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Bin Laden’s Road to Abbottabad: Where Osama Went and When

March 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Osama bin Laden hid for nine years in Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks -- from Peshawar to Haripur, where at least two of his children were born in government hospitals, according to new details uncovered in Pakistani interrogations of his youngest wife. Margaret Warner and guests discuss his secret life before his death.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, new details of the secret life of Osama bin Laden between 9/11 and the day he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan nearly 10 years later.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Much of the new information comes from Pakistani interrogations of bin Laden’s youngest wife, a 30-year-old Yemeni who sustained a gunshot wound to her leg the night bin Laden was killed.

The interrogation report first disclosed by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn shows bin Laden ask his three wives were living in Pakistani cities and towns for nearly all the time the Americans were hunting him after the November 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah told interrogators that from 2002 to 2010, bin Laden moved among at least five houses and fathered four children in the northwest city of Peshawar near the Afghan border, in the Swat district 80 miles from the capital, Islamabad, the small town of Haripur in the same region, and finally from 2005 on in Abbottabad, just 30 miles from Islamabad.

Fatah and the two older Saudi widows of bin Laden are now under house arrest in the capital.

And for more on all of this, we turn to Declan Walsh of The New York Times in Islamabad, who has been reporting this story, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has written widely on Pakistan and has had access to some of the documents found in bin Laden’s last house.

Welcome to you both.

Declan, beginning with you, the picture that emerges here is quite the opposite of what many Americans thought for a long time, was that bin Laden was some kind of hunted figure on the run living in caves. Flesh it out for us, the picture that we get from this.

DECLAN WALSH, The New York Times: Absolutely.

The working assumption for certainly most of the public interpretation of bin Laden’s whereabouts for most of the past decade has been that he was in Pakistan’s tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. And this testimony from his youngest wife now suggests that that wasn’t the case, that bin Laden in fact spent most of his time in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which is next to the tribal belt, but which is very much part of the settled areas of Pakistan, if you like.

Bin Laden’s wife says that she met him in Peshawar, which is the main city in that region, in around mid-2002, that they moved north into the mountains into the Hindu Kush, to the Swat Valley. They spent some time there with the relative — in two houses with the relatives of a close associate of his.

Then they moved to another house in a place called Haripur, as you say, where bin Laden’s youngest wife gave birth to two children in a local government hospital, apparently staying in the hospital for a short period of two, three hours on each occasion. And then finally they moved to the house in Abbottabad in mid-2005, where they stayed for six years, until the American Navy SEALs broke through the door last May, killed bin Laden and wounded his youngest wife during the raid.

MARGARET WARNER: And what — tell us about — she’s quite specific about who helped them in all these moves and found the houses for them. Tell us briefly about that.

DECLAN WALSH: Well, on the one hand, there is very little information in fact about who exactly was helping the bin Laden family.

There’s a number of references in these documents, particularly in the early part of their journey through Pakistan, to what are referred to as Pakistani families, but giving very little other details about who was helping them. That’s very intriguing.

But, secondly, it seems that in the latter part of their stay, in the second part of the last decade in bin Laden — in Pakistan, rather, the bin Laden family was sheltered by a pair of Pashtun brothers. These are referred to in the documents as Ibrahim and Abrar.

Ibrahim is believed to be a man who was known to American intelligence as the courier, because he was the person who was delivering messages from bin Laden to the outside world for most of this time. The courier and his brother and their families lived with bin Laden’s wives over most of that period and it seems protected them as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So, David Ignatius, what does this in total add to our understanding of bin Laden’s — really the last decade of his life after 9/11?

DAVID IGNATIUS, columnist, The Washington Post: Well, it fleshes out a picture of this man in hiding, but really so far from the fight.

We had imagined him, as you said earlier, in caves with, later, Predator attacks overhead. I think the question that’s raised by these documents is, who knew about bin Laden’s movements? It just strains any credulity that he could have lived in five different houses in Pakistan, that his wife gave birth to four children, two in government hospitals, and that there wasn’t some official knowledge.

Pakistan is a place where you don’t move down the street without people seeing and knowing and asking questions and making inquiries.

MARGARET WARNER: And reporting often.

DAVID IGNATIUS: And reporting to the security authorities.

This is one of those countries where the internal security apparatus makes it its job to know who’s where. So the question who knew in Pakistan, who facilitated the movements that Declan was talking about, but, more to the point, who in the chain of command might have been knowledgeable as he moved from place to place? And then in this long stretch of six year in Abbottabad, which is the Pakistani version of West Point, who knew he was there? Who asked the questions?

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that this account, if true, just really strongly suggests it wouldn’t have been plausible or possible for him to operate without somebody knowing.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Somebody must known that a tall foreigner was present in these places, and especially finally in Abbottabad.

I don’t mean to point the finger at the senior leadership of the Pakistani military. We don’t have evidence that suggests that, but somebody knew, and nobody followed up.

MARGARET WARNER: Declan, let me get back to you briefly.

Was this account — her account seems very focused on her visa status, the questions and the answers. Is this part of a broader investigation into who knew where bin Laden was, or is this very focused on the charges they may want to bring against the widows?

DECLAN WALSH: Well, actually, the ground has shifted under this investigation in the last couple of months.

Initially, the Pakistani government formed an investigation team to debrief bin Laden’s wives, who, of course, are the people who know most about his movements in many respects over the last decade. Until just a couple of months, senior officials were saying that they expected to interrogate and then deport these women back to their countries of origin, to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

But in the last month, the interior minister has turned around and said, no, that now they are actually going to prosecute them for illegal entry into the country, which are crimes that face a possible penalty of up to five years in prison in this country.

So people are asking questions about why the government has had this change of tactics, and whether there’s some other reason why they want to keep bin Laden’s wives in Pakistan, either to get further information out of them or to prevent other people from asking those sort of questions from them.

MARGARET WARNER: And, David, before we go, you have seen documents that were captured, seized during this Navy SEAL raid. What’s the most fascinating tidbit you saw?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I’d say two things, briefly.

First, to the end of his life, bin Laden wanted to kill Americans, thought of how he could do it, specifically wanted to kill President Obama. Second, it’s amazing that, on the run, in hiding in these remote places, he was honest enough about what had happened that he admitted to himself that, in many ways, al-Qaida had failed, to the point that in one draft memo that I saw, he talks about changing the name of the organization, al-Qaida, to something different that won’t have such bad connotations with Muslims.

MARGARET WARNER: With killing Muslims.

Well, David Ignatius and Declan Walsh, thank you both.