Abbottabad: Bin Laden’s Final Home
Osama couldn't have picked a more unlikely place to hide out.
It is a special irony that Osama bin Laden, who made his name as an enemy of Western imperialism real and imagined, hid and died in a town that is itself a model colonial outpost of the British Empire. Bin Laden may have dreamed of renewing a caliphate, but he was killed in a city founded by and still bearing the unmistakable imprint of the West.
Even in its name, Abbottabad sheds any pretense of local origins: it bears the name of the town’s founder, James Abbott, a British army officer who was assigned in 1849 the task of pacifying and governing the Hazare region of the Punjab province that had been annexed by the British Empire after the First Anglo-Sikh War. Abbotabad is today a medium-sized city of nearly one million people, but no urban enclave existed there at all until Abbott decided that it would be a strategic location for an administrative capital.
In a broader geographic and historic context, Abbottabad is a particularly unlikely epicenter of the type of future caliphate bin Laden dreamed of founding. Lying as it does on the old Silk Road, the area has always cultivated contact with diverse outsiders — especially with those from points farther east. (Today, it sits along the Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan with China through the Himalayas.) In some ways, its historic and religious ties with the Middle East are more tenuous than its historic commercial ties with East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. As an Arab, Bin Laden would have been a member of a vanishingly small minority in Abbottabad: Hindkowans, an ethnic group marked by its late conversion to Islam from Hinduism, comprise the majority of the area’s population.
Today, the characteristics that Pakistanis associate with Abbottabad underscore its unlikeliness as a place for an international fugitive to make his home. First, it is something of a tourist spot, attracting Pakistanis from around the country to enjoy its verdant and hilly surrounds, temperate climate, and nearby national parks. James Abbott himself developed a deep attachment to the area in his years of service there, composing a poem "Abbottabad" after returning to Britain, in which he paid tribute to its beauty. A selection:
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right
And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave our perhaps on a sunny noon
Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart
Abbottabad is also a garrison city for the Pakistani military, home to its most noted military academy. And it’s also a favored location for retired generals and army officers, many of whom have houses there. It is an unmistakable company town: Much of the area has been parceled and divided, to great profit, by the Pakistani Army — a force that was ostensibly hard at work in search of Bin Laden in partnership with the United States, from whom it derives much of its funding (at least $1 billion every year since 2005). Washington will have many questions about how Bin Laden could have hidden undetected for so long in the midst of the Pakistani military’s administrative apparatus, less than 100 miles away from the seat of government in Islamabad.
That Bin Laden ultimately was killed in Abbottabad is perhaps a testimony to his myriad weaknesses in his latter days. The head of al Qaeda was more than a terrorist — he was a political figure who derived much of his power from religious symbolism. But his final home was not in an area with any particular pedigree as a launching point for global jihad. Abbottabad doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan, where Taliban forces are struggling to re-establish a theocracy; and it is utterly alien to whatever grievances the Muslim world harbors about Palestine. In the end, then, Osama bin Laden died not as an historic emir, but as a hidden fugitive, surrounded by Western influence and allies of the U.S. military — a man utterly reliant on luck, until it finally ran out.