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Scene From Pakistan: Bin Laden Was Hiding In Plain Sight

Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a building at the hideout of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after his death in a ground operation in Abbottabad.
Aamir Qureshi
AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani soldiers stand guard on top of a building at the hideout of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after his death in a ground operation in Abbottabad.

As NPR's Julie McCarthy puts it, if you were Osama bin Laden and you wanted to hide in plain sight at a place where no one would suspect, you might pick Abbottabad, Pakistan.

During NPR's news special this morning, Julie told Renee Montagne that Abbottabad is a "really lovely place" founded by the British during the colonial era and it takes pride in its peacefulness.

The compound, Julie reports, has been surrounded by Pakistani military, which has put red pieces of material in front of the compound in order to keep the media from getting a look:

Something notable about Abbottabad is that it's an important military cantonment. The Independent reports that bin Laden's compound was "within a mile of the Pakistan Military Academy." The town is the headquarters of the Second Division of the Northern Army Corps and many officers retire there.

Julie says as she traveled around the town, "you are struck by the absolute presence of the military." For years, popular thinking was that bin Laden was hiding out in caves either in Afghanistan or the tribal and remote areas of Pakistan.

That bin Laden was in a million dollar compound in a city not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad brings up a ton of questions about what Pakistan knew or didn't know or should have known.

Julie says at this point it could mean anything.

Pakistan's former intelligence chief, retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul told India's CNN-IBN that making inferences about where bin Laden was found is dangerous:

"It is wrong to say that the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence agency] or the Pakistani government was harbouring Osama. Let more information come in. It is not unusual to have compounds with huge walls and heavy security in this part of Pakistan. Pathans usually build huge compound walls," Gul said.

In an early morning press briefing, a senior Obama administration official said the compound had 12- to 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire. Internal walls sectioned off different parts of the compound to provide more privacy. The compound had two security gates and "a terrace on the third floor has a ... seven-foot privacy wall," the official said.

The town, reports Julie, was terrified by the attack. Mark wrote about Shohaib Athar, who "live-blogged" the raid without knowing it. Athab tweeted about the helicopters flying low. And Julie says the explosions rattled the town.

As the sun came up and the townspeople learned what happened, Julie reports that they see bin Laden's death as a good thing. But they see this military operation as a direct attack on Pakistan's sovereignty.

Now, they're saying "America, mission accomplished," reports Julie. "Now end the war in Afghanistan" and don't conduct any more military operations in our country.

Update at 12:22 p.m. ET. An Illustration Of The Compound:

Government officials have released an illustration of Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. It shows the walls-within-walls that we referred to earlier:

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The Abbottabad compound.
/ Government Officials
Government Officials
The Abbottabad compound.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.