Where bin Laden Went to Ground

Who thought it would end in a place like Abbottabad?

Certainly not the Pakistanis I interviewed during my 8,000-mile journey across Pakistan
to write “Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan” in National Geographic’s September, 2007
issue—conversations that rarely ended without touching, however briefly, on the
question of the decade: Where’s bin Laden?

The smart money, of course, was on the mountains along the Afghan border.

At an army base in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, I asked a Pakistani
general his opinion as we watched a squad of black-suited commandos train for a
helicopter assault on a walled compound, similar to the U.S. attack that ultimately
succeeded four years later. In 2007 Miram Shah—and all Waziristan, both North and
South—was under the firm control of al Qaeda-linked Taliban, and my Army host, with
three stars on his fatigues, stated that bin Laden was surely within striking distance,
hidden in the dust-colored city around us or elsewhere in the rugged Tribal Areas along
the Afghan border, protected by local Pashtun tribesmen.

Others were just as sure that bin Laden was holed up in a major Pakistani city.

Would-be hideouts included Peshawar, a frontier city of two million near the Khyber
Pass and Afghanistan; Rawalpindi, where 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
was captured; and Karachi, population 15 million, a vast, lawless, urban jungle where,
according to Ghulam Hasnain, a prominent local journalist, “you could hide a whole
army of fanatics indefinitely”—including the fanatic-in-chief, Bin Laden.

I heard hundreds of theories, but no one ever suggested that the world’s most wanted
man might be hiding in a place as “ordinary” as Abbottabad.

A view of Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

I first visited this city of a million or so people in the spring of 2005, passing through on
an expedition to Kohistan, a remote mountain region some 125 miles north of the
capital. At first glance, Abbottabad appeared to be just another medium-size Pakistani
city on a crowded highway, cluttered with the usual array of roadside shops, motor
rickshaws, long-distance trucks with psychedelic paint jobs, and swarming pedestrians
of all shapes and dispositions.

Yet this city, named after James Abbott, a British Army officer who governed this part of
what was then British India beginning in 1849, is different in several important ways.

First and foremost, it is an Army Cantonment—thousands of troops are garrisoned here,
along with one of the country’s most elite military schools, the Pakistan Military
Academy
at Kakul. The presence of the military, Pakistan’s most powerful and well funded institution, has made Abbottabad richer and better educated than most other
cities its size. Its infrastructure is in better repair, and the official neglect that blights so
much of Pakistan is less pronounced in Abbottabad, at least for the retired generals and
Army officers who’ve been given property here as a reward for their service.

Last Refuge of Osama bin Laden. (Photograph by Farooq Naeem, AFP/Getty Images)

The city’s metabolism is also quickened by commercial traffic along the Karakoram Highway, which pauses here, an hour north of Islamabad, on its climb to the Chinese border through Gilgit, Baltistan, and Hunza. Flanked by foothills of the Himalaya, Abbottabad is a gateway to the mountains of Kashmir to the north and east—and an occasional way station for members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant Islamist groups fighting the Indian Army in Kashmir.

Bin Laden’s Last Hideout: Photos of the Unlikely Town Where He Was Killed

 

Even so, Abbottabad is no hotbed of militancy. Many long-time residents are
Hindkowans, known locally as Chachis, an ethnic group marked by a late conversion
to Islam from Hinduism and moderate religious beliefs. Most Pakistanis think of
Abbottabad as a peaceful resort city. Vacationers come from all over the country to enjoy
its mountain scenery and temperate climate, and to picnic in nearby national parks.

From now on, of course, Abbottabad will be best known for what happened here in the
early hours of May 2, 2011 to Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man. He’d
lived for years, apparently, under the noses of the Pakistani generals who were
supposedly looking for him—believing, wrongly, that the U.S. would never find him;
that in a place like Abbottabad, it couldn’t possibly end.

Abbottabad night view. (Wikimedia Commons)

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Don Belt is a long-time writer and foreign editor for National Geographic who's traveled to 65 countries while authoring dozens of stories for the magazine. He's also a popular speaker and commentator, with special emphasis on the Middle East and south Asia, the world of Islam, and the effects of global climate change on people in the developing world.