Sleepy Pakistani hill town a secret militant hub?

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan Wed May 11, 2011 1:33pm BST

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Set in the foothills of Pakistan's Himalayas, the sleepy town of Abbottabad seems an incongruous place for the hunt for the world's most wanted man to have ended in a bloody raid by U.S. special forces.

Nearly 10 years after orchestrating the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2 after being found in a fortified concrete building in Abbottabad, little more than a stone's throw from Pakistan's top military academy.

Unlike many other Pakistani cities and towns, which have been hit repeatedly by suicide bombers loyal to al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, Abbottabad seemed to have escaped the wave of violence that has swept the country in recent years.

But it was perhaps because of its reputation as a pleasant hill town that bin Laden chose Abbottabad for his lair, practically hiding out in plain sight.

"Abbottabad is a relatively quiet area and generally we believe there's less of a possibility such a high-value target is hiding there because it's so close to military installations," said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

"That's why he remained undetected."

As well as home to Pakistan's top military academy, Abbottabad is the base for three army regiments and is also known as a leafy retirement haven for government officials and military officers.

But despite its standing as a genteel retreat from the heat of the plains, Abbottabad has cropped up before in connection with militants and bin Laden's discovery there has raised the possibility that, actually, it had become a secret militant hub.

It recently come to light that Abu Farj Faraj al-Liby, a one-time number three man in the al Qaeda hierarchy, may have lived in Abbottabad in 2003.

Security forces conducted several raids in the town to find him and in 2004 one of his drivers was arrested there. Al-Liby was eventually arrested in the northwestern town of Mardan in 2005.

Then, last January, top Indonesian militant Umar Patek was arrested in Abbottabad. He was wanted in connection with the 2002 bomb attack on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Security officials said investigators are trying to determine if Patek had been in the town to meet bin Laden and, if not, what he was doing there.

CHANGING FACE

There's little doubt that a U.S. campaign of attacks with pilotless drone aircraft on militant sanctuaries along the Afghan border has driven some of them, perhaps bin laden himself, to safety deeper in Pakistan.

Many civilians have also fled Pakistani offensives against militants in the northwest to Abbottabad and other such towns.

Security officials say it is possible al Qaeda members and sympathizers slipped into the town among the displaced.

At the very least, the migration into the town, named after a nineteenth century British colonial officer, would have provided bin Laden with some cover.

"The influx of people from outside has changed the face of Abbottabad," said a senior security official.

"People from different ethnicities are living in the town and I think this was a great camouflage for him."

The discovery of bin Laden in the town has raised suspicions that elements of the Pakistani army or its intelligence agencies, which have had links with militants over the years, were sheltering him there.

Pakistani government and military officials reject that as ridiculous.

"We wouldn't have arrested Patek, we wouldn't have shared intelligence on this compound with the Americans if we were protecting them," the security official said, referring to a phone call, intercepted by Pakistani agents and passed on to the CIA, which finally led to bin Laden.

Talat Masood, a retired general-turned-analyst, said he was convinced that top military and intelligence officials would not have given refuge to bin Laden, but low-level security agency sympathizers or "influential people" in the town must have helped him.

"Why didn't we not knock at the door of this house to find out who was living there if we knew that it was a suspicious place?" Masood asked. "That was the biggest lapse and inefficiency on our part."

Many Abbottabad residents are upset about the possible damage to their reputation, and that of their town.

"I can say with complete conviction that no retired army officer was involved," said Fazl-ur-Rehman, a retired major with a white beard, relaxing outside his house with a cup of tea.

"We're moderate people, we're not hardline."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)