It took nearly a decade following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. for American intelligence authorities to realize that al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden—mastermind of the 9/11 plot—hadn’t been skulking in a cave or a remote tribal area of Pakistan. For about the last five years of his life as a fugitive, his home had been a large compound in Abbottabad, shared with several wives and children and a handful of supporters. The location was scarcely a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul.
How did the godfather of modern radical Islamic terrorism live during these years of self-enforced isolation? Very cautiously.
1. Bin Laden Chose to Hide in Plain Sight
After 9/11, the bin Laden family spent several years on the run, moving from one sympathetic Pakistani locale to another—including the frontier city of Peshawar and the rural Swat Valley, among others. When his supporters decided it was time for the family to settle, they chose Abbottabad, which bin Laden had visited and liked.
In 2004, his trusted confidant Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (nom de guerre: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) paid a total of $48,000 to acquire a handful of adjoining small lots that together comprised roughly an acre in a soggy field just northeast of Abbottabad’s city center. According to authors Adrian Levy and and Catherine Scott-Clark in their 2017 book The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, the man, calling himself Mohammad Arshad, claimed he was buying the land for an uncle fleeing a blood feud.
2. He Had the Compound Custom-Built
“Arshad” hired a local architectural firm to draw up plans for a large, two-story building on the premises—with very specific criteria. On the ground floor, the new villa was designed with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, as well as a kitchen; the second floor had another four bedrooms and four bathrooms. A third floor was added later, write Levy and Scott-Clark; it would become bin Laden’s living area, with a bedroom, study and tiny bathroom and kitchen.
The new home’s size was unusual, as was its relative lack of windows. But the features that astonished locals were its walls. “Arshad” instructed a local builder to construct a 7-foot-high wall around one of the buildings, and then a thick, 18-foot high wall around the entire compound, topped by razor wire. This puzzled the builder, both because the Bilal Town neighborhood was safe and peaceful—and because it was significantly higher than the architect’s plans called for. “Arshad” warned him that if he asked more questions, he would be fired. Customization went as far as applying an anti-snooping film on the upper floor windows.
3. It's Unclear How Many People Lived There
The compound came to be known to locals as the Waziristan Haveli, or Waziristan House/Mansion, due to the Waziri accents of “Arshad” and his brother, Ibrahim. Both men—al Qaeda stalwarts who would serve as bin Laden’s primary couriers, caretakers, aides and buffers to the outside world, moved in first, together with their families. By the end of 2005, bin Laden and at least three of his wives and several younger children, had arrived and been installed. Older bin Laden children and their spouses and children would come and go over the next half-dozen years.
4. They Lived in Extreme Isolation and Self-Sufficiency
Life in the Abbottabad hideout was designed to be as self-contained and self-sufficient as possible, to minimize contact with the outside world. The compound lacked telephone or Internet service—too easy to track—but did have satellite dishes allowing residents to watch the old TVs later found there.
The residents burned their garbage rather than putting it out for collection. Bin Laden’s son Khalid did much of the maintenance, and the compound had chickens, goats, rabbits, honeybees, cow and kitchen gardens. Bin Laden’s grandchildren, who he schooled himself, competed in vegetable gardening competitions for small prizes he awarded.
Bin Laden’s family lived isolated even from the al-Kuwaiti brothers and their families, with a locked metal door at the base of the stairwell to the terrorist's rooms. Only the two couriers left the compound on any kind of regular basis—to run errands, go to the mosque and occasionally attend funerals, weddings or other local ceremonies. Even local children were banned from entering the compound. When one boy accidentally kicked a ball over the perimeter fence, bin Laden’s entourage gave him a sum of money more than double the amount required to get a new ball, rather than letting him retrieve the lost one.
5. Their Lives Were Austere, with Western Touches
The compound’s inhabitants lived frugally, going without air conditioning in the hot summers and sleeping on foam mattresses. Bin Laden’s wardrobe included three Pakistani-style outfits for summer and another three for winter, and a single sweater.
But when the al-Kuwaiti brothers headed to the local bazaars, they would stock up not just on naan bread and staples, but on Coca-Cola, Pepsi and candy, store owners later said. The compound stockpiled branded medications, including Calpol, a British brand of pain and fever medication for children. Bin Laden’s computer included downloads of popular Disney movies and American video games. The terrorist leader even kept a stash of Just for Men hair dye to cover the gray in his hair and beard.
6. Bin Laden Kept Confined to a Small Space
Two of the rooms on the upper floors became bin Laden’s media center. On the back of a door, he hung the thobe (an Arab man’s robe) he donned when filming videos to be distributed to followers. A snub-nosed Kalashnikov, a memento from his days fighting Russian invaders in Afghanistan, rested on a shelf above the door. Yellow flowered curtains screened the room from curious eyes, and the walls were filled with hundreds of tapes (audio and video) carefully organized in rows.
Bin Laden devoted hours each day to monitoring the news of conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, disturbed only by the racket made by the compound’s small children. Eventually he rebelled against indoor confinement, sending his son Khalid to buy him a hat with a wide brim, like a cowboy hat, that would mask his features if he went outside late in the day. Khalid also oversaw the construction of a gazebo and trellises that would prevent a satellite from obtaining a clear image of his face or physique.
7. They Used Tricks to Evade Local Authorities
The al-Kuwaiti brothers disguised how many people lived in the compound by ensuring that no fewer than four separate electric meters were installed. Still, a Pakistani board of inquiry, whose report was later obtained by Al Jazeera, concluded that bin Laden “was extremely fortunate to not run into anyone committed to doing his job honestly, or there was a complete collapse of local governance.” The local authority sold the first plots of land without verifying the buyer’s identity, and no one followed up on the construction of a third-story addition without a building permit.
8. Bin Laden's Couriers Wanted Out
Even as the Americans prepared to launch their attack on the compound, relationships were breaking down inside its walls. Exhausted by meeting the needs of a fluctuating but steadily expanding number of confined bin Laden family members and those of their own growing families, the al-Kuwaiti brothers gave the al Qaeda chief an ultimatum. They would start looking for loyalists to replace them in their roles as secretary/caretaker/courier/liaison with the outer world—and Osama would agree not to add a fourth wife to the menage or otherwise increase the number of those the brothers were responsible for.
Before the conflict was fully resolved and a new routine established, SEAL team six arrived by helicopter the night of May 2, 2011, and Osama, the al-Kuwaiti brothers and some of their family members were dead.