The last hideout of the United States' most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, appeared peaceful the day after U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden Monday during a predawn raid on his fortified compound in Abbottabad (map), Pakistan.
It's shocking that bin Laden was found in this Pakistani army-garrison town just 72 miles (116 kilometers) north of the city of Islamabad, according to Don Belt, National Geographic magazine contributing writer. Belt has briefed the U.S. Congress on Pakistan and visited Abbottabad many times.
That's because the picturesque town is home to thousands of troops, and it's neither a Taliban stronghold nor a vast, hard-to-search metropolis.
Pakistani soldiers stand guard Monday outside the fortified mansion where U.S. forces found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden the night before.
“It’s right smack dab in the middle of a military garrison,” Belt said of bin Laden’s refuge. “There are thousands of troops stationed there. There’s a military academy a mile [1.6 kilometers] or so from the compound where he was hiding out.
"I just have a hard time believing that somebody in the Pakistani military didn’t know he was there—especially if he’d been there for several years."
Bin Laden's Neighborhood
Pakistani police officers and soldiers patrol a street near the house (background) where Osama bin Laden was killed in a gun battle with U.S. troops in predawn hours Monday. Abbottabad "sits on a main artery, the Karakoram Highway, about an hour north of Islamabad," Belt said of the former British garrison town.
The town "is scenic and surrounded by the low mountains or foothills of the Hindu Kush. The air is clean, it's picturesque, and the whole area is the beginning of what Pakistanis think of as a kind of vacation land stretching north into Kashmir and west over the Indus River into the Swat Valley.
"All of that area is a kind of scenic heartland of Pakistan, and Abbottabad is kind of a gateway to that region."
Bin Laden's Bed?
Now bloodstained, this room—pictured in a still from video captured Monday—is among those where Osama bin Laden spent his final days.
"Most of the theories about his whereabouts focused on either tribal areas [along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border] or a large city," Belt said. "Many tribal areas are controlled by the Taliban, and the assumption was that he was living in a walled compound out there or in the vast, teeming slums of some vast city like Karachi (map), where he could disappear among some 15 million people who live there.
“Probably the mix in Abbottabad includes some militants," Belt added, "but it’s not any kind of a hotbed, not by a long shot."
Fort Bin Laden
A CIA drawing illustrates the secure Abbottabad compound in which Osama bin Laden was killed Monday during a U.S. military operation that was months in the planning.
Don Belt said walled compounds are typical in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but this one was rather odd—especially considering its location.
The home was built in 2005, and "I can't believe that the military wouldn't at least be scrutinizing the place—with so much of their infrastructure right there, including the military academy where all of the officers go for training, including people like [Pakistan's former military ruler] Pervez Musharraf.
"It's a very high-security area, and you'd think the Pakistani military might look askance at a place with a roughly 15-foot-high [4.5-meter-high] wall and a ring of barbed wire on top and say, Who the heck lives there?"
Casualty of War
The wreckage of a U.S. helicopter—destroyed by U.S. troops after a mechanical failure, lest it fall into enemy hands—lies next to a wall of the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed Monday.
It's not clear how bin Laden made the journey from Afghanistan to the site of his last stand.
"It's not far-fetched to think about him making an overland journey from Afghanistan, through the Swat Valley and across the Indus, then down the Karakoram Highway to land in a place like Abbottabad," Belt said.
"And Abbottabad is also close to Kashmir, where Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups are active in the mountains. So there’s a network of militants in this countryside not far from Abbottabad."