Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
  3. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
  4. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (29) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - The compound
  5. Brian Fairrington / Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (23) Osama bin Laden is Dead
By
updated 3/8/2012 4:01:30 AM ET 2012-03-08T09:01:30

In his quest for the truth about his country’s most notorious guest, Shaukat Qadir started where it all ended: the room where Osama bin Laden was killed.

Last August, Mr. Qadir, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier, retraced the steps of the American commandos who stormed through the corridors of Bin Laden’s hide-out on May 2.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor, Mr. Qadir passed a body outline that marked the spot where Bin Laden’s 22-year-old son, Khalid, was shot dead. Then he turned to a small room with a low ceiling, an empty wardrobe and a tight cluster of bullets holes in one wall, he said. Above that, on the ceiling, was a fading splash of blood that, his Pakistani intelligence escort told him, belonged to Bin Laden.

“As a former soldier, I was struck by how badly the house was defended,” Mr. Qadir said in an interview. “No proper security measures, nothing high-tech — in fact, nothing like you would expect.”

Mr. Qadir’s quixotic investigation began as a personal attempt to truth-check the competing accounts of Bin Laden’s last years in Pakistan. But his work has already come under scrutiny and criticism, mostly on the grounds that his heavy reliance on Pakistani military and intelligence sources leaves him open to official manipulation.

Pakistan demolishes bin Laden compound

At the least, though, the end product — a novella-length report, still officially unpublished — offers tantalizing possibilities about Bin Laden’s circumstances and the suspicions that drove relations between Pakistan and the United States to the brink.

'Favored wife'
For instance, Mr. Qadir claims that Bin Laden’s fifth and youngest wife, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, told Pakistani interrogators that her husband underwent a kidney transplant operation in 2002 — a claim that, if proven, could help explain how the ailing Saudi militant was able to survive with a known kidney ailment, but raises questions about who was helping him. He also heard of poisonous mistrust between Bin Laden’s wives. In the cramped Abbottabad house, he was told, tensions erupted between Ms. Sadah, described as “the favored wife,” and Khairiah Saber, an older woman who occupied a separate floor. In interrogation, Ms. Sadah accused her rival of having betrayed their husband to American intelligence.

Slideshow: World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden (on this page)

Bin Laden’s youngest wife also told interrogators that her husband shaved his beard and disguised himself as an ailing Pashtun elder as he leapfrogged between safe houses across northwestern Pakistan, eventually regrowing the beard after finally settling in the Abbottabad house in 2005.

In one sense, Mr. Qadir’s work is an interesting entry in a decade-long parlor game among spies, soldiers and journalists, all guessing the whereabouts and condition of the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Despite Bin Laden’s death, many of the toughest questions remain. Who helped him stay on the run? How did the C.I.A. track him down? And, perhaps most important, did Pakistan’s generals know he was living a stone’s throw from their leading military academy?

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Pakistan’s government says the answers will come from an official commission of inquiry, led by a Supreme Court judge, that has been working since May. Yet few believe the Abbottabad Commission, as it is known, will succeed. And at times, the Pakistani government has seemed more interested in moving on than seeking answers: on the night of Feb. 25, the local authorities in Abbottabad sent bulldozers to demolish Bin Laden’s house after nightfall, erasing a painful symbol of an embarrassing episode for the military.

Political pressure?
Publication of the commission’s findings, originally scheduled for December, has been repeatedly postponed, and critics of the government smell political pressure to tone down its findings.

Among those who have testified is Mr. Qadir, a 64-year-old former infantry commander. Suspicious of official explanations of Bin Laden’s life and death, Mr. Qadir set out to find his own truth. He embarked on a sleuthing expedition that would last eight months and has left him $10,000 out of pocket. He traveled into the tribal belt and Afghanistan to interview old tribal contacts, and into the hushed headquarters of Pakistani military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, in Islamabad, where officials provided briefings.

Interactive: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life (on this page)

His army background was crucial: Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s top commander, approved two visits to Bin Laden’s house; personal connections led to an interview with the ISI brigadier who had interrogated Bin Laden’s three wives.

A former Obama administration official who read the report agreed with some of Mr. Qadir’s findings, like a claim that Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, suffered serious disagreements that led to Bin Laden’s being pushed to the sidelines. “This divide grew with time, and remained a source of tension until the day Bin Laden died,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “His role had been diminished.”

The official was puzzled by the account about Bin Laden’s wives, saying that previous American intelligence reports had indicated that the first wife, Ms. Saber, was the closest to Bin Laden. The C.I.A. has since interrogated both women in Pakistan; Ms. Saber proved to be “defiant, difficult and refused to engage,” the American official said.

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Several of the conclusions that Mr. Qadir draws in his report are highly contentious, like a belief that Qaeda operatives betrayed their leader to earn America’s reward money. “They wanted Bin Laden gone, and they wanted a share of the $25 million,” he said. Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and author of a forthcoming book on Bin Laden’s last years, called that a “ridiculous” notion.

'Strange conspiracies'
Mr. Qadir’s report was “larded with strange conspiracies,” Mr. Bergen said, adding that it was indicative of a broader culture of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. “When I was in Abbottabad in July, plenty of people told me Bin Laden didn’t live there. What do you say to that? It’s so untethered from rational discourse,” he said.

Video: 9/11 victims react to Bin Laden's death (on this page)

Mr. Qadir, for his part, concedes that his conclusions are based on conjecture, and admits that his ISI briefers may have concealed crucial facts. “I’d be a bloody fool if I didn’t see that,” he said. “I don’t say this is the entire truth. But it’s the closest you will get at this point in time.”

Other Pakistani soldiers have also theorized about Bin Laden. Last fall Ziauddin Butt, a former ISI chief, reportedly told a conference that while he was in power, Pakistan’s former military leader, Pervez Musharraf, had been covertly sheltering Bin Laden. Contacted by telephone, Mr. Butt said he had been misquoted but declined to elaborate. Another account that is popular on military message boards claims that Bin Laden was betrayed by a retired Pakistan spy, who has since fled abroad.

Mutual distrust
One question in particular has stayed at the heart of the mutual distrust between Pakistan and the United States: was the ISI incompetent in failing to spot Bin Laden under its nose, or complicit in his protection?

Muhammad Hanif, a popular Pakistani novelist, recently suggested that the answer was both; Mr. Bergen, the analyst, said it was neither. “Bin Laden was a hyper-paranoid guy who went to extreme lengths to hide himself. Don’t forget that it took the U.S. government 10 years to find him, with huge resources at its disposal. And we had the will to look,” he said.

Several American and Western officials, speaking in Washington and Pakistan on the condition of anonymity, said that the C.I.A. had scanned millions of documents taken from computer disks found in Bin Laden’s house yet found no evidence of official Pakistani support. But for some analysts, that proves nothing.

“There is no smoking gun, but there is also no evidence that firmly rules out complicity,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer and Obama adviser.

Video: Video captures demolition of bin Laden compound (on this page)

The official verdict will come from the Abbottabad Commission, which on Wednesday heard testimony from the interior minister, Rehman Malik.

But many are skeptical about what will emerge, with at least one commission member having apparently already made up his mind.

Just a few weeks into the commission’s deliberations last July, Nadeem Ahmed, a former general on the panel, told Australian journalists that he had firmly believed “that no intelligence organization in Pakistan would do such a stupid thing” as harbor Bin Laden.

Suggestions to the contrary were the product of an American news media conspiracy, he added. “There is a deliberate design to undermine the security establishment,” he said.

With such high military and political stakes, many Pakistanis believe that the truth will remain as elusive as Bin Laden once was. “You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers,” Mr. Qadir said. “I doubt this report will explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction.”

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

This story, "A Personal Quest to Clarify Bin Laden’s Last Days Yields Vexing Accounts," originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Timeline: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

Considered enemy No. 1 by the U.S., the Saudi millionaire is the perpetrator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Click on key dates to learn more about the founder of al-Qaida, an international terror network.

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