The Osama travelogues, as wrung out of Gitmo detainees

Osama bin Laden was immensely resourceful but he was also hardwired in his habits. What we now know suggests that his life inside the Abbottabad compound was an extension of his life in other compounds that he owned and lived in for two decades or more.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:43 pm IST

Published - May 12, 2011 01:59 am IST

Osama bin Laden, who was killed by a team of U.S Navy SEALs in a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan on the night of May 1, was possibly living in Pakistan from 2002, going by the accounts of hundreds of Guantanamo detainees.

The accounts, contained in the Guantanamo files recently released by the WikiLeaks, produce a rich, if not always reliable, travelogue of the al-Qaeda leader's journey to Pakistan — there are as many 3,900 references to him spread over the files of 765 of the detainees. The WikiLeaks Web site has properly warned that the information contained in the files may not be credible as U.S officials used brutal and coercive techniques to extract confessions from the detainees.

But as they are, the accounts portray a man who, while zealously preaching jihad and suffering from bad kidneys, was very mobile, followed a diet of three meals a day, and travelled with Islamic scholars, including one who could interpret dreams.

Interestingly, it does appear that his life inside the Abbottabad compound was an extension of his life in other similar compounds he owned and lived in for two decades or more.

Between 1992 and 1995, bin Laden was operating from his compound in Khartoum till the U.S. government put pressure on the Sudan government to expel him. As Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjoub (Gitmo file: 695) , said to be a long-time bin Laden associate and currently a detainee in Guantanamo, related it, bin Laden used two aircraft to move his family and bodyguards to Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda leader, his two sons, Saad and Umar, and confidants travelled in one plane. Mahjoub said he was in the other plane accompanying “the family members of the first plane of people” — Gitmo officials interpreted that to mean bin Laden's wives and children — along with “unspecified goods and equipment.”

In Afghanistan, bin Laden built and owned numerous guest houses and compounds. While the guest houses were used mostly by al-Qaeda fighters in transit, the compounds with their multiple houses were the places where bin Laden lived with his retinue. The Nejim al Jihad compound in Jalalabad, in the accounts of several Guantanamo detainees, appears to have been bin Laden's favourite residence where he lived with his wives and trusted bodyguards under less precarious circumstances. He was there in 1998, according to one reference in the Gitmo files. The compound was also known as the “airport house” due to its proximity to the airport.

It is not clear when bin Laden moved out of Jalalabad but his next destination was Kandahar, where he set up his best-known compound called Mall Six. From various detainees' accounts, it is possible to make out that bin Laden lived there between 1999 until a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks.

Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay are recorded as recalling their visits to Mall Six, also known as Mujamma Sitta (Compound Number Six); some of them said they had met bin Laden there. Some had even attended the wedding of Muhammed bin Laden, bin Laden's son, in the compound.

Mall Six had multiple buildings, a mosque, and a horse stable. The bin Laden wives — the number is unclear — lived in the rear block and the front was used for meetings. Up to 15 security personnel also lived in the compound with their families. Only known people were allowed inside, and even they had to pass through security checks before reaching other blocks within. Bodyguards often played multiple roles; some worked as drivers while others cooked at times.

Like the Jalalabad compound, Mall Six was near the airport. The regular use of aircraft by bin Laden and al-Qaeda's links with the Ariana Airlines that was used for transporting money and weapons are well known. Hamidallah, (Gitmo file: 953) , the former president of Ariana Airlines, was a detainee in the U.S. till he was transferred to Afghanistan on April 18, 2005.

It appears that bin Laden anticipated the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. He reportedly started preparing to move to the Tora Bora mountains two months before the attacks.

Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani, “who had the full trust and confidence of al-Qaida leadership” (Gitmo file : 1461) , told interrogators that two months before September 11, 2001, bin Laden directed him to collect materials from Karachi for the construction of the Tora Bora cave complex. The al-Qaeda supremo also had engineers who worked in his construction company to build the cave complex, Mohammed Basardah, (Gitmo file: 252) told his interrogators. In Tora Bora, bin Laden lived with three wives, 25 bodyguards, and many other al-Qaeda operatives. He was also accompanied by Faez Mohammed Ahmed al-Kandari (Gitmo file: 552) , his consultant and a senior cleric who could interpret dreams.

The coalition forces started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001; on December 14, 2001, as the Joint Task Force assessment report of Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Kurash (Gitmo file: 214) , an al-Qaeda operative, noted, bin Laden left Tora Bora. His three wives were safely escorted to the Pakistan border by Muataz, a son-in-law, with the help of a few security guards.

Awal Gul (Gitmo file: 782) , a detainee who died in the prison three months ago, escorted bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to Konar province in Afghanistan through the mountainous area of Khwar. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri stayed in Konar for ten months. Although Awal Gul did not disclose where bin Laden went from there, his interrogators were certain he knew the route bin Laden and his entourage took to Pakistan.

Saed bin Laden, bin Laden's son, with his wife and son, managed to reach Karachi and lived there between January and June 2002.

Bin Laden had been in touch with a Pakistani businessman, Saifullah Paracha, since 1999. However, the key person in Pakistan was Abu al Libi (Gitmo file: 10017) , the operational chief of al-Qaeda. Al Libi allegedly “provided safe havens for bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2001 and 2003.” In July 2003, bin Laden instructed al Libi through Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan, the designated courier, to collect donations, organise travel, and distribute funds to families in Pakistan. Al Libi was also made the official messenger between bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.

Significantly, in the middle of 2003, al Libi moved his family to Abbottabad and worked between that city and Peshawar. When he was captured in 2005, his operations were taken over by Shaykh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. In 2008, Yazid was killed in Afghanistan.

As details about the Abbottabad compound stream in, it appears that bin Laden tried to maintain a continuity in his lifestyle despite the frequent changes in location. A key difference was that in contrast to the sprawling complexes his previous compounds were, the living space at Abbottabad was stacked. But the hierarchical structure continued. While the wives lived in the upper floors, his confidants lived in the lower floors. There was an airport too, less than 150 km away, at Rawalpindi, although it is not known if bin Laden ever used it.

The Gitmo files also suggest that bin Laden, who is independently reported to have lived in the Abbottabad compound from at least 2005 until he was killed, was quite active and continued to use couriers to administer affairs as far away as Mogadishu. For example, Abdul Malik (Gitmo file: 10025) , currently a detainee at Guantanmo, told his interrogators that in 2006, bin Laden sent Halima Fazul, wife of a senior al-Qaeda operative Harun Fazul, from Pakistan to convey the information that he was angry with the EAAQ (East Africa al-Qaeda) and wanted them to focus on terrorist operations — not fight Mogadishu-based warlords.

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