The secret life of al-Qa'ida's leader

Captured wife reveals in interviews that Bin Laden had been living in Pakistan since 2003
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The Independent Online

Osama bin Laden lived for two and a half years in a village just 20 miles from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, before moving into the compound in Bilal town, Abbottabad, where he was finally caught and killed, it was claimed yesterday.

The revelation that the al-Qa'ida leader may have been hiding not in wild tribal areas, but in the heart of the country came from his youngest wife, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, in interviews with Pakistani officials, and was reported in Islamabad newspapers and The New York Times.

Her statements will add to the embarrassment of the Pakistani establishment, create further tension in its relationship with the US, and increase Washington's suspicions that elements of Islamabad's intelligence service knew of, or even colluded in, Bin Laden's evasion of capture. If her account is true, it means that Bin Laden was living in Pakistan just 18 months after 9/11.

There were reports last night that US officials were demanding the names of some of Pakistan's leading intelligence agents to see if any are found to have had some contact with Bin Laden or the men who shared the compound with him.

Pentagon officials are now saying that data seized from the compound further demonstrates that top al-Qa'ida commanders and other key insurgents are scattered throughout Pakistan, and are being supported and given sanctuary by Pakistanis.

Villagers in Chak Shah Mohammad, a kilometre or two south-east of Haripur, yesterday found themselves being questioned by police and officers from the "agencies", who wanted to know if anyone had information about strangers or "foreigners" living in the area in a rented property. How precise the information given by Ms Abdulfattah to investigators was remains unclear.

"Amal told investigators that they lived in a village in Haripur district for nearly two and a half years before moving to Abbottabad at the end of 2005," a security official told Reuters. The woman, along with at least one other wife and several children – perhaps as many as eight – were among up to 16 people detained by the Pakistani authorities at the compound after the raid by US Navy Seals.

More detailed accounts emerged yesterday of what was, at least until the early hours of Monday morning, the entirely secret life of Osama bin Laden. They go some way to explaining how – if not why – a 6ft 4in man with perhaps the most famous face in the world was able to keep on the run for nearly a decade.

And they show that, while all intelligence officials, in the US as well as Pakistan, believed their quarry was skulking in the mountains, he had long since chosen to live a life of claustrophobic domesticity in urbanised Pakistan. Also yesterday, a Taiwanese judo coach called Jimmy Wu released photos of himself with a man he says is Bin Laden, taken in Riyadh in the early 1980s. The future al-Qa'ida leader, he says, was a student of his.

If the testimony of his wife is reliable, Bin Laden and his family forsook the heights of Waziristan as long ago as early 2003, and moved to Chak Shah Mohammad. Locals there were bewildered at the suggestion that Bin Laden may have been a local resident. "Our forefathers have been living here for decades. There is no way that Osama bin Laden could be living here," said Abdul Waheed, a farmer.

At another village, Ali Khan, a similarly bucolic spot, a landowner said several of his tenants had told him they had been questioned as to whether any outsiders had tried to rent a property in the area. He was similarly dismissive about the idea that Bin Laden may have been there. "I don't think he could be hiding in this vicinity. Here there would be no supporting elements for him," said the man, who asked not to be named, looking out over a vista at ended in the foothills of the Karakoram. "Osama's wife is not a Pakistani so she would not know where she was living. If she was a Pakistani, it would carry more weight."

It is possible the village was merely a bolthole while the compound in Abbottabad was being constructed – a complex that consisted of a main house on three floors, several yards and high walls, plus a guesthouse. But, whatever their previous safehouse, by late 2005, Bin Laden and his entourage moved to Abbottabad.

There were pluses and minuses to this location. As the home to a large military academy, Abbottabad was well policed, and security was tight. But it also had something of an al-Qa'ida track record which might make it regularly monitored. The terrorist organisation was known to have used three local houses, according to the autobiography of the former president, Pervez Musharraf.

In 2003, a house was raided on suspicion that Abu Faraj al-Libi, then al-Qa'ida's third in command, was holed up there. And, earlier this year, Umar Patek, suspected of the 2002 Bali bombing, was arrested in Abbottabad. He had $1m in cash on him, and Indonesian officials now believe he was on his way to see Bin Laden.

Pakistan security forces have, in the past few days, arrested up to 40 people in Abbottabad suspected of having "connections" to Bin Laden.

With the al-Qa'ida leader in the compound at the end were three of Bin Laden's wives (one of whom says she never left the upper two floors in six years), three of his children (a girl and two boys), an unknown number of other children, two men who acted as "couriers", Bin Laden's Yemeni doctor, and perhaps five other women. Only the two couriers ever left the compound, making regular trips to the local shops, and taking the opportunity for a crafty cigarette, since Bin Laden banned smoking inside.

The compound had a cow, a large vegetable patch, and the children kept rabbits. The inward-looking nature of his existence was underlined last night when the US released home video footage seized from the compound which shows the al-Qa'ida leader seated on the floor, watching himself on television wrapped in a blanket and wearing a knitted cap. Footage also showed him recording propaganda videos. US media reported in gloating fashion last night that Bin Laden trimmed his beard and primped himself for these appearances, as if such preparations were unknown in America.

Shielding this location were 18ft walls, and for nearly five years his location remained unsuspected. But US officials had got, via Guantanamo Bay interrogations, the name of one of the al-Qa'ida leader's couriers, and traced him, through a chance telephone call, to the area. There were no phones (or internet connection) in the compound, and, according to a report in The Washington Post by Bob Woodward, the couriers would drive 90 minutes from it before even inserting a battery into their phones.

The next step is not clear, but presumably CIA operatives picked up the trail of the courier when he next left the compound, and followed him back to it. By last August, the CIA had the place under surveillance. It rented a house overlooking the compound, and, behind mirrored windows, began monitoring comings and goings, taking photos, and even using infra-red imaging kit to see if escape tunnels had been dug. From time to time, a tall figure was seen walking in the compound's yard.

Oblivious to all this was Bin Laden, and the nature of his life inside the compound is the subject of conflicting reports. The Pakistanis claim he was "cash-strapped", and al-Qa'ida had split into two, with Bin Laden nominally head of the lesser part. The Americans, meanwhile, equally anxious to maximise their achievement, say he was issuing orders to groups in Yemen and Somalia, and actively engaged in planning terror strikes, including one on the US rail network.

This "plan", dated February 2010, seems to have been more of a doodle than a blueprint, and was on one of the documents found in the raid. These, together with five computers, 10 hard drives, and around 100 memory sticks and disks, are now being studied at an FBI lab in Virginia..

But, mastermind or has-been, Bin Laden was not, says his wife, the feeble invalid, and a martyr to kidney disease some have claimed. Ms Abdulfattah said he had long since recovered from two operations he underwent during the Taliban era in Afghanistan, was taking medicines, and "was neither weak nor frail".

By early this year, US officials were telling President Barack Obama there was a 40 per cent chance the tall man in the compound was Bin Laden. This may not sound a lot but was, in the words of one official, "about 38 per cent better than we've had before". A replica of the complex was built in Afghanistan, and US commandos began practising their assault, In the days leading up to the order to go in, they were rehearsing several times a night. On 29 April, the President said: "It's a go." Two days later, he was able to announce that the terror leader had been shot dead.

The death of Bin Laden could allow the US to claim, in the context of Afghanistan, "mission accomplished". And enthusiasm in Washington for the war there is at its lowest ebb.

The Taliban launched a series of attacks yesterday aimed at seizing control of Kandahar. The offensive began around midday, and heavy fire was continuing five hours later. For its part, the US has already launched at least one drone strike into Pakistan in the days since Bin Laden was killed, and there is no suggestion those will be curtailed. Indeed, it emerged late on Friday that a US drone strike in the Yemen on Thursdday was aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, the US national who is head of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki was not hit, but two of his comrades were.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, its Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani met yesterday to discuss the US raid, amid widespread calls for them to resign. The main opposition leader in parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said: "All from top to bottom who are responsible should take responsibility, and I believe that after such a big tragedy, they should resign. This is a call coming from every street of Pakistan." The killing of Osama bin Laden may yet have unforeseen consequences.

What next in Afghanistan?

"Getting Bin Laden is what wewanted when we went into Afghanistan. Now they've got him, it's time to bring the boys back home, as a matter of priority"

Rose Gentle, Military Families Against the War, mother of 19-year-old Gordon Gentle, who was killed on active service in Iraq in 2004

"There are 1,000 other reasons as to why a troop withdrawal should be accelerated and this may be one. It gives the Americans closure... it will make zero tactical difference in Afghanistan"

James Fergusson, Journalist, author of A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan

"We are seeing much local, tactical success in Afghanistan and I think the military will want to see those efforts through. It would be disappointing for the families of those who gave their lives to see those efforts wasted"

Major General Sir Patrick Cordingley, Commander of the Desert Rats in the first Gulf War

"The death of Bin Laden means that British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan immediately. The Afghan people must determine their own future and the presence of British troops only exacerbates their plight"

Andrew Burgin, Stop the War Coalition

"I don't see the Taliban at this point as willing to make a public break with al-Qa'ida but it will probably accelerate a reconciliation effort to discuss cutting a peace deal with the Taliban"

Dr Seth Jones, Senior fellow at Rand Corporation think tank, was at US Special Operations Command at the Pentagon

Jonathan Owen, Charlie Cooper and Chris Stevenson