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Mystery shrouds the quiet man who built Bin Laden's compound

Known in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as Arshad Khan, neighbors say he lived in the fortress-like residence with a man believed to be his brother and their families. But little else is known, including whether he was the courier whose trail eventually led to Osama bin Laden.

May 06, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • A man whom neighbors knew as Arshad Khan completed this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2005, six years before Osama bin Laden was killed there.
A man whom neighbors knew as Arshad Khan completed this compound in Abbottabad,… (Nathalie Bardou, Associated…)

Reporting from Abbottabad, Pakistan — The builder of Osama bin Laden's last lair was a polite but taciturn man who kept the neighbors at arm's length and prying eyes from discovering the identity of his boss.

Known here as Arshad Khan, the stocky Pashtun with glasses and a tuft of hair under his lower lip bought up plots of land on the outskirts of this garrison city. Then, he built a sprawling compound anchored by a three-story building that would serve as sanctuary for the world's most wanted man.

The CIA says Bin Laden lived there for five years before he was finally tracked down. Khan lived there, too, along with another man known as Tariq who neighbors said was Khan's brother, and the wives and children of the three men.

Otherwise, little is known about Khan — including whether that was his real name, and whether he was also the courier whose trail eventually led U.S. intelligence agents to Bin Laden's door. U.S. officials say four other people died in the raid early Monday that killed Bin Laden: the courier, his brother, Bin Laden's son and a woman described as the wife of the courier.

U.S. officials have said they believe the courier also was the owner of the compound, and that he had been identified by a nickname, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, suggesting that he was from Kuwait.

Neighbors said that the behavior of the compound's residents was unusual, but not so much that it drew tremendous attention.

Asked why he needed security cameras and perimeter walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire, Khan said he was in the midst of an acrimonious feud with relatives and had to safeguard his family. Disputes between family factions can get ugly in Pakistan, and often result in someone picking up a gun.

"When I saw it being built, I thought, 'Wow, the walls are so big,' " said Zahim Shekoh, 22, a college student whose house is about 100 yards from the compound. " 'Why so big? And why all the barbed wire?' "

By all accounts, Khan was Bin Laden's lifeline to the outside world, supplying the compound with food and medicine, neighbors said. His red Suzuki van was often seen stuffed with large bags of flour, fruit and other groceries. Neighbors wondered why Khan and the man they knew as his brother needed so much food, and surmised that they were stocking up in bulk.

According to neighbors and local authorities in Abbottabad, Khan bought several parcels of land in 2004 and 2005 on the edge of Bilal Town, a neighborhood of middle-class homes just 2.5 miles from the Pakistan Military Academy, the country's equivalent of West Point.

He combined the parcels into a plot of roughly one acre and hired a contractor to build the compound. One man he bought a plot of land from, Dr. Qazi Mahfooz Ul Haq, remembers Khan's eagerness to deal.

"He said he wanted to buy it because he was building a house for his uncle," Ul Haq said in an interview at his small basement clinic in central Abbottabad. "I met with Arshad two or three times during this nine-month period I had the land. He was already building, and he would say, 'Please sell me this land.' "

The doctor turned a tidy profit. He bought the parcel of a little less than a third of an acre in 2004 for $17,650 and sold it to Khan the next year for $25,880.

The last time Ul Haq saw Khan was last fall when he came into the clinic complaining of a fever and chest congestion. He said Khan appeared to be in his mid-30s, always wore a traditional Pakistani tunic and spoke Urdu with a Pashtun accent.

"He wasn't a very talkative person — polite, but a simple man," Ul Haq said. "It's hard to accept. Was this all real? He was just one of many men I meet, and suddenly he becomes this infamous man."

Local authorities say they approved Khan's request in 2004 for a construction permit to begin building the compound, and he broke ground that same year.

The documents Khan submitted for the permit listed him as a native of Charsadda, a largely Pashtun city not far from Pakistan's volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border, where Al Qaeda and Taliban militants continue to maintain strongholds. Officials in Charsadda, however, denied that Khan hailed from their city.

The compound was completed in 2005. From that point on, neighbors said, Khan, the man identified as his brother and occasionally their young children were the only occupants to venture outside its dusty gray walls.

Neighbors say they rarely got more than a nod and a "salaam alaikum" greeting — peace be unto you — from Khan as he ambled down the dirt road for visits to a market or to a mosque for prayers. Social invitations were politely refused.

When local boys playing cricket batted a ball over the compound's walls, guards inside typically waited a day or two to give it back, said Mohammed Tariq, 17.

That behavior didn't raise major concerns in the neighborhood, either. People chalked it up to a desire by the people in the compound to keep to themselves.

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