As U.S. officials tell it, Osama bin Laden was living in a $1 million mansion when he was killed this week, undermining his image as an ascetic warrior holed up in a cave near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound; living in an area that is far removed from the front; hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” said John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, in a May 2 news conference. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Yet the large compound in Abbottabad, outside of Islamabad, has none of the luxuries that a million-dollar-plus price tag brings to mind. A view of the three-story structure from outside shows unpainted walls streaked with black mold that commonly grows on bare concrete in Pakistani summers. Video of the interior featured rooms with basic, inexpensive furniture. More luxurious homes in Abbottabad are listed for less than $500,000.
Bin Laden chose to live in seclusion far from the tribal border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, prime staging ground for al-Qaeda and the Taliban fighters. Abbottabad, nestled in a valley about 38 miles as the crow flies from the capital of Islamabad, is a different world, with its upscale homes for retired military officers and a nearby golf course.
The house value, part of the initial narrative of the raid, was cited separately in briefings by officials. In subsequent days, the administration has stood by its house-value figure while revising other details of the raid. Officials retracted an early statement that bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield.
The estimated value of $1 million cited by U.S. officials was based on a comparison with other real estate prices in the area, the size of the compound and the size of the buildings on it, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said on May 4. The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and affiliation.
The compound covers about 1.5 acres on a triangular lot. The perimeter walls run a total of almost 800 feet around the property and rise between 10 to 20 feet, dwarfing the neighbors who walk past on the dirt roads outside.
The complex is roughly eight times larger than other homes in the area, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters in a May 2 conference call. He described the home as custom-built to hide someone of significance.
“It clearly was different than any other house out there,” Brennan said at a later briefing. “It had the appearance of, you know, sort of a fortress.”
The purported million-dollar price tag aside, it was not luxury living, even by Pakistani standards. For less than half that amount, home buyers in the Abbottabad area can snap up luxury residences complete with drawing rooms, gardens, TV lounges, central air conditioning and multiple bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, according to listings posted on Zameen, a Pakistani real estate web site.
A 7,200-square-foot, two-story home with six bedrooms was listed for $416,500, fully furnished. Another two-story home, with eight bedrooms and 5,400 square feet, was listed for $291,550. There were no homes in Abbottabad listed for over $500,000 on the Zameen website.
Some of the properties listed this week were priced as low as $60,000, although these were on lots as small as one-fortieth the size of bin Laden’s compound.
The four original plots of land that were joined to create the bin Laden compound were purchased for $48,000 in 2004 and 2005, the Associated Press reported.
In Bilal Town, bin Laden’s neighborhood of new villas being built amid plots of farmland on the northeastern edge of Abbottabad, that land today would cost $200,000, said Muhammad Sabir Abbassi, a real estate dealer in Abbottabad who spoke by phone.
The property values show the relative affluence of Abbottabad in a country where per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power, was $2,400 in 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook. Nearly a quarter of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, according to Unicef.
Much of the interior of bin Laden’s compound is empty space that allowed the al-Qaeda leader’s guards a clear view of anyone who might scale the perimeter walls and try to reach the main house. Walls inside the compound create a 30-meter-long alleyway that a vehicle would have to traverse from the exterior gate to a second gate before reaching any of the buildings.
The three-story main house is surrounded by several single-story buildings, one with a satellite dish on its roof. The compound has four gas meters and four electricity meters, though officials said it lacks phone and internet connections.
Bin Laden provided spacious homes with gardens for his family when he could, though he disdained any reliance on physical comforts or luxury, according to a 2009 book by his first wife, Najwa, and his fourth son, Omar, written with American author Jean Sasson.
Living in Khartoum, Sudan, after he was exiled from his native Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, bin Laden put his wives and children into a group of comfortable three-story homes with gardens in a guarded compound, they wrote.
After being expelled to Afghanistan, Omar wrote, bin Laden kept his family in a series of rock huts “fit for nothing more than sheltering livestock,” in the mountainous Tora Bora area along the Pakistani border.