Osama Bin Laden: The night he came for dinner
- 2 May 2012
- From the section Magazine
What happens when your surprise dinner guest turns out to be the world's most wanted man? A year on from the death of Osama Bin Laden, two men tell how they came to host the then leader of al-Qaeda.
Late one night in the summer of 2010, on the fringes of the Waziristan region in north-western Pakistan, half a dozen men of a local tribal family waited nervously for the arrival of a guest whose identity they didn't know.
They had been alerted to this visit weeks earlier, by someone they describe simply as an "important person". They were not given any names, and the exact time of the guest's arrival was conveyed to them just a few hours in advance.
At about 23:00, when the world around them was in deep sleep, they heard the rumble of the approaching vehicles.
"A dozen big four-wheel drive jeeps drove into the compound," recalls one family elder who agreed to speak to me about it. "They seemed to converge from different directions."
One of the 4x4s drove up close to the veranda, and from its back seat emerged a tall and frail-looking man. He wore flowing robes and a white turban.
The waiting men couldn't believe their eyes. Standing before them was none other than Osama Bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world.
"We were dumb-struck," says the elder. "He was the last person we'd expected to turn up at our doorstep."
He stood beside the vehicle for a while, shaking hands. The elder says he kissed Bin Laden's hand and pressed it against his eyes in a gesture of reverence.
Then, putting his hand lightly on the shoulder of one of his assistants, Bin Laden walked into the room they'd set up for him. The villagers didn't follow him in. Only a couple of his own men kept him company.
This happened exactly one year before Bin Laden was killed in a secret operation of the US Navy Seals in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, located some 300km (186 miles) to the north-east of this remote tribal compound.
The shock of his death prompted one of his former hosts to tell close friends about this unexpected visit, which is how I came to know about it.
After some persuasion, I was able to speak to two of the men who'd met Bin Laden on that occasion. Both requested that their names and locality be kept secret.
During the three hours Bin Laden spent with them, they said he offered prayers, rested, and ate the lamb chops, chicken curry and rice they'd prepared for him and his entourage.
All that time, his hosts weren't allowed to leave the compound, or let anyone in. Armed men took positions at the main gate, along the walls and on the roof.
There was a slight commotion among the guards when one of the hosts requested that his 85-year-old father be allowed to see Bin Laden.
"Consider this to be his dying wish," he pleaded. The message was passed to Bin Laden, who agreed to see the old patriarch.
Four armed men escorted the son home to fetch his father. The old man was only told about Bin Laden's presence once they were back inside the compound.
They said the old man spent 10 minutes with Bin Laden, pouring out his admiration and prayers for him, and offering time-tested advice on tribal warfare, all in his native Pashto language, which Bin Laden apparently didn't understand.
This brought smiles to the faces of Bin Laden's hosts and his guards, they say.
Bin Laden and his men departed in just the same way as they'd come - their 4x4s leaving the compound in a bustling confusion - and heading out in different directions, giving his hosts little chance to determine which way Bin Laden's vehicle went.
While my interlocutors were quite open about the details of the visit, they didn't want to discuss the identity of the "important man" who had asked them to host Bin Laden. They were also reluctant to share information on who else was in the entourage.
Following Bin Laden's death a year later, both Pakistani and American officials had insisted that the al-Qaeda chief had lived in total seclusion for nearly five years, without once leaving his Abbottabad compound.
That would seem not to be the case. And many questions remain unanswered.
The area where he showed up in 2010 is in the middle of a vast tribal hinterland which was, and to an extent still is, the focus of a number of military operations against militants. Troops stationed there were on high alert and had set up dozens of security checkpoints to monitor commuters along both regular and rarely frequented routes.
How did he get past those posts undetected?
The Pakistanis have always denied having any knowledge of his whereabouts or providing any support to Bin Laden.
There's also the question of who was planning his itinerary, what was the purpose of his visit and, above all, how frequently did he pay midnight visits to unsuspecting hosts?