What has emerged so far is a portrait of an isolated man
The world's most-wanted terrorist lived his last five years imprisoned behind the barbed wire and high walls of his home in Abbottabad, his days consumed by darkness and domesticity.
United States officials believe that Osama bin Laden spent many hours on the computer, relying on couriers to bring him thumb drives packed with information from the outside world. He lived mostly in two indoor rooms except for daily pacing in his courtyard, near a lush inner garden framed by poplar trees. His once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier's brother, who also had the job of buying goats, sheep and Coca-Cola for the household.
While his world had shrunk, he was still revered at home by his three wives, by his children and by the tight, interconnected circle of loyalists in the compound. He did not do chores or tend to the cows and water buffalo on the south side of the compound like the other men. The household, U.S. officials figure, knew how important it was for him to devote his time to al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation he founded and was still actively running at the time of his death.
U.S. officials say there is much they do not know about the last years of Osama, who was shot dead by Navy SEAL commandos last Monday in his third-floor bedroom, and the peculiar life of the compound. But what has emerged so far, in interviews with U.S. and Pakistani military and intelligence officials and Osama's neighbours in the middle-class hamlet where he had been hiding, is a portrait of an isolated man, perhaps a little bored, presiding over family life while plotting mayhem still desperate to be heard, intent on outsize influence, musing in his handwritten notebooks about killing more Americans.
“My father would not look forward to staying indoors month after month, because he is a man who loves everything about nature,” Omar bin Laden, a son of Osama, said in an e-mail message in 2009. “But if I were to say what he would need to survive, I would say food and water. He would go inward and occupy himself with his mind.”
Abbottabad, a scenic hill cantonment for the British Raj and later home to the elite military academy that is Pakistan's West Point, became Osama's family base in late 2005. Their large compound, in a new neighbourhood on the outskirts of town, is now the most photographed house in the country, with stories spilling forth from astonished neighbours. Osama, who was the tall man CIA officers watched pacing the courtyard from a surveillance post nearby, never went out. The neighbours knew the family as Arshad Khan and Tariq Khan, the local aliases of the trusted courier he also went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and his brother.
The Khans seemed pleasant enough, but they kept to themselves behind their 12-foot concrete walls and barbed wire, the neighbours said. They never invited anyone in or went to others' homes, although they did go to prayers in the mosque and funerals in the neighbourhood. The women only left the compound with their husbands in a car, covered from head to toe in black burqas. The children rarely played outside. When neighbourhood boys playing in the fields let a ball fly into the compound by mistake, the Khans gave them Rs. 50 rupees, to buy a new one rather than let them in to retrieve it.“We thought maybe they had killed someone back in their village or something like that and were therefore very cautious,” said a neighbour, an engineer who identified himself as Zaheer.
“They never told us why they came here,” said Naheed Abassi, 21, a driver and farm labourer who said he worked on construction of the house. The courier and his brother, both in their 30s and killed in the raid, were sons of a man Osama, 54, had known for decades. An Osama son, Khalid, who lived in the compound and was also killed, was married to a sister of either the courier or his brother, Pakistani officials said.
On the night he was killed, Osama was with his Yemeni wife Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, who was apparently the one shot by commandos in the leg as she rushed them in an effort to protect her husband. U.S. officials say there were also children in the bedroom; Pakistani intelligence officers, in reports that have not been verified by U.S. officials, say a 12-year-old girl told them that she was a daughter of Osama and that she saw the Americans shoot her father. There was one woman killed in the raid, who was caught in cross-fire when the commandos killed the courier. A retired Pakistani intelligence officer, Brig. Asa Munir, said the woman was an Arab doctor.
Although U.S. intelligence analysts are just beginning to pore over a huge trove of computer files, storage devices and cellphones that the commandos recovered from the compound, U.S. officials already assume that Osama recorded some half-dozen audio messages per year from inside the house over the last five years. The messages were meant for dissemination to the outside world, but to avoid detection, Osama had no Internet, e-mail or phone lines that he could use to send them.
Instead, the audio files were evidently stored on a CD or tiny thumb drive and passed from courier to courier until they reached As Sahab, al-Qaeda's media arm. There they usually would be combined with still images of Osama, subtitled translations, quotations from the Koran and other embellishments. The finished product would be uploaded to jihadist Web forums and occasionally delivered to Al Jazeera or other broadcasters.
Congressional officials who received intelligence briefings this week said that they were struck by how Osama's low-profile, low-tech lifestyle protected him for years, but in the end might have hastened his death. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said that the lack of a large entourage was obviously intended to attract as little attention as possible.
“If you had 25 18-year-olds with guns, then not only would the CIA notice, but so would the Pakistani military,” he said.
But Mr. Reed said he was also struck that Osama was not prepared for the kind of attack the commandos carried out. “There was no escape route, no tunnels, not even false rooms in the house in which to hide,” he said. “It makes you wonder: At what point did that extra degree of vigilance he had get dulled by routine?” — New York Times News Service
(Reporting was contributed by Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt from Washington, David Rohde from New York, and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.)