Picture Osama bin Laden wearing a cowboy hat, strolling the perimeter of his walled-in Pakistani compound, contemplating whether to trim the surrounding poplar trees because spies might use them. That’s just one of the mental images conjured up in a newly-revealed report on the al Qaeda leader’s final years.
Here’s another one: A clean-shaven bin Laden and his couriers are driving to the local bazaar with their wives and they get pulled over for speeding. They talk their way out of it, and the most wanted man in the world drives off – free to continue running errands and directing terrorism.
The leaked Pakistani report in which these events are described is a scathing body of work. It was compiled by the Abbottabad Commission, an independent group empanelled by Pakistan’s parliament in 2011 to probe bin Laden’s near-decade-long presence in the country and the U.S. special operations raid that ended it.
On Monday, Al Jazeera posted the 337-page document online. It cites “a collective failure of the military authorities, the intelligence authorities, the police and the civilian administration” in explaining how bin Laden hid out in Pakistan for nine years. According to the commission, “this failure included negligence and incompetence and at some undetermined level a grave complicity may or may not have [been] involved.”
At times, the report reads like a novel (complete with multiple exclamation points), drawing heavily on the recollections of the four women who survived the Navy SEAL raid, including the wives of bin Laden and the man in whom he put all of his trust, a courier by the name of Ibrahim Saheed Ahmed.
The report lays bare the abysmal relationship between Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies in the run-up to bin Laden’s death, arguing the former had been borderline incompetent while the latter relied on a vast network of assets – including some embedded in international NGOs – to basically do as it pleased. “There was never any trust between the two intelligence organizations,” the report says. “There was only an understanding due to overlapping interests.”
While the report devotes a substantial number of pages to the institutional failures that allowed bin Laden to remain free for so long, it is perhaps just as fascinating in its exploration of the notorious terrorist’s often mundane day-to-day life and the characters who populated it.
The commission paints an often surprising picture of bin Laden as a doting father; describes what it was like for the children growing up in his presence; and details how his right-hand man eventually told his wife who he really worked for, resulting in a promise he couldn’t keep.
Here are some the report’s stand-out moments:
1. The Cowboy Hat
Though he committed much of his life to violent attacks on the West, bin Laden’s wives say the al Qaeda founder sported some quintessentially American headwear.
According to the report, “When OBL moved about the Compound he wore a cowboy hat to avoid detection from above. He was concerned about the poplar trees on the perimeter of the Compound as they might provide cover for observers.”
Bin Laden had good reason to be worried about eyes in the sky, and in the foliage. When the CIA eventually set its focus on his compound in mid-2010 – five years after he moved in – an NSA satellite was directed at the building. While the satellite was unable to capture a clear image of the al Qaeda chief, analysts were able to observe a figure who would come out everyday and walk in tight little circles in the compound’s vegetable garden. They called him “the pacer.”
This piqued the interest of then-CIA director Leon Panetta, who was exceedingly frustrated at the agency’s inability to glean more information from the property. Panetta put pressure on the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to come up with creative ways to spy on the compound. A camera in the trees was indeed one of them.
2. Life in Hiding
After bin Laden was killed, elements of the international media ran with a narrative that he had been relaxing in some sort of million-dollar summer resort/luxury fortress, kicking back as he relived his glory days and feasted on internet porn.
This doesn’t seem to be the case. “They lived extremely frugally,” the Pakistani commission found. According to his wives, before bin Laden moved to the garrison town of Abbottabad in 2005, he owned just six pairs of shalwar kameez (three for the summer, three for the winter), a black jacket and two sweaters.
For years, the families on the compound lived in a bubble – bin Laden with his three wives and the courier brothers, Ibrahim and Abrar, and their wives and children. The brothers bought groceries if necessary, though most of what they ate was grown on-site. Bin Laden’s son Khalid – 23 years old at the time of his death in 2011 – was responsible for plumbing and furnishing matters.
None of the children on the compound went to school. Bin Laden’s family did not mix with the families of Abrar and Ibrahim. “The children did not play together. There was in fact a wall separating them,” the report says.
While the couriers’ children were free to leave the compound and play, Bin Laden’s children were not. They “led extremely regimented and secluded lives” and were “very quiet.” Bin Laden was personally responsible for their religious education and playtime, the report says, “which included cultivating vegetable plots with simple prizes for best performances.”
Though he sometimes complained of heart and kidney pains, bin Laden never left the compound, let alone visited a doctor. If he felt sick, he opted for natural Arab medicines, the report says. When coordinating a worldwide terror network left him feeling sluggish, he would reach for “some chocolate and an apple.”
3. Bin Laden Got Pulled Over by Police – and Got Away
Bin Laden was in Pakistan pretty much the entire time following the 9/11 attacks until his death in May 2011, arriving to the country “sometime in the spring or summer of 2002.”
With the U.S. waging a war next door in Afghanistan – the longest one in its history – bin Laden bounced from the tribal regions of South Waziristan and Bajaur to the cities of Karachi and Quetta. At one point, he ended up in Swat – a region north of Islamabad – with his youngest wife, Amal, his trusty courier, Ibrahim, and Ibrahim’s wife, Maryam. Ibrahim’s brother Abrar soon joined them, later meeting and marrying a young woman named Bushra.
“In Swat they stayed in a beautiful area at a house with a river flowing behind it,” the report reads. Bin Laden shaved his beard. Maryam said she had no idea who the tall, clean-shaven Arab was: “Her husband had discouraged her from being inquisitive.”
Occasionally, the couples would need things. They frequented a bazaar located an hour from home. On one visit, they were pulled over for speeding – but Ahmed “very quickly settled the matter with the policeman and they drove on.”
Years passed before the Americans would get that close to the al Qaeda founder.
4. Watching TV
While living in Swat, bin Laden and his companions had only one visitor, a man called “Hafeez” who showed up in 2003 with his wife and seven children and stayed for two weeks.
A month after Hafeez left, Ibrahim and Maryam were watching al Jazeera and his face appeared on the screen. He had been arrested. Maryam asked her husband who the man was. He told her it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. “Ibrahim was extremely upset about his arrest,” the report says. The men “had practically grown up together in Kuwait and were as close as brothers.”
Ibrahim’s lifelong friend was subsequently taken on an involuntary tour of some the CIA’s most notorious black sites. Mohammed was routinely tortured – waterboarded nearly 200 times in a month – before eventually being permitted to design vacuums and read Harry Potter books. He now resides in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
KSM’s arrest marked the beginning of a series of discoveries for Maryam, who married Ibrahim when she was just 14 and was unaware of his passion for al Qaeda. They left Swat three days later, embarking on journey that would eventually land them in Abbottabad in 2005.
Along the way, Maryam increasingly began to suspect her husband was a religious fighter, though she still didn’t know who the tall, clean-shaven Arab with him was. Her 9-year-old daughter, Rahma, asked about the man, specifically why he never went to the bazaar. Ibrahim told his daughter the man was too poor to go, and thus bin Laden got the nickname “Miskeen Kaka” (poor uncle).
One day in Abbottabad, “poor uncle” appeared on Al Jazeera, identified as Osama bin Laden. Young Rahma identified him immediately, and Ibrahim freaked out. “He immediately stopped the ladies’ access to TV,” the report says.
Maryam demanded her husband come clean. “He told her it was none of her business but she complained that he did not trust her and stopped talking to him.” Reluctantly, Ibrahim admitted the truth; he was hopelessly devoted to Osama bin Laden. Maryam asked him how he could take on the responsibility of protecting the world’s most wanted criminal. It was God’s will, he replied.
Maryam told her husband she feared he would be captured and tortured. Ibrahim reassured her the situation was temporary. He would soon be compensated for his services with a plot of land in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else, he said.
Ibrahim was wrong about that, of course. Months later, Maryam looked on as he was killed in the now famous SEAL raid. Ibrahim’s brother Abrar was gunned down moments later. Abrar’s wife Bushra – who reportedly had no idea bin Laden was living above her – was shot to death as she dove in front of her husband. Khalid, bin Laden’s son, was killed next. Maryam was wounded in the assault. Bin Laden was the last to die.