Juliet Dunlop: Just another day with the bin Ladens

The bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Picture: AP
The bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Picture: AP
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THIS week we learned something of the likes, dislikes and domestic arrangements of Osama bin Laden.

Thanks to a leaked report which chronicles in embarrassing detail how the world’s most-wanted man evaded capture for the best part of a decade, we now know that the great enemy of the West wore a cowboy hat and enjoyed gardening. There is nothing particularly unusual about a 54-year-old man wearing a hat. Or tending to the cabbages in his vegetable patch. Or for that matter, being caught speeding in his car.

But when it’s the al-Qaeda leader, the terrorist who masterminded 9/11, trivial details about cowboy hats and cabbages take on a bizarre and exaggerated importance. And the run-in with the law – the policeman who stopped bin Laden’s car and failed to recognise him – well, it simply beggars belief.

No wonder the Pakistani government wanted to keep the report – commissioned in the wake of his capture by US Special Forces in 2011 – under wraps. Page after page reveals missed opportunities and mistakes by the Pakistani government and the military, describing “culpable negligence and incompetence at almost all levels”. It stops short of supporting allegations of complicity but doesn’t rule out “the possibility of some degree of connivance inside or outside the government”. Clearly, bin Laden’s ten-year stay in Pakistan was a huge intelligence failure. But it’s the ease of it all, the relative comfort of his life, which makes this document so troublesome.

We knew some of it already: how he was discovered after the CIA’s suspicions were dismissed; how he was killed by Navy Seals during a daring raid on his compound in the dead of night; how President Obama received the news he was finally dead with the words, “We got him”. But we didn’t really know what day-to-day life was like. Now we have a document which paints a picture of an almost ordinary man, quietly enjoying life with his family. The plotting and killing, the war against the West, was somehow in the past. This was not how we’d imagined life on the run for the terrorist leader. He wasn’t living in a cave; he was living in a grand, three-storey house. Unhindered by outside interference and prying eyes, it seems the bin Ladens were quite at home – apart from the odd worry about spy satellites, hence the preference for the wide-brimmed cowboy hat while strolling in the garden.

But the reason the report is so revealing, so personal, is because much of the information it contains comes from the women in the house. Bin Laden’s three widows, his daughter-in-law and the wives of his bodyguards were all interviewed. They lived with him in the property in Abbottabad for six years. It was bought using fake ID, extended without permission and no taxes were paid. Still, no-one bothered them. And although life in the compound does not sound like much fun, what does come across is the lack of fear. Bin Laden travelled around, and not always in disguise. Security at the house was minimal. There was access to a television. His face would flash up on al-Jazeera.

But it’s the image of bin Laden, family man, which is somehow the worst part of the report. The women describe a thoughtful husband, caring father and grandfather. He liked chocolate. He prayed. He played. Sometimes he’d spend afternoons with the younger children in the garden. It’s a snapshot of happy, family life. One that must stick in the throats of the children who lost their fathers and mothers in the terrorist attacks he planned with such care.

Of course, Osama bin Laden isn’t the first monster to be found living a relatively normal life in secret. Radovan Karadzic spent years in hiding. The former Bosnian Serb leader changed his name and transformed himself into a New Age healer. Neighbours described him as a polite man who always said hello. Bin Laden’s neighbours must have known who he was and what he’d done. So probably did the authorities. Their silence bought him a decade of freedom. And while his domestic details provide an irresistible glimpse into a distorted half-world, they somehow add to the overwhelming sense of injustice and anger we all felt that September day. Perhaps it’s too much information.