Where the memories of bin Laden aren't all bad

McClatchy NewspapersMay 29, 2011 

Local elders sitting in half finished mosque in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, across the street from the house where Osama bin Laden lived in 1996.


JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The house is little more than rubble now, its watchtower broken, its interior walls still visible, but roofless, its mud brick gradually fading into the desert land that marks the landscape of this city in eastern Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden once lived here, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, before the U.S. incursion that toppled the Taliban government that bin Laden supported and that protected him after those attacks, before the May 2 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed the al Qaida leader.

Here, unlike the near universal hatred bin Laden's name provokes in the West, the emotions are much more nuanced. Bin Laden's former neighbors are more likely to remember him as a hero of the war against the Soviet Union than a terrorist leader who killed more Muslims than Westerners in his long campaign against the infidel.

Abdul Wahid, who runs a construction company, recalls that he lived next door to bin Laden for six to eight months when the terrorist leader lived here in 1996, though he thinks he only saw him twice, both times traveling in a black pickup.

He remembers that bin Laden kept chickens and pigeons, and advocated living without luxury, though in those years he still had millions from his father's construction company in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden's death, he said, provoked more anger than joy, he said.

"Everyone in this area is very angry and grief-stricken over the killing of bin Laden," Wahid said. "They call him a mujahid" — a warrior in the campaign to turn back the Soviets and defend Islamd.

Nearly one month after a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed the unarmed terrorist leader as they confronted him on the third-floor of the Abbottabadi hideout, bin Laden's legacy in Afghanistan is a complicated one.

Few here praise him as the leader of al Qaida, but many, like Massoud Nekbakht, the head of the Jalalabad ruling council, remember him fondly as a fighter against the Soviet invasion.

In the days after bin Laden's death, a statement sent to news reporters in the name of the council condemned bin Laden's killing and demanded that his body be sent here for burial — a request that came far too late; the U.S. Navy had buried bin Laden at sea from a U.S. aircraft carrier just hours after he was killed.

Nekbakht denies that the council ever issued such a statement and says he has nothing to say about bin Laden's terrorist activities after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. But he has no hesitancy in praising bin Laden for what he did in the years Soviet troops battled to control this country.

Former anti-Soviet Afghan commander Reedi Gul remembers those years too. Gul, who now lives in Jalalabad, the largest city in Nangarhar province, says he cannot forget what bin Laden did in those years. He calls him a holy warrior and hero.

"He was not famous at that time. People called him Osama, and he was here with 13 other Arab fighters," Gul remembered. "He had a little beard, and was a tall, dark-skinned man."

Gul recalled that bin Laden paid all the expenses of the fighters then and said bin Laden's death was "bad news."

It's perhaps no surprise that such feelings are easy to come by here. Many people are openly sympathetic to the Taliban here, and the province is a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, whose fighters slip across the border from Pakistan to launch attacks. In recent weeks the Taliban have assaulted the airport and have carried out suicide attacks against Afghan and US-led NATO troops.

Few believe bin Laden's death will make their lives safer. Some believe it will make matters worse. They urge the Americans to go too, and talk of the civilian casualties that they believe the Americans cause.

"We don't want the U.S. here," said Raees Khan, as he sat with other elders in a half-built mosque not far from bin Laden's former house. "They are creating terror. They are the main terrorists."

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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