at satellite imagery of Abbottabad wouldn’t notice how suspicious the compound was. It cost $1 million, was three stories high and was nearly two football fields long. It had 18-foot walls topped off with barbed wire. There were two security entrances and cameras outside and few windows. It was built on a narrow road and is eight times larger than the surrounding homes. Yet, whoever lived there didn’t want telephone lines or an Internet connection and burned their trash instead of having it picked up like everyone else. This compound should have been readily identifiable as a location of very significant importance through satellite photos alone.

Testimony from the locals indicates there was a lot of talk about the site. It was known as “Waziristan Mansion” and anyone who got too close or leaned on the security wall was told to distance themselves. If a football came onto the land, kids were not allowed to get it and were instead paid two or three dollars. Locals say vehicles from the compound regularly went to the tribal areas and the women living there were noticeable because of their black burqas; an unusual attire in this community of more moderate Hazara Muslims. One woman who delivered polio vaccine was immediately told to leave after she asked about the expensive SUVs parked there.

“People were skeptical in this neighborhood about this place and these guys. They used to gossip…People would complain that even with such a big house they didn’t invite the poor or distribute charity,” a farmer in the city said.

One local said, “A friend told me that some tall, bearded men lived in the house who said they had come to Abbottabad from Peshawar some years ago due to some enmity.” This lines up with what al-Libbi said.

Two brothers that lived at the site had some interaction with the community. One shopkeeper said they “always asked questions about what was happening locally and whether there had been strange visitors to the area.” The site itself and this type of activity was so suspicious that a rumor went around that the individual living there was the nephew of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed in a 2009 drone strike. Apparently, the locals did suspect someone of high importance in the terrorist world was living there but did not question whether it was Bin Laden.

It needs to be asked why satellites did not identify the compound before August as a likely hiding spot for a High Value Target that could be Bin Laden. Based on what the locals are saying, it seems that it should have been relatively easy for a covert operative in the area or a human intelligence source to hear talk about the site that would have set off alarms. Between the site’s physical features and the talk of the locals, not much more evidence could realistically be desired.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden is a massive success. That it happened in 2011 at a massive site obviously designed to protect a High Value Target in a city previously identified by al-Libbi as a haven for top Al-Qaeda members is not.