Changing Planet

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
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)
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.
  • rosanna cruz

    After reading this article i don’t believe that the Pakistani Gov’t are not aware of OBL visibility especially the place contained Military schools and populated by retired military men. That is a big LIE!!!! Pakistani Gov”t should be investigated! They are harboring a terrorist.. I don’t really understand…It seems that they are terrorist too!!


    Its a beautiful city

  • Dr Ashwin Pai

    Pakistan is such a JOKE !! The country is governed by clowns and stand up comedians. The spokesperson for pakistani government can host his own comedy show on CNN. With osama 60 kms away from Islamabad only Pakistanis would have the harebrain to look for him in Peshawar and other gos forsaken places.

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  • mart1nz

    I can not say that the Pakistani government is involved in harboring terrorist. But I can not say for Ħ fact that they are not either.
    What I can say is that there must be some high ranked officers within the government, both in military and non military division, such as Ħ high profile members of the parliament, must be involved, for bin laden’s benefit. Otherwise he would not have been able to lived freely in plain sight as if he was living under witsec.
    What I can say for sure is that the Muslims, despite their hatred among themselves just like the Iraqi n Iranian etc. When it comes down to the US n Bin Ladan, India n Pakistan, Muslim n Non-Muslim and Muslim n Imperialism etc., they still stand on their on side.

  • ALia

    Off course Pakistani Govt is involved as well, n their involvement in all the issues leads to the death of the poor public who are never aware of anything going around the country!!

    Also to let u all know Pakistan isn’t a joke…its just sinking because of its Cheap Govt and the leaders at the moment..every country has crisis every country has issues which are faced in today’s date if see almost half the countries of the world i facing issues just because of the placement of the wrong leaders|!!

    My point is that its not the country to be blamed its the leaders to be blamed!!!
    don’t forget no country is perfect!!!

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