Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Usama bin Laden was killed last week, is the same town I lived in for five years – in a house 800 meters away from his villa.
Abbottabad is a tourist location where Pakistanis go to spend the spring and summer holidays, a peaceful town of about 100,000 people, and situated in a region in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Here, local people are less fundamentalist and more open, compared to the rest of the province.
Abbottabad, situated on the Iranian plateau and surrounded by high mountains, has few access routes -- and few escape routes: bin Laden must have felt secure and protected there. Abbottabad has a road to a high mountain area that includes some popular summer resorts, and that during the winter is covered in snow. If you drive north, you will reach Pakistani Kashmir or, westward, the Swat valley, which in the last few years has been the theater of Taliban activities.
All these roads were already heavily patrolled before 9/11, and more so after the Taliban took over the Swat valley: it is unthinkable that the most wanted man tried his luck in reaching Abbottabad at the risk of being stopped at a checkpoint. To avoid this danger, according to experience, there is only one way: to use an official car. No soldier will ever dare to stop what he supposes to be a high-ranking officer.
Abbottabad is considered a "cantonment," or a military town, with many military institutions: the Frontier Force Regiment (popularly known as the "Piffers"), an infantry regiment, and a batallion of mountain artillery. The most remarkable institution, however, is the "Pakistan Military Academy" (PMU), the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, from which Bin Laden's hideout was only a few hundred meters.
In such a place, the presence of security forces and secret services is everywhere. Everyone is under observation, particularly foreigners and newcomers.
Once you gain the confidence of the local officers they may even reveal themselves to you. Some officers of the so-called "secret police" were not exactly the movie image of James Bond. Rather, they were badly dressed and probably having some problems making ends meet. However, this ramshackle police managed to give an American aid-worker suspected of espionage 24 hours' notice to leave the country, It did not take much to raise their suspicion, and for them to take the subsequent action.
Bin Laden's compound was located in Bilal Town, a not very elegant area of Abbottabad. The area is particularly humid due to a rather superficial water table, and the streets are not paved. The information given by international media that the house cost a million dollars seems largely exaggerated. Further, that type of building, although very large, is not unusual for the area. We also lived in an 8-room villa that was rented in a nearby neighborhood. The presence of more than 20 people living in the compound, however, could not have passed unnoticed.
A news agency reported that a nearby grocer, working 150 meters from bin Laden's compound, said that the aids of the Al-Qaeda leader came to buy food in his store. They "never came by foot, they always drove a Pajero or a little Suzuki van, and they bought enough food for 10 people," the grocer reported, adding that "I was curious about why they bought so much food, but I did not want to sound rude by asking" such a personal question, he said. The aids apparently told neighbours that they had fled a violent tribal feud in Waziristan (one of the Tribal Areas) to seek a calmer life in Abbottabad.
In a country where gossip is a national sport, how is it possible that the presence of people from Waziristan, who were buying food for scores of persons, was never signalled to the police? When I lived there, everybody seemed to know me and my whereabouts. I even received anonymous phone calls although my name was not in the telephone book. I did not know these people, but they knew me.
The words of a politically engaged Pakistani rock star, Salman Ahmed, echo the Pakistanis' "massive questions" about how the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) did not detect the US operation inside Pakistani territory: "In any other country," Ahmed said, "where this happened – the intelligence failure on Osama and the intelligence failure on the US operation – the first thing the president would do is ask for the resignation of the intelligence chief and ask many questions of the army chief. For its own in-house accountability, Pakistan needs to ask these questions of its leaders…You have a military chief, an ISI chief – all of these people are at the end of the day supposed to be answerable to the people."
Pakistani officials are now protesting that the country's sovereignty has been violated. It probably was. But more importantly, Pakistan's credibility -- if there was any left -- as a reliable partner in the war against terrorism, is now completely gone.
Until now, many thought that Pakistan's double game was due to some deviated sectors of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence); now we understand that there is more to it than that. Americans knew full well that Pakistanis could not be trusted, so they took action without informing the country's authorities -- they were right.