Desperately seeking the CIA's secret house

Abbottabad

It was some time after Friday prayers, and in Mohammad Umar's barber shop a crowd had gathered to wait for a trim, hide from the rain and share the latest gossip. There was plenty to talk about.

The latest piece of news at the end of a week in which it had been revealed Osama Bin Laden had practically been their neighbour, was that a covert CIA surveillance team had also lived among them, unnoticed and unknown. Nobody was inclined to believe either proposition could be true.

"We have been living here for such a long time, so we know everything. We have been here and we have never seen such people," claimed shopkeeper Kurram Khan, above the gentle chatter of a radio and the noise of scissors snipping through hair.

US officials have revealed that in addition to whatever satellite wizardry they employed to monitor Bin Laden, the al-Qa'ida leader had for months also been under surveillance from a team of agents, who rented a house close to his and monitored his compound using telephoto lenses, listening equipment and infra-red imaging equipment designed to look for possible escape tunnels that may have been built beneath the three-storey property.

One report in an US newspaper said the surveillance effort was so extensive and costly the CIA had to go to Congress late last year and ask for millions of dollars of additional funds for the project. The surveillance team, operating from behind tinted windows, was reportedly put in place last summer and stayed until the operation by Navy Seals to capture or kill Bin Laden.

"The CIA's job was to find and fix," an unidentified US official told The Washington Post. "The intelligence work was as complete as it was going to be, and it was the military's turn to finish the target."

The surveillance team apparently spotted a man taking regular walks through the compound's courtyard and because of that he was given the name "the pacer", though they were never able to confirm he was Bin Laden. If it was, then he was lucky for the opportunity to get some fresh air: it was reported yesterday that one of Bin Laden's wives, Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah, told Pakistani investigators she had been at the compound for five years, during which time she had never left the upper floors.

So in which house in the Thanda Choha neighbourhood might a CIA surveillance team have been able to go about its business? As the rain worsened and started to turn the narrow lanes into thick mud, The Independent unfurled its umbrella and went in search.

One house that seemed to have a good location and was high enough to provide a decent view of the back of the Bin Ladens' compound was owned by the family of Waqas Abbassi. Things got more exciting when he revealed that, until quite recently, the upstairs floor had been occupied by a family of Pashtun-speaking Afghans. Could they have been CIA operatives? Perhaps, but after clambering to the upstairs room, hopes were somewhat dashed when it was revealed there was only one small window, and it did not look out over the compound.

Last night suspicion fell on a cream-coloured property with a clear view of Bin Laden's compound and large windows looking towards the green, double gates of his building. However, the property remains inside a police cordon that Pakistani officials are enforcing around the al-Qa'ida leader's compound.

For now, the CIA's latest secret may remain that for a while longer.

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