The death of Osama bin Laden in a fortress-like compound on the outskirts of a Pakistani city that is home to three army regiments and thousands of soldiers raises questions over whether Pakistani security forces knew the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man.
The al Qaeda chief was living in a house in Abbottabad that a U.S. administration official said was “custom built to hide someone of significance.” The city around 60 miles from the capital Islamabad is a far cry from the remote mountain caves along the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal border where most intelligence assessments had put bin Laden in recent years.
Critics have long accused elements of Pakistan’s security establishment of protecting bin Laden, though Islamabad has always denied this. Ties between the United States and Pakistan have hit a low point in recent months over the future of Afghanistan, and any hint of possible Pakistani collusion with bin Laden could hit them hard even amid the jubilation of getting American’s No. 1 enemy.
That bin Laden could be in Abbottabad unknown to authorities “is a bit amazing” says Hamid Gul, a former Pakistani intelligence chief fiercely critical of America’s presence in the region. Aside from the military “there is the local police, the Intelligence Bureau, Military Intelligence, the ISI, they all had a presence there.”
Pakistani security forces blocked access to the compound on Monday, but Associated Press reporters saw the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed during the operation. Local residents described the sounds of bullets, the clatter of chopper blades and two large explosions as the raid went down.
The compound was around one kilometre (half a mile) away from the Kakul Military Academy, an army run institution for top officers and one of several military installations in the bustling, hill-ringed town of around 400,000 people.
An American administration official said the compound was built in 2005 at the end of a narrow dirt road with “extraordinary” security measures. He said it had 12 to 18—feet walls topped with barbed wire with two security gates and no telephone or Internet service connected to it.
A video aired by ABC News that purported to show the inside of bin Laden’s compound included footage of dishevelled bedrooms with floors stained with large pools of blood and littered with clothes and paper. It also showed a dirt road outside the compound with large white walls on one side and a green agricultural field on the other.
Pakistan’s government and army are very sensitive to concerns that they are working under the orders of America and allowing U.S. forces to operate here. Some critics assailed Pakistan for allowing the operation, while at least one Islamist party was planning a protest against the killing of man idolized by militants inside Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban, an al Qaeda allied group behind scores of bombings in Pakistan and the failed bombing in New York’s Times Square, vowed revenge.
“Let me make it very clear that we will avenge the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden, and we will do it by carrying out attacks in Pakistan and America,” Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told The Associated Press by phone. “We will teach them an exemplary lesson.”
Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf, who is eyeing a political comeback, said the “killing was the success of all peace loving people of the world.” But he also said the Americans should not have been allowed to operate independently in the country.
One Pakistani official said the choppers took off from a Pakistani air base, suggesting some cooperation in the raid. President Barack Obama said Pakistan had provided some information leading to the raid, did not thank the country in his statement on bin Laden’s death.
Pakistan’s intelligence agency and the CIA have cooperated in joint raids before against al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan on several occasions since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But U.S. and Pakistani officials indicated that this mission was too important to let anyone know more than a few minutes in advance.