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Osama bin Laden killed near Pakistan's West Point. Was he really hidden?

The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was not hiding in a cave along the lawless border with Afghanistan, as many believed. Instead, US forces killed him 75 miles north of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

By Issam Ahmed and Owais TohidCorrespondents / May 2, 2011

Pakistan army soldiers seen near the house where it is believed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived and was killed by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Monday, May 2.

Anjum Naveed/AP

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Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan

The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, made his last stand in Pakistan – but far from the lawless Afghan border, where he was believed to be hiding out. Instead, US forces killed him in the military town of Abbottabad, a short jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point and 75 miles north of the capital.

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Neither Pakistani nor American military operations have targeted the city in the past. The location raises questions as to how long the Pakistani military knew of the Saudi extremist’s hiding spot and whether they shielded him.

“It seems deeply improbable that Bin Laden could have been where he was killed without the knowledge of some parts of the Pakistani state,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a leading Pakistani columnist, noting Abbottabad’s strategic importance.

Abbottabad residents tell the Monitor that around 1 a.m. Monday morning, US Special Forces battled Bin Laden’s bodyguards some 800 yards from the Pakistani Military Academy.

Shafiq, a local who was worried about reprisal, says he saw a large fleet of helicopters firing upon the compound. He heard two small blasts, then a huge explosion followed by a helicopter crashing and engulfing the area in flames.

Another resident, Muhammad Javed, says he and other residents were oblivious to Bin Laden’s presence.

“For weeks, we did not see anybody coming out or going inside the huge compound,” says Mr. Javed. “We only knew that two Afghans named Arshad and Tariq were living there."

How did Pakistan not know Osama was there?

While high walls and a system of couriers kept bin Laden's presence secret from residents, fooling the military and intelligence establishments is another matter.

“I think it is a failure of our intelligence – the fact that he can hang around in Abbottabad for so long and we didn’t know,” says Zafar Hillay, a former diplomat.

But Ramesh Chopra, a former chief of Indian military intelligence who was born in Abbottabad, says any military conducts sweeps of areas and would know its own backyard. For him, it’s clear bin Laden was protected by elements of Pakistan’s establishment.

“If I were the [Pakistani intelligence] chief, I wouldn’t put Osama bin Laden there. I wouldn’t be so arrogant and foolish,” says Mr. Chopra. “A safehouse is supposed to be decrepit and in an isolated place.”

Pictures of bin Laden’s bloodied and shattered face were broadcast on Pakistani television, though their authenticity could not be verified. Within hours of the pictures circulating, the US announced it had buried the body at sea in accordance with Muslim rules.

Was Pakistan involved in the operation?

Conflicting reports have emerged about the level of Pakistani knowledge and cooperation in the strike against bin Laden.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official claimed to have been aware of the operation, though Pakistani forces were not directly involved, according to Reuters. At the very least, the entry of US Special Operation Forces deep inside Pakistani territory suggests a level of coordination with Pakistani authorities.

President Obama made no mention of a joint operation. But he did offer a vague nod to Pakistani help: “Our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

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