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Bin Laden’s secret life in diminished, dark world

Interviews with U.S. and Pakistani officials and bin Laden’s neighbors produce a portrait of an isolated man presiding over family life while plotting mayhem.
Image: Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television, with U.S. President Barack Obama also on screen, in this image released by the Pentagon on Saturday.Pentagon / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

The world’s most-wanted terrorist lived his last five years imprisoned behind the barbed wire and high walls of his home in Abbottabad, his days consumed by dark arts and domesticity.

American officials believe that Osama bin Laden spent many hours on the computer, relying on couriers to bring him thumb drives packed with information from the outside world.

Videos seized from Bin Laden’s compound and released by the Obama administration on Saturday show him wrapped in an old blanket watching himself on TV, like an aging actor imagining a comeback. A senior intelligence official said other videos show him practicing and flubbing his lines in front of a camera. He was interested enough in his image, the official said, to dye his white beard black for the recordings.

His once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier’s brother, who also had the job of buying goats, sheep and Coca-Cola for the household.While his physical world had shrunk to two indoor rooms and daily pacing in his courtyard, bin Laden was still revered at home — by his three wives, by his children and by the tight, interconnected circle of loyalists in the compound.

He did not do chores or tend to the cows and water buffalo on the south side of the compound like the other men. The household, American officials figure, knew how important it was for him to devote his time to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization he founded and was still actively running at the time of his death.

American officials say there is much they do not know about the last years of Bin Laden, who was shot dead by Navy Seal commandos last Monday in his third-floor bedroom, and the peculiar life of the compound. But what has emerged so far, in interviews with United States and Pakistani military and intelligence officials and Bin Laden’s neighbors in the middle-class hamlet where he had been hiding, is a portrait of an isolated man, perhaps a little bored, presiding over family life while plotting mayhem — still desperate to be heard, intent on outsize influence, musing in his handwritten notebooks about killing more Americans.

“My father would not look forward to staying indoors month after month, because he is a man who loves everything about nature,” Omar bin Laden, a son of Bin Laden, said in an e-mail message in 2009. “But if I were to say what he would need to survive, I would say food and water. He would go inward and occupy himself with his mind.”

Abbottabad, a scenic hill cantonment for the British Raj and later home to the elite military academy that is Pakistan’s West Point, became the Bin Laden family base in late 2005. Their large compound, in a new neighborhood on the outskirts of town, is now the most photographed house in the country, with stories spilling forth from astonished neighbors. Bin Laden, who was the tall man C.I.A. officers watched pacing the courtyard from a surveillance post nearby, never went out. The neighbors knew the family as Arshad Khan and Tariq Khan, the local aliases of the trusted courier — he also went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — and his brother.

The Khans seemed pleasant enough, but they kept to themselves behind their 12-foot concrete walls and barbed wire, the neighbors said. They never invited anyone in or went to others’ homes, although they did go to prayers in the mosque and funerals in the neighborhood. The women only left the compound with their husbands in a car, covered in black burqas. The children rarely played outside. When neighborhood boys playing in the fields let a ball fly into the compound by mistake, the Khans gave them 50 rupees, less than a dollar, to buy a new one rather than let them in to retrieve it.

“We thought maybe they had killed someone back in their village or something like that and were therefore very cautious,” said a neighbor, an engineer who identified himself as Zaheer.

The brothers had two cars, a red Suzuki van and a white Suzuki jeep, and paid double the daily wage (about $2.40) to laborers who worked on the house as it was being built in 2004. They offered various explanations to the neighbors about their comparative wealth, once saying they had a hotel in Dubai or that they worked in the money-changing business. They were Pashtuns from Charsadda, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier.

“They never told us why they came here,” said Naheed Abassi, 21, a driver and farm laborer who said he worked on construction of the house. The courier and his brother, both in their 30s and killed in the raid, were sons of a man Bin Laden, generally believed to be 54, had known for decades. A Bin Laden son, Khalid, who lived in the home and was also killed, was married to a sister of either the courier or his brother, Pakistani officials said.

Little is known about how Bin Laden managed his relationships with his three wives. (Islam traditionally allows a man to have four wives.) But on the night he was killed, Bin Laden was in his bedroom with his youngest wife, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, whose Yemeni passport shows her to be 29 years old, a quarter-century Bin Laden’s junior.

This wife was apparently the one shot by commandos in the leg as she rushed them in an effort to protect her husband. American officials say there were also children in the bedroom; Pakistani intelligence officers, in reports that have not been verified by American officials, say a 12-year-old girl told them that she was a daughter of Bin Laden and that she saw the Americans shoot her father. There was one woman killed in the raid, who was caught in cross-fire when the commandos killed the courier. A retired Pakistani intelligence officer, Brig. Asa Munir, said the woman was an Arab doctor.

There were nine children in the household, but it remained unclear how many belonged to Bin Laden and his son and how many to the courier and his brother. Neighbors say the courier and his brother had seven young children between them, and so there was no great surprise when Pakistanis found remedies for children’s ear infections, colds and coughs in the household. According to NBC News, the Pakistanis also found Avena syrup, an extract of wild oats that can be used for an upset stomach but is also marketed as an aphrodisiac.

Contrary to a widely held belief that Bin Laden was on dialysis to treat a kidney ailment, Pakistani investigators said last week that his youngest wife told them that he was healthy. “He was neither weak nor frail,” one of the investigators quoted the wife as saying. She told them, they said, that Bin Laden had long recovered from two kidney surgeries a decade or more ago in southern Afghanistan, in part by using homemade medications, including watermelon.

Although American intelligence analysts are just beginning to pore over a huge trove of computer files, storage devices and cellphones that the commandos recovered from the compound, they were eager to release the new videos, five in all, on Saturday. They said they did not know when the video of Bin Laden watching himself on television was recorded, but since there is a brief image of President Obama flickering on Bin Laden’s screen, it appears to have been made in the compound sometime after January 2009, when Mr. Obama was inaugurated.

Another of the videos, all provided without sound, shows what the intelligence official said was Bin Laden speaking in a “message to the American people” that condemned the United States and capitalism. The intelligence official who discussed the findings on Saturday said that video was recorded sometime between Oct. 9 and Nov. 5, 2010.

American officials assume that over the last five years, Bin Laden recorded some half-dozen audio messages a year from inside the house. The messages were meant for dissemination to the outside world, but to avoid detection, Bin Laden had no Internet, e-mail or phone lines that he could use to send them.

Instead, the audio files were evidently stored on a CD or tiny thumb drive and passed from courier to courier until they reached As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media arm. There they usually would be combined with still images of Bin Laden, subtitled translations, quotations from the Koran and other embellishments. The finished product would be uploaded to jihadist Web forums and occasionally delivered to Al Jazeera or other broadcasters.

The messages, the only glimpse the world had of Bin Laden’s thinking while he lived inside the compound, suggest not just the firebrand calling for mass murder — a staple of most of the recordings — but a man, perhaps stifled by monotony, eagerly attuned to the news and sometimes attracted to unexpected subjects. It is not known if Bin Laden had a radio in the house, but his son Omar, who lived with him in Afghanistan until 1999, described his father as constantly listening to the BBC at that time.

In October, when American intelligence agencies were already close on the trail of the courier and spy satellites were taking detailed photographs of the house, Bin Laden issued two audio statements urging help for victims of floods in Pakistan. “We are in need of a big change in the method of relief work because the number of victims is great due to climate changes in modern times,” he said.

In 2007, he complained that Democratic control of Congress had not ended the war in Iraq, a fact he attributed to the pernicious influence of “big corporations.” In other messages he commented on the writings of Noam Chomsky, the leftist professor at M.I.T., and praised former President Jimmy Carter’s book supporting Palestinian rights.

Although the couriers who handed off the thumb drives were outside electronic detection, that did not extend to Al Qaeda’s No. 3, who needed a cellphone and e-mail to carry out plans and give orders to more than one person. As a result, Al Qaeda’s third-in-commands had short life expectancies, the fodder of wry jokes in the counterterrorism field. Two No. 3s were killed around the time that Bin Laden lived in the compound — Hamza Rabia in December 2005 and Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in 2010.

Congressional officials who received intelligence briefings this week said that they were struck by how Bin Laden’s low-profile, low-tech lifestyle protected him for years, but in the end might have hastened his death. Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said that the lack of a large entourage was obviously intended to attract as little attention as possible.

“If you had 25 18-year-olds with guns, then not only would the C.I.A. notice, but so would the Pakistani military,” he said.

But Mr. Reed said he was also struck that Bin Laden was not prepared for the kind of attack the commandos carried out early Monday morning. “There was no escape route, no tunnels, not even false rooms in the house in which to hide,” he said. “It makes you wonder: At what point did that extra degree of vigilance he had get dulled by routine?”

Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Washington, and Carlotta Gall and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan. Reporting was contributed by Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt from Washington, David Rohde from New York, and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.