There is a house that has been in the news a lot this past week – a private family residence, far from the
, without architectural significance… but with great importance to culture and defense. The scenic hill country of Abbottabad, appropriately once a military station for the British Raj in this outpost of United States , was for six years the home of Osama bin Laden. Many news reports are dedicated to the surprise of finding him living in a house with wives and children, surrounded by visitors and possible collaborators, instead of in an isolated cave in the hills. But where is it easier to hide, than among your own peers? Pakistan
Design of the compound reinforces the circumscribed life his family led for over a decade. Access through the single steel portal led to an open channel, susceptible to a single defender stationed on an overlooking parapet, to a second gate at the end. The redundant gate disgorged at the accessory house, home to the security officers who could easily intercept any unwanted visitors (unless they landed by helicopter). Although access was wisely limited, exits shared the same pathway; there was no tunnel, and no escape route.
The boundary line was drawn in uncompromising concrete, with heights from 10 to 18 feet, topped with razor wire. This seems not to have raised curiosity in this area, also home to former intelligence officers and the
. The high walls had no openings, maintaining the inward focus common to courtyard houses of this region. What couldn’t be seen from the outside were multiple layers of walls that shroud the home from view. The location off a secondary street, with limited connections to other routes, also helped the occupants remain anonymous. The most visible concession to security was the surveillance camera mounted at the gate. Pakistani Military Academy
Form and materials also contributed to the compound’s safety and defensibility. Thick concrete cloaked the key people at the center of the site, very like a medieval keep. Overhanging roofs shield windows and porches from accidental views, performing a similar function as the casemates of WWII-era fortifications sheltered soldiers from gunfire. In its rectangular windows, whitewashed walls, and flat roofs it is not very different from neighboring buildings; neither does it celebrate the apparent wealth of the inhabitants.
How could a family remain cloistered for six years in an eight-room house? Self-sufficiency measures helped – the provision of a well, and perhaps a generator. Central heating eliminated the need for firewood in this town at the base of the
Himalayas. The satellite dish was a link to the world beyond the walls, but a solitary one – there were no landlines and no internet. Trash was incinerated instead of placed outside, where it may have been vulnerable to western eyes. A storehouse of food and other items was discovered, with supplies for the household to survive for weeks.
In the final analysis, it was the necessary connection with the outside world that provided the crack in bin Laden’s defenses. He was discovered through the perpetual need for procurement of food, medicine, and information. The lessons of defense followed here are legion, assimilated from military maneuvers of past centuries: trust no one, hide in plain sight, and leave no trace behind. But the great lesson of the
strike force is also telling: persistence has no equal. U.S.