The two polite Pakistanis who helped Osama bin Laden hide in the shadow of their country’s army bought bulk food orders, chose major brands and equally favored Pepsi and Coke, neighbors and a local shopkeeper said.
The men called themselves Akbar and Rashid Khan and they owned the fortified home where U.S. commandos killed bin Laden in an early morning raid May 2. They did the daily shopping in the Pashtu-language accents of Waziristan, a region on the Afghan border, said grocer Anjum Qaisar, 27, who works 150 meters from the compound. Bin Laden’s men “never came by foot, they always drove a Pajero or a little Suzuki van, and they bought enough food for 10 people,” Qaisar said in an interview yesterday.
“I was curious about why they bought so much food, but I did not want to be rude by asking” such a personal question, Qaisar said. The Khans told neighbors they had fled a violent tribal feud in Waziristan to seek a calmer life in Abbottabad, an army headquarters town 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital, Islamabad.
A day after the gun battle that revealed bin Laden’s presence, his former neighbors expressed astonishment that the al-Qaeda leader had hidden among them, just a mile from the gate of the Pakistan Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point in the U.S. Eight days before U.S. helicopters swooped in, Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited the academy, telling its cadets the “Pakistan army is fully aware of internal and external threats to the country,” an army statement said last week.
The U.S. will investigate whether bin Laden’s support network included Pakistani officials, White House counter- terrorism adviser John Brennan said yesterday on NBC’s Today show. Abbottabad’s district government chief, Zahir ul-Islam, said in an interview that local officials would not comment on that issue or on the fate of several women and children from the house that local residents said were taken to a hospital and then detained by authorities.
In Bilal Town, a neighborhood of new, walled villas interspersed with farm plots where bin Laden’s 1.5-acre compound was the biggest, neighbors yesterday offered stories of the al- Qaeda leader’s household.
“When we played cricket in the field near the house, if the ball flew over their wall and we went to the gate to ask for it, the guards would be angry,” said Tariq Khan, 14, a schoolboy. “They would give us up to 100 rupees ($1.20) to buy a new one,” rather than allow the ball to be retrieved, he said. That’s a large sum as balls cost only 20 to 30 rupees, Khan said.
With Pakistani troops and police guarding the streets, Qaisar was one of few merchants open for business yesterday.
Bin Laden’s protectors “always bought the best brands -- Nestle milk, the good-quality soaps and shampoos,” Qaisar said. “They always paid cash, never asked for credit.” They purchased meat from a butcher who was closed yesterday, he said.
Rashid and Akbar owned the compound, said Kamar Khan, the police official who sealed the house yesterday. He would not say whether the Khans’ bodies had been found inside after the U.S. raid. The White House says U.S. troops killed two al-Qaeda couriers, along with bin Laden and his son.
Michael Scheuer, the CIA veteran who led the agency’s hunt for bin Laden in the 1990s, said it would be a surprise to find that the al-Qaeda leader, a Saudi, had relied on foreigners like the Khans for his innermost security. “Historically, anyone that close to him almost always was an Arab rather than a Pakistani or an Afghan,” Scheuer said in a May 2 phone interview from Washington.
Bin Laden escaped U.S. surveillance about 90 days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, as troops closed in on him in the Tora Bora mountains on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. The CIA found evidence of him last August in Abbottabad, a military town in the Himalayan foothills that is favored by Pakistani army retirees and named for its founder, a 19th-century British major, James Abbott.
The U.S. commando team collected an “impressive amount” of materials from the compound, including computers and other electronics, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Time magazine.
Neighbors in Bilal Town knew that Arabic-speaking women “lived inside that house because our children heard them through the gate one day and told us,” said Altaf Khan, 35, whose house is on the same street.
Still, at least some of bin Laden’s guards were ethnic Pashtuns, the group whom bin Laden befriended by joining their war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said Amin Akbar, the nearest neighbor to the al-Qaeda house.
“They had very powerful security lights at night,” Akbar said. “When I saw them on one day last month, I knocked on the gate to tell them so they could turn them off, because our electricity is so expensive.”
A Pakistani opened the door “and became very angry with me,” he said. “He asked me ‘Who told you to come here?’”
Umar Nassir, a teenage student, said neighbors are concerned that bin Laden’s refuge in Abbottabad may bring more trouble. “The schools in the city have been closed for three days,” he said. “We worry that al-Qaeda will come back to attack in our town and take revenge for Osama’s death.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Anwar Shakir in Abbottabad, Pakistan at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com