The city of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden was killed is no innocuous backwater. It has a history shaped by terrorism, having been a hotspot of Al-Qaeda and Taliban activity for over a decade.
The presence there of the prestigious Kakul Military Academy – Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point in the U.S. and Sandhurst in Britain – did not dissuade terrorists from setting up shop.
Perhaps Pakistani authorities encouraged the relocation so militants could be monitored and utilized to influence events in Afghanistan and India. Location, history, and ideology turned it into an epicenter of the global jihadist network with infamous terrorists passing through it regularly.
Abbottabad, like many other terrorist strongholds, lies in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North-West Frontier) province which has proved ideologically and logistically hospitable to Islamic fundamentalism.
Indeed, bin Laden’s on-and-off presence there had been suspected for many years. Most recently, in January 2011, Indonesia’s most wanted Muslim terrorist Umar Patek was arrested at Abbotabad, supposedly when he came to meet with Al-Qaeda’s leadership.
Some had long suspected Osama bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad.
Pakistan’s former President General Pervez Musharraf, who led that nation from 1999-2008, and other high commanders have long known of an Al-Qaeda presence near their alma mater.
His autobiography, "In the Line of Fire: A Memoir," mentions that Pakistani forces had twice attempted to capture Al-Qaeda leaders there in 2004: “one of those leads caused us to arrest someone who … had rented a house in Abbotabad.”
“There were actually three houses” in Abbottabad which Al-Qaeda were using Musharraf wrote, adding “We were tipped off that someone important in al Qaeda was living in a house there, and that someone else, also very important, someone we were looking for, was supposed to come and meet him.”
Musharraf claims his authorities attempted “intervention,” but the visitor later killed in an exchange of gunfire was “a decoy.”
Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has acknowledged a house at Abbottabad was searched in 2003 on suspicion that Abu Faraj al-Libi (then Al-Qaeda’s third in command who eventually was arrested at Mardan near the provincial capital of Peshawar in May 2005) was hiding inside.
Pakistan’s government continued to believe Abbottabad served as an Al-Qaeda haven; Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir has gone on record to say that ISI agents monitored the compound where bin Laden was eventually found and even notified the U.S. in 2009 of its terrorist connection.
Afghanistan’s intelligence agency also suspected that the city housed high-level terrorists linked to the Taliban – and told the U.S. in August 2010.
A History Of Violence
Why did Al-Qaeda choose Abbottabad as a haven? Modern Abbottabad grew up around a military garrison under the command of General Sir James Abbott, who served as First Deputy Commissioner for the Hazara district in the Peshawar division of British India from 1849-1853.
The region’s inhabitants had routinely and violently challenged the British Raj through a series of insurrections until Abbott quashed them. So, the locale has a history of rejecting foreign authorities.
Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban held a drill camp for Islamic militants in Abbottabad in 2001.
Like Peshawar to its southeast, and even the seaport of Karachi much further to the south, Abbottabad lies in a region that links Pakistan with Afghanistan and Iran to the west, India to the east, China to the north, and the Arabian Sea to the south.
People from diverse ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ideological dispositions have long found sanctuary in the city’s homes.
Contraband goods including opium, weapons, and black money flow along the contemporary highway that once formed a branch of the ancient trade route – the so-called Silk Road – that passes through Abbottabad. Kabul, Quetta, Kashgar, and Srinagar are all within easy travelling distance.
Muslim fundamentalists fighting to wrest Kashmir away from India have trained there for decades. Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban held a three-day drill camp at Abbottabad for militants who travelled to the city from several nations, in July 2001 under the patronage of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, its ambassador to Pakistan.
A False Sense Of Security
ISI operatives ambushed Taliban and Al-Qaeda members there in July 2004 – though many got away. The city also is home to at least one former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Asadullah Jan. When arrested at Abbottabad for his role in the October 2002 Bali bombings, Patek was carrying the equivalent of $1 million in illicit funds that linked the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiah, in which he belonged, to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban groups of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The presence of established militant Islamic organizations like Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM), seemingly tolerated by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, ensured that Abbottabad could serve Al-Qaeda well in propagating its global jihad.
The region’s wide range of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups would have provided an ideal background into which Arabs like bin Laden could blend. Its close proximity to his old fighting grounds would have made the area seem familiar to bin Laden – perhaps he had visited or lived there during the struggle against Soviet and Russian occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s sway in and around Abbottabad must have conferred a false sense of safety too from America’s reach.
Undeterred by periodic forays against them by Pakistan’s authorities, Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives had been surreptitiously purchasing land and constructing sanctuaries in Abbottabad, over the course of many years, for their leaders and themselves.
Apparently they believed it was possible to live and operate with impunity within this commercial and military crossroads of Asian life. In the words of a Pakistani newspaper editor, “possibly it could have been an ideal place for him, because that was the last place one would look for him.”
Returning To Old Haunts
So, despite years of extremely cautious movements, bin Laden must have regarded Abbottabad as sympathetic to his ideology, secretive about his movements, and easily accessible by his supporters.
Yet not only did Pakistan’s leaders know Abbottabad was being infiltrated, even the Indian external intelligence service’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had listed the city as a major Al-Qaeda and Taliban operations center. The U.S. was watching carefully as well.
One of Osama bin Laden’s wives, a Yemeni woman who was present at the time U.S. Special Forces shot him, revealed to local authorities that the terrorist leader’s entourage “had moved to the compound a few months ago.” Currently in Pakistan’s custody, she is likely to know the locations of other hiding places bin Laden has used since at least 2006.
Although those safe houses were probably hastily vacated by their terrorist occupants upon hearing of bin Laden’s demise, it would be most prudent to keep them under Washington’s and Islamabad’s scrutiny.
Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders display a penchant for returning to their old haunts. After all, presumably bin Laden knew the house at Abbottabad had been raided previously yet felt confident it would provide refuge once more.
The threat posed by terrorists is clear. Only through patient surveillance and decisive action by the U.S. and its allies – including Pakistan – can cities such as Abbottabad and the world itself be made safe from transnational terrorism.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, international, Indian, Iranian, and Islamic studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in Strategic Intelligence and Information Management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. She has served as the president of ARMA International. The views expressed are their own.