Some 24 hours have elapsed since the raid by US special forces and CIA operatives that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, but many of the circumstances and details of the attack remain murky, particularly the role of Pakistani security forces, both in protecting bin Laden and in aiding the eventual attack.
The most striking contradiction between the official US propaganda about the "war on terror" and the reality demonstrated in the raid is the location of bin Laden's hiding place. Far from being holed up in a cave, isolated from the world, the Al Qaeda leader was in a palatial compound in Abbottabad only half a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, the equivalent of West Point, in a city which is home to many high-ranking retired military officers.
The disparity between the past claims of bin Laden's location -- made by US officials up to and including the president -- and his actual residence was widely noted. Time magazine observed, "How bin Laden was able to reside in a posh compound for months, if not years, surrounded by former Pakistani military officers remains unknown." Reuters news agency added, "The revelation bin Laden was living in style will hugely embarrass Pakistani officials, who will be under pressure to explain how he could have been right under their noses."
Press accounts in the United States, based on descriptions supplied by the Pentagon, CIA and White House, depict a bin Laden fortress so obvious that it lacked only a neon sign on the roof advertising Al Qaeda. It had been built in 2005, apparently for the specific purpose of serving as a protected residence for the terrorist leader.
The house was huge -- eight times the size of any of its neighbors, easily visible in satellite photographs -- in a wealthy neighborhood not far from the center of the city. It was heavily secured, with walls as high as 18 feet in some places, topped with barbed wire, and a seven-foot high parapet around the top floor, suitable to concealing an unusually tall resident (Bin Laden reportedly stood nearly six foot five inches).
The house was valued at over $1 million, but the two brothers who were listed as owners had "no explainable source of wealth," and the structure had neither telephone nor Internet access, evidently for security reasons. The residents burned their trash rather than leave it on the street for pickup.
While President Obama claimed in his Sunday night speech that US intelligence agencies only learned of the compound's existence in August 2010, diplomatic cables obtained by the whistleblower web site WikiLeaks suggest that the US government learned of the Abbottabad site sometime in 2008, based on interrogations of an Al Qaeda leader, Abu al-Libi, detained at Guantaamo Bay.
WikiLeaks published a Twitter posting Monday giving some details of the cable, but a fuller release of material is expected. According to the posting, al-Libi had been chosen to be a special messenger for Al Qaeda in 2003 and was to be based in Abbottabad. He moved his family from Peshawar to Abbottabad in July 2003 to carry out this assignment.
Abbottabad has been variously described as a regional city and a distant suburb of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, a short helicopter ride away. It was certainly a focal point for the activity of Pakistan's huge military apparatus, which has ruled the country for most of its 65-year history.
The city of 100,000 is strategically located, just inside the territory of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state, where most of Pakistan's Pashtun-speaking population live -- ethnically related to the largest population group in Afghanistan -- and only a few miles from the heavily militarized Pakistan-occupied portion of Kashmir.
A brigade of the Pakistani army's Second Division makes its headquarters there, and so also have, in past years, Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas who sought to infiltrate the Indian-held portion of Kashmir and conduct terrorist attacks. One Pakistani-born columnist compared the city to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the US Air Force Academy is located, featuring the same noxious combination of military brass and religious fundamentalists.
There are conflicting accounts of the role of the Pakistani security forces in the actual raid. Pakistani officials claimed Monday that their forces had actually assisted in the attack, but this was dismissed by Obama administration officials, who claimed that Islamabad was only told of the raid after bin Laden was dead.
According to the British Guardian, the four helicopters carrying the Navy SEALs lifted off from Ghazi airbase in northwest Pakistan, where they would certainly have been observed flying east towards Abbottabad, not west towards the mountainous region on the Afghanistan border, the usual zone of operations for the US special forces. The helicopters flew straight into one of the main centers of the Pakistani military, in the middle of the night, supposedly without anyone noticing.
It seems clear that a critical issue in the timing of the raid was the complex and murky relationship between the US intelligence apparatus and its Pakistani counterpart. One important question involves the possible connection between the raid's planning and the activities of Raymond Davis, the American CIA agent arrested by Pakistani police in January after killing two men as they drove past his car in Lahore, the biggest city in Punjab province. The Davis affair touched off two months of increasing and public acrimony between the US and Pakistan.
After intense diplomatic pressure by the Obama administration, Davis was released from Pakistani custody on March 16 and quickly flown out of the country -- two days after Obama convened the first of five meetings at the White House to plan the raid on Abbottabad.
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