Bin Laden’s Neighbors Say Compound Was Under Surveillance Since 2005

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 18
May 5, 2011 04:18 PM Age: 3 yrs
Category: Terrorism Monitor, Global Terrorism Analysis, Home Page, Featured, Terrorism, Military/Security, Middle East

Locals gather outside of the compound in Abbottabad where Bin Laden was living.

Contrary to statements released by Pakistani intelligence agencies denying any knowledge of the occupants of the Abbottabad compound raided by American Special Forces units on May 1, there is evidence that the occupants of the compound housing Osama bin Laden were well known to Pakistani intelligence from the time the purpose-built compound was finished and occupied in 2005.

An official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) told the BBC that the compound was raided by the ISI while still under construction in 2003 when the agency believed senior al-Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libi was on site. Since then, however, the official claimed the intelligence agency had taken no interest in the facility: “The compound was not on our radar; it is an embarrassment for the ISI… We’re good, but we’re not God” (BBC, May 3). However, in a statement that appeared to reveal the confusion over the incident at the highest levels of the Pakistani government, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the ISI “had been sharing information [on the compound] with the CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009” (The News [Islamabad], May 4).

The house in the garrison city of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden apparently lived for several years before he was killed was the focus of neighbors’ attention for several reasons. The most important reason was its size. The house was many times bigger than most houses in the neighborhood and its reclusive occupants also appeared to have money to throw around. If the balls of children playing in the streets accidently landed in the compound, the children were given Rs 50 by the occupants of the house. [1] Several children told Pakistani TV channels that they had started throwing their balls into the compound on purpose. They were never refused the money (Geo TV, May 3).

However, there were also reasons for the people in the neighborhood not to suspect that this house was the residence of the most wanted terrorist in the world. The house had 12 to 16 foot high boundary walls surmounted by electrified barbed wire. There were surveillance cameras fixed on the walls. The human security around the compound created the impression that it was a secret military or intelligence facility, something the people living in garrison towns are quite used to. A neighbor explained the local lack of interest in the unusual building by saying, “Once you know a particular building belongs to the military or an intelligence agency or any law-enforcement department in Pakistan, you stop taking interest in the unusualness of the building or the activities there.” [2] The neighbors’ conclusion that it belonged to some security agency seems to have put any worries at rest.

The compound became the focus of attention soon after construction on the building started sometime in the fall of 2004. The haste with which it was built also surprised the neighbors: “The pace of construction of this house was one of the topics in our discussion with our families and with friends. We used to say either the owner is fairly rich or it is going to be a military facility, which is not uncommon in this garrison city.” [3] In a TV interview after his interrogation by the security agencies, Noor Mohammad, the contractor who built the house, said that the house was built in one and a half years (Geo TV, May 4).  However, most of the neighbors’ accounts put the construction period between nine and 12 months. Mohammad noted that, unlike the usual back-and-forth negotiations between contractor and owner at various stages of construction that are typical of the residential construction process in Pakistan, the owners of the Abbottabad house never disputed costs and met all requests for additional funds promptly and without question. He also said that the construction work continued uninterrupted, which suggests some urgency. According to another contractor, it is quite possible to construct such a house in six months if the work is conducted without interruption. [4]

When the house was completed its residents moved in quickly: “Nobody knew when exactly they moved in. They probably moved in the middle of night when all of us were sleeping. The furniture and other stuff were brought in during the day, possibly before they moved in. It took some time before the neighbors realized that there were people living in that house.” [5] The few guests to the house typically arrived in the darkness and were rarely seen by the neighbors.

In a country where neighbors have strong ties and very often visit each other, the occupants of the new house discouraged their neighbors from visiting. “My wife tried to establish contacts with the women in that house more than once but was rebuffed. It was the only house in the neighborhood whose female occupants were not known to the other female [residents of the neighborhood]. I had concluded that some nuclear scientist was living there. Some of the nuclear scientists’ families are also reclusive.” [6] Interestingly, no neighbor seems to have seen another family visiting the Bin Laden family.

The neighbors’ accounts contradict official claims that the house was not on the radar of the intelligence agencies. According to several of these witnesses, the house was under continuous and heavy surveillance by the Pakistani intelligence agencies. A local resident observed: “The compound was continuously under the watch of agents of the intelligence and security agencies. They always looked suspiciously at every unusual interest in that compound by our guests. I always had the impression that it was some sort of an intelligence facility.” [7] However, no neighbor ever saw any uniformed personnel visiting the compound. According to a local journalist, it is unlikely that any of the security agents deputed to carry out human surveillance on the compound would have been given any inkling of who was living there. [8] However, it seems clear those directing the surveillance were aware of the identity of the suspects under watch in the compound, indicating that the residents were under the protection of a Pakistani intelligence agency since occupation began.

Notes:

1. Approximately 62 cents, a substantial sum for children in Pakistan.
2. Interview by a research assistant of a neighbor, Abbottabad, May 2.
3. Interview by a research assistant of a neighbor, Abbottabad, May 2.
4. Interview by a research assistant of a local contractor, Abbottabad, May 4.
5. Interview by a research assistant of a shopkeeper, Abbottabad, May 2.
6. Interview by a research assistant of a neighbor, Abbottabad, May 2.
7. Interview by a research assistant of a neighbor, Abbottabad, May 2.
8. Author’s telephone interview with a local journalist, May 3.


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