Was Osama bin Laden Living on Pakistani Military Property?

Pakistani Military Faces Scrutiny as Unfolding Evidence Suggests Direct Role in Harboring bin Laden

Numerous questions have been raised on how Osama bin Laden could have been living in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad just down the street from Pakistan's premier military academy. CIA Director Leon Panetta has reportedly said Pakistan was either "knowledgeable or incompetent" when it came to bin Laden's whereabouts. Some evidence has emerged to indicate that the Pakistani military may have had a direct role in harboring bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is claiming it warned U.S. intelligence two years ago about the compound where bin Laden was killed.

One journalist that has been reporting from Abbottabad is Graeme Smith, an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. He is in Abbottabad investigating the mystery behind the bin Laden compound. Democracy Now! interviewed him May 5.

Here is an excerpt of the interview transcript. Click here to read the entire transcript.

GRAEME SMITH: Well, you know, what we found is really a mystery. Abbottabad is now a city of whispers, in some ways. You know, people are being stopped on the street many times a day and being asked, you know, "What did you know?" And sometimes the people asking the questions are journalists, and sometimes they're security forces. And so, it becomes very hard to sort out truth from rumor. Neighbors have started to regurgitate what they've heard from other neighbors, and so the sort of the information swirling around this high-walled compound, in quite a lovely, scenic part of Abbottabad, is--the information is getting rather murky.

And so, what we've been trying to do, actually, is to run down some of the documentary evidence, and that's proven rather difficult, because although there were at least four gas meters on the outside of the compound and a few electricity meters, so presumably, therefore, there should be, you know, a gas company account and electricity company account, and there should also be a land registry document and all these things, these documents are proving really hard to find, because the Pakistani government has instructed local officials not to disclose them.

Now, we have been able to get through that problem a little bit by finding a friendly local administrator in Abbottabad, who read off the name and family name and home town listed on the land registry document, which suggests that whoever registered themselves as the owner of the bin Laden compound claimed to live in a district called Charsadda just north of Peshawar in the tribal areas. And at the moment, we're trying to figure out whether that was an alias, as Pakistani officials claim, or something else. So we're sending a reporter right now, as we speak, up to Charsadda.

DEMOCRACY NOW! CO-HOST JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Graeme, you noted that while the Pakistani officials say that it was an alias or false identity, that it would be very difficult, given not just the land transfer itself, but all of the other things that had to be done in terms of getting permits for construction, getting utilities hooked up to the compound, that this would require quite a bit of review by various officials in terms of identifying the actual individuals who own the place.

Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's not impossible to falsify these things. Quite a lot of Afghans, especially, use fake ID cards in Pakistan, and the government has been trying to set up a sort of electronic database of all national identity cards. But there remain a lot of these sort of older generation, non-databased cards, and so it is possible that whoever set up the compound could have used a fake ID card and then sort of built this elaborate sort of system of fraud, basically, you know, paper upon paper upon paper--you know, a land transfer paper, a note from the cantonment board authorizing the connection of a gas line, all of these signatures and stamps and so forth, all of the mundane paraphernalia of bureaucratic life in Pakistan. It's possible that this was entirely faked.

But what's interesting is that all along the way, you know, there would have opportunity to check. One guy who has built 25 homes in Bilal Town, which is--he's a contractor who works in the area, said that, you know, typically, your ID would be checked about seven times along the way. And what also struck me was that, in that area--it was built on military land, which is not unusual. There's a lot of suburban development on military land in Pakistan. But in those areas, your application to build something has to be reviewed by a cantonment board, which is chaired by a serving colonel in the Pakistani military. And so, it really does seem like bin Laden was living for years right under their noses and, you know, that these checks and balances were either missed or overlooked.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And the potential links of the two brothers to Hizbul Mujahideen? And what is that group and its potential connections to Pakistani intelligence?

GRAEME SMITH: This was a tantalizing lead that we got earlier in the week. A police official in Abbottabad told us that the compound, as he put it, belonged to Hizbul Mujahideen. Then that police official became abruptly unavailable when we tried to talk to him further about that. And police officials, of course, in Abbottabad have been instructed not to get into, you know, who owned the compound or who controlled it. So, it's been rather difficult here, I have to say, researching the story, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on. The Pakistani military has now taken over the investigation and will presumably make their own inquiries.

Hizbul Mujahideen, by the way, if there was some link to them, it would be quite embarrassing to Pakistan, because Hizbul Mujahideen is one of these militant groups that has operated with some impunity in Pakistan for many years. It was originally set up to fight the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then morphed into a liberation movement in what Pakistanis call Azad Kashmir and in what they call Indian-occupied Kashmir. And so, that's a group that has enjoyed a fair bit of freedom to act, and it has not really been--the members have not really been rounded up by the Pakistani security forces. And some analysts say that Hizbul Mujahideen has been, in fact, directly supported by the Pakistani state.

DEMOCRACY NOW! HOST AMY GOODMAN: Graeme Smith, you have lived in the region for years. Can you talk about the press reaction and the popular reaction? And also, in Abbottabad, I mean, it's a military town--retired military, current military--next to the equivalent of the U.S.'s West Point, so it's not just average civilians that live around him, not to mention his house is so much vastly bigger than everything in the environs, it would certainly stand out and make people wonder who's living there.

GRAEME SMITH: Yeah, it did stand out in the neighborhood, you know? And I was struck when I went there actually how ugly it is. You know, it was described initially as a mansion, but, you know, it really did look more like a security compound of some kind, almost like a small prison. And I couldn't help thinking that, you know, whoever constructed this thing may not have had bin Laden's comfort in mind. You're right, Abbottabad is an otherwise very pretty town. You know, even the neighborhood where bin Laden was apparently living is, you know, on a dirt road lined with poplar trees and the smell of crushed mint underfoot, you know, just this lovely bucolic setting.

The town of Abbottabad is wealthy. It's the sort of place where, you know, you sense that Pakistan is westernizing. You know, it has Shell gas stations and all kinds of other comforts that you might associate with the Western world. It's nowhere near as sort of ramshackle as some of the places like Quetta and Peshawar, where most of the sort of war on terrorism has been focused. You know, it's--Abbottabad is known for being a cantonment town, as you said. It's a garrison outpost. And yeah, this Pakistani military college was very well respected. In fact, just a week before the raid, the head of the Pakistani military, General Kayani, visited this military facility for its graduation ceremony, I believe it was. And he announced, very proudly, that the Pakistani military had broken the back of terrorism in the region.

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