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10 years after his death, Bin Laden's memory lives on in Abbottabad

“By living here, Osama gave this city a bad reputation,” a resident says.
Updated 27 Apr, 2021 08:26pm

Children play cricket in a patch of scorched grass and scattered rubble in Abbottabad — all that remains of the final lair of the man who was once the most wanted person on the planet.

It was in this city that Osama bin Laden was killed in the clandestine “Operation Geronimo” raid by US Navy Seals in the early hours of May 2, 2011.

The operation had global repercussions and dented Pakistan's international reputation while exposing contradictions in the country.

Bin Laden had been living in seclusion for at least five years in Abbottabad, hidden behind the high walls of an imposing white building less than two kilometres from a renowned military academy.

Children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of slain former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, In this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP
Children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of slain former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, In this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP

Local resident Altaf Hussain and neighbour of Osama bin Laden stands next to a signboard at the site of the demolished compound of Bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, in this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP
Local resident Altaf Hussain and neighbour of Osama bin Laden stands next to a signboard at the site of the demolished compound of Bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, in this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP

“It was a very bad thing for this place and for the whole country,” said Altaf Hussain, a retired schoolteacher, walking down an alley alongside Bin Laden's former residence.

“By living here, Osama gave this city a bad reputation.”

See: The OBL raid and Pakistan's dilemma: nine pieces you should read

The raid caught Pakistan between a rock and a hard place.

Officials could deny knowing he was there — but in doing so they would effectively be admitting to a shocking intelligence failure.

They could also have admitted that the world's most infamous fugitive was under their protection, but that would concede being powerless to prevent Washington from carrying out such a daring raid on sovereign soil.

'People named their children Osama'

They opted for the former, but the US operation reinforced an already strong anti-American sentiment among a population tired of the heavy financial and human toll paid for the war on terror — and Islamabad's alliance with Washington after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In this file photograph taken on May 7, 2011, a framegrab from an undated video released by the US Department of Defence on May 7, 2011, reportedly shows Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden watching himself and US president Barack Obama on television at his compound in Abbottabad. According to the Defence Department, the video was seized from the compound during a May 1 operation by US special forces in which Bin Laden was killed. — AFP/US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE
In this file photograph taken on May 7, 2011, a framegrab from an undated video released by the US Department of Defence on May 7, 2011, reportedly shows Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden watching himself and US president Barack Obama on television at his compound in Abbottabad. According to the Defence Department, the video was seized from the compound during a May 1 operation by US special forces in which Bin Laden was killed. — AFP/US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

Sections in Pakistan were initially receptive to the founding myth of Al Qaeda — the resistance of Muslims to American imperialism.

But at the time of his death, Bin Laden's local popularity had waned.

“Before, I remember that people named their children Osama, even in my village,” said journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, a specialist in jihadist networks.

Bin Laden's death did not stop extremism from spreading in the country, and conservative religious movements became even more influential.

Over the next three years, several terror groups — foremost among them the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — carried out bloody attacks and established strongholds in northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

A military campaign launched in 2014 helped bring down the violence, although a recent series of minor attacks has raised fears that extremists are regrouping.

In this picture taken on February 11, 2021, local residents and neighbours of slain former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, wait for their turn to collect water from a pipe near the site of the demolished compound of Bin Laden, in northern Abbottabad. — AFP
In this picture taken on February 11, 2021, local residents and neighbours of slain former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, wait for their turn to collect water from a pipe near the site of the demolished compound of Bin Laden, in northern Abbottabad. — AFP

In this file photograph taken on May 2, 2011, a crashed military helicopter is seen near the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a ground operation by US Special Forces in Abbottabad. — AFP
In this file photograph taken on May 2, 2011, a crashed military helicopter is seen near the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a ground operation by US Special Forces in Abbottabad. — AFP

'Some say he was good'

Without its charismatic leader, Al Qaeda “survived, but barely” and is no longer able to launch major attacks in the West, says Yusufzai.

The group is also no longer “a great threat to Pakistan”, believes Hamid Mir — the last journalist to interview Bin Laden face-to-face — although other groups such as the militant Islamic State remain so.

He said while the Al Qaeda founder is still seen as a “freedom fighter” by some, many also acknowledge him as “a bad person who killed innocent people and caused destruction — not only in Pakistan, but in many countries, in violation of the teachings of Islam”.

Prominent journalist Hamid Mir shows his photograph with Osama Bin Laden, when he interviewed him at an undisclosed location in Afghanisnan in the 1990s, during an interview with AFP in Islamabad on April 27, 2021. — AFP
Prominent journalist Hamid Mir shows his photograph with Osama Bin Laden, when he interviewed him at an undisclosed location in Afghanisnan in the 1990s, during an interview with AFP in Islamabad on April 27, 2021. — AFP

In this file photograph taken on May 3, 2011, a man reads a newspaper with the front page displaying news of the death of Osama bin Laden at a stall in Lahore. — AFP
In this file photograph taken on May 3, 2011, a man reads a newspaper with the front page displaying news of the death of Osama bin Laden at a stall in Lahore. — AFP

Bin Laden nonetheless retains an aura in radical circles.

“He is alive in the heart of every Taliban and every jihadist,” said Saad, an Afghan Taliban official living in Peshawar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan caused a scandal two years ago by telling parliament that Bin Laden had died a “martyr”.

Even in Abbottabad, a prosperous and largely tolerant medium-sized city, there is ambiguity towards Bin Laden, whose house was razed in 2012 by authorities so that it would not become a memorial.

“In this street, there are differences of opinion,” says teenage former neighbour Numan Hattak. “Some say he was good, others that he was bad.”

Children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, in this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP
Children play cricket at the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in northern Abbottabad, in this picture taken on February 11, 2021. — AFP


Header image: In this file photo taken on May 3, 2011, media personnel and local residents gather outside the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his killing by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad. — AFP