Bin Laden's family lived a life of isolation at Pakistan home

McClatchy NewspapersMay 6, 2011 

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — In the end, almost nothing that people thought they knew about Osama bin Laden's life in hiding turned out to be true.

There was no special guard of commandos protecting him.

He wasn't hidden away in Pakistan's wild tribal regions.

He didn't spend his final years as the world's must wanted fugitive in the company of al Qaida followers trained in the many camps he'd sponsored before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Instead, bin Laden's last hideout was a dusty compound less than a mile from Pakistan's premier military academy, a place where he was confined to the house for five years, with three women and several children. If he weren't the personification of evil, it would sound like a bad reality TV plot.

What precisely went on in the Abbottabad house where bin Laden died early Monday, shot in the chest and head by U.S. Navy SEALs who stormed the house from Black Hawk helicopters, won't be known until Pakistani and U.S. officials finish questioning the women and children who were found, bound with plastic ties, after the U.S. team left.

But a reasonable sketch of the terrorist's final years can be assembled from the bits and pieces of information that have emerged from neighbors and Pakistani security officials.

The bin Laden family lived on the top two floors of the three-story home, the main building in the one-acre compound. It wasn't the luxurious million-dollar hideaway initially portrayed by American officials. The house's paint is peeling, and photos and video taken inside show its furnishings were simple. But, for comfort, the 54-year-old bin Laden had the company of his much younger wives, and several children.

Neighbors said they never saw bin Laden or members of his family, nor did they notice any visitors to the house. The bin Ladens never left the compound, nor perhaps the house itself. One of bin Laden's wives, 29-year-old Amal Ahmed Abdul Fattah, who was a gift to the al Qaida leader when she was only 15, told Pakistani interrogators that she never left the upper floors of the house.

The Defense Department on Saturday released video of bin Laden. Video of the terrorist leader in his hideout starts at 6'43".

Fattah's devotion to bin Laden is clear. When bin Laden fled Afghanistan in 2001, she fled as well, making it safely to Yemen, her homeland. But at some point she managed to reunite with her husband in Pakistan. During the raid that ended with her husband's death, she rushed an American, who shot her in the leg, according to U.S. officials in Washington.

Fattah, at least two other women, and lots of children — as many as 12 — were left behind when the Americans flew off with bin Laden's body.

How many of the children were bin Laden's is unclear. At least two were his, but he may have fathered as many as eight. The cooped-up conditions must have been very tough on the children.

Pakistani officials say they have bin Laden's adolescent-age daughter in custody. She told them she saw the U.S. troops kill her father.

A Pakistani security official, on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters, told McClatchy that an infant, about 6 months old, was also found in the house. Other children were also young, 3 and 9. That means some of them were likely born in the house.

There were three adult women, one aged around 20, and two women who looked around 30, including Fattah.

"Three wives have been taken into custody. One had been shot. She told us they had been living there for five years," said a senior Pakistani military official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The children are also in our protective custody."

If bin Laden had been at the house since 2006 — some accounts suggest 2005 — it's unknown where he spent the rest of the time since slipping an American cordon at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001.

The identities of the other two wives is a mystery. It's possible that the younger woman could be a daughter, and other a nurse to look after the ailing Al Qaida leader. Although bin Laden is known to have married six times — one marriage lasted only 48 hours and was then annulled — the others left him long ago.

At least one son, Khalid, in his early 20s, also lived with the al Qaida chief and was shot dead by the American soldiers — his body was found in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs on the ground floor.

Several of the bedrooms in the house have their own attached kitchen, as well as attached bathrooms, according to Pakistani security personnel who've been inside. That arrangement would allow occupants to live independently of other people in the house. If bin Laden really had three wives with him, the multiple kitchens may have helped keep family peace.

There were between eight and 10 bedrooms in the main house, while a second single-story building in the compound also offered living space.

Bin Laden's key custodians were two Pakistani brothers who gave their names to neighbors as Arshad and Tariq Khan. They, too, lived in the compound with their families, and both men were killed in the U.S. operation.

One of them lived on the ground floor of the main house, and the other in the second building, according to U.S. officials.

The household's members tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. There was a large, seemingly well-tended, vegetable garden at the back of the house.

Shamraiz, a neighbor who's a farmer, would occasionally be called over to plant vegetables, perhaps twice a year, according to his son, Muhammad Qasim.

That would make Shamraiz one of the few people who ever get behind the high walls of the compound, but, according to his son, he never got inside the house. Just days before the raid, Shamraiz was called over to the house to prepare a large, empty, connected compound so that it, too, could be planted with crops.

"Shamraiz plowed up the grass in the garden using a tractor," said Zain Muhammad, his 80-year-old father.

Shamraiz was arrested by Pakistani forces immediately after the U.S. raid, among the 40 or so Abbottabad residents who have been swept up as Pakistani authorities investigate who knew what about bin Laden's presence.

The compound also had at least one cow and some 100 chickens in the yard, according to Pakistani security officials.

A man who lives nearby, Muhammad Ishaq, said that about a year and a half ago, Arshad Khan brought over a cow so that it could be impregnated by Ishaq's bull.

It's not known whether bin Laden himself ever enjoyed the home's large garden.

U.S. reports say that CIA spies, watching from a nearby safe house, saw a tall man pacing in the garden, but they were never able to get a proper look at his face. There was a terrace on the top floor of the house, with high walls on three sides, which may have allowed bin Laden and his family some fresh air and sun.

The house had no air-conditioning, but it did, unusually for Pakistan, have a central heating system, with hot-water radiators. Abbottabad, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is frigid in the winter.

Computer equipment found in the house may have been able to communicate with the outside world, using cellphone connections. The house wasn't wired for phone or internet.

The food found at the house by Pakistani security officials was basic: dates, nuts, lots of eggs, olive oil and dried meat.

The Pakistani brothers who were bin Laden's keepers would frequently visit the local shops, usually with young children, who were assumed by residents to be their offspring, but beyond greeting people, they were never willing to chat. They'd buy sweets and sodas for the children at Rasheed's corner store, just about a minute walk from the house.

Bulkier items came from Sajid general store down the road, and freshly baked naan bread could be purchased next door from a shop with a tandoor oven.

The children from the house never went to school. Instead, they were tutored at home, in Arabic, in one of the first floor rooms that served as a classroom, judging by the whiteboard, markers and textbooks found there by Pakistani security officials.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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