At end, Osama bin Laden wasn't running al-Qaida, officials say
ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Osama bin Laden was out of touch with the younger generation of al-Qaida commanders, and they often didn't follow his advice during the years he was in hiding in northern Pakistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials now say.
Contradicting the assertions of some American officials that bin Laden was running a "command and control" center from the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, officials say that bin Laden clearly wasn't in control of al-Qaida, though he was trying to remain involved or at least influential.
"He was like the cranky old uncle that people weren't listening to," said a U.S. official, who'd been briefed on the evidence collected from the Abbottabad compound and who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The younger guys had never worked directly with him. They did not take everything he said as right."
Nearly two months after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs who raided his hideout in the early morning hours of May 2, a more detailed picture is emerging of how the world's most wanted fugitive lived out his final years secreted in the walled compound in this town in the Himalayan foothills, where neighbors still deny ever having an inkling that he was there.
One new detail, discovered by McClatchy, is that the bin Laden household was buying and selling gold jewelry, perhaps as a way to raise money. Another is that for a household that included at least nine women and twice that many children, its consumption of electricity and gas was far less than that of neighboring households, a sign either of bin Laden's legendary frugality or an indication that the terrorist leader simply had run out of money and was living as cheaply as he could.
The SEALs who raided the compound scooped up computer hard drives and thumb drives that held a huge amount of data before they left the scene, with bin Laden's body, aboard American helicopters. Most of that data has been sifted through now, allowing officials to reach better conclusions about how bin Laden had been passing the time and with whom he'd been in contact.
The data provided no "smoking gun" that Pakistani intelligence or other Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's presence in the house. The computer records also lend credence to long-held beliefs that bin Laden's longtime deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, who was named al Qaida's leader earlier this month, had been much more involved and important to the group's operations than bin Laden had been in the last several years.
"He wanted to stay involved," the U.S. official said of bin Laden. "He was corresponding with a lot of senior (al-Qaida) people, correcting perceptions, giving advice. He remained important as a symbol, sending out instructions, giving spiritual guidance."
How bin Laden survived undetected in the compound for perhaps as many as five years has been a source of speculation since President Barack Obama announced that the terrorist leader had been killed in a dramatic late-night televised speech from the White House.
Abbottabad is a garrison town, populated by serving and retired military officers. Pakistan's most prestigious military academy is less than a mile from the bin Laden compound, and the town is home to three Pakistani military bases.
The emerging picture of bin Laden's final years suggests that one way he may have escaped detection was by leaving as small a footprint as possible in the town.
Far from the million-dollar mansion that U.S. officials initially said he'd been found in, the 12,400-square-foot house cost the equivalent of $100,800 to build, according to the contractor. The land on which it sits was assembled for about $48,000, according to records reviewed by McClatchy.
Land records show that the land for the home was bought by "Muhammad Arshad," a fake identity used by the Pakistani man who's thought to have been the courier who cared for bin Laden in his final years.
Using a fake identity card, the man bought the land in four lots, from three owners, starting on June 1, 2004, and ending on May 27, 2005, according to the government's land records. Total cost in local currency was 4.09 million rupees. Altogether, the land was 6 kanals and 13 marla in the local measurement; about 3,325 square yards or slightly more than two-thirds of an acre.
The house, which was completed in 2005, had 10 rooms. It was designed as a multifamily residence, with four separate gas connections and four separate hookups for electricity. That arrangement was in keeping with the way bin Laden had lived in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, where his wives lived in separate apartments with their children within a larger family property.
The utilities provide yet another clue to how bin Laden may have escaped detection.
By any measure, the compound was densely populated. In addition to bin Laden's three wives, the compound's residents included bin Laden's adult son Khalid, who probably was married, Arshad and Tariq Khan — the men thought to be the courier and his brother — and their wives, plus, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, around 18 children. That means 25 to 28 people lived there.
Yet the utility bills from the property were below those of even a modest household in the area.
The bin Ladens' four gas bills for March from Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited totaled no more than $18. By comparison, the family of a local journalist, a household of five, spent about $54 for gas that month.
The electric bills for April were similarly modest. The four bills combined, all in the name of "Muhammad Arshad," came to about $83.
Pakistani officials said bills that low never would have triggered suspicion that a large number of unseen residents were in the compound.
Local shopkeepers say the bin Laden household made similarly ordinary purchases of foodstuffs. At the Sajid general store, a five-minute walk from the compound, near the main Kakul Road, the owner said that Arshad and Tariq Khan would buy modest amounts of food supplies, such as rice and lentils. Curiously, the brothers refused to settle each other's outstanding bills.
One unanswered question is why the bin Laden household was buying and selling jewelry while living in Abbottabad. Among the items found in the home were receipts from jewelry stores.
The items may have been gifts, perhaps for bin Laden's wives or children, but investigators are considering the possibility that trading in gold was one way the bin Laden compound financed its stay in Abbottabad.
Pakistani officials found three jewelry receipts at the house, all from 2008. Two were from a store in Abbottabad and the other from a shop in Rawalpindi, a three-hour drive south.
Muhammad Nawaz Qureshi, the owner of New Friends Jewelers in Rawalpindi, confirmed that the receipt found at the house was his, and produced a copy of it from his records.
He said he couldn't remember the transaction, in which, according to the receipt, Muhammad Khan bought six gold bangles and two gold rings for babies for a total of 135,000 rupees, about $1,588, and paid for them by trading a necklace valued at 120,000 rupees and paying 15,000 in cash to make up the difference.
Today, the items would be worth about 300,000 rupees ($3,500), Qureshi said.
"Most customers don't keep the receipts. If they keep them, it usually means that they mean to sell the jewelry later on, as receipts are required to be shown for that," he said.
At the Sarafa Bazaar in Abbottabad, the owner of Rehman Jewelers also recognized the receipts from his store. On those, Tariq Khan is named as the purchaser. He bought a 10.88 gram gold brooch for 30,300 rupees ($356). The same day, he also bought a pair of small gold earnings for 10,800 rupees ($127).
The store's owner, Ayaz Ahmad, said he'd been visited three times by separate Pakistani investigation teams, including a team from the capital, Islamabad. He also retrieved copies of the receipts from his records.
Qureshi, the Rawalpindi store owner, said Pakistani investigators hadn't visited him. Neither storekeeper recognized photographs shown to them of Arshad and Tariq Khan, taken after U.S. soldiers shot and killed the brothers.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent