Cricket and conspiracy theories in the ruins of bin Laden's last hiding place

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Children play where Osama Bin Laden's compound was situated - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph
Children play where Osama Bin Laden's compound was situated - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph

The lair where the world's most wanted man once oversaw his terrorist network is now only a plot of empty land where children play.

Osama bin Laden's secret compound has been razed to its concrete foundations and local boys have built a cricket pitch in its grounds.

The peace in this sleepy suburb of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad was last week a far cry from a decade ago, when US special forces helicopters swept out of the darkness in the early hours of May 2, 2011.

As the circling helicopters that night shook houses and woke residents, neighbours climbed onto their roofs to see what was going on.

“We thought that someone had invaded the country. We didn't know what had happened,” recalls Shamriz Khan, who still lives next door.

The US Navy SEALs were only on the ground for 38 minutes before departing with bin Laden's body, but for the residents that raid was the start of weeks of upheaval.

A shopkeeper nearby Osama Bin Laden's compound has kept a newspaper clipping which shows it ten years ago - Saiyna Bashir 
A shopkeeper nearby Osama Bin Laden's compound has kept a newspaper clipping which shows it ten years ago - Saiyna Bashir
... and now
... and now

Pakistan's army quickly arrived at the scene in the Bilal Town neighbourhood and cordoned off the area. Neighbours were interrogated on what they knew about the family living in the compound and Mr Khan and others were taken in for questioning.

While Barack Obama hailed the raid as a victory for America, for Pakistan it was seen as a humiliation that still stings.

The world's most wanted man had for five years been living in a garrison city less than a mile from the country's equivalent of Sandhurst.

Either Pakistan had been oblivious to his presence, in what would have been a shocking intelligence failure, or he had been living under some kind of state protection.

The White House war room May 2, 2011
The White House war room May 2, 2011

America had not trusted Pakistan enough to inform it of the raid in advance, but had still been able to pull off an audacious mission deep inside the country's defences.

The event remains a magnet for conspiracy theories among residents. Shabbir Ahmed Khan Tanoli, who now lives in a newly built house right next to the compound, still doubts bin Laden was killed there.

“I think it was not Osama's house, but someone else living there. Maybe something to do with the CIA, or the Afghans,” he said.

The intervening years have also seen a transformation in what remained of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. The centrally-controlled network which plotted attacks against Western interests has now metamorphosed into a series of franchises or affiliates who are fighting local campaigns in countries like Syria, Yemen and parts of Africa.

While some of those affiliates can number in the thousands, the plotting and international vision that made the group such a menace to the West have largely gone, said Raffaello Pantucci, a counter terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute.

Children dance with joy under blue skies - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph
Children dance with joy under blue skies - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph

It is not clear if bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is alive or dead and the central organisation is “a shadow of its former self,” he said.

“I don't think it's anywhere near the globe-spanning, visionary organisation that he had created. It's become a much more parochial entity that is based in a few locations where it's got interests and varying degrees of success.”

From 2014, the group was also eclipsed by the rise of the more media savvy Islamic State group whose slick propaganda and self-styled caliphate inspired a newer generation of would-be jihadists. A string of senior figures in the group's local branches have also been killed this year.

Yet analysts also warn the group should not be written off and bin Laden remains an inspiring figure for many extremists.

With American troops now only a few months from leaving Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, attention has recently returned to what role al-Qaeda fighters might play in the country.

Under Donald Trump's Doha deal with the Taliban, America said it would pull out troops if the insurgents ensured terrorist groups like al-Qaeda would not be allowed to plot attacks, train, fundraise or recruit.

Yet a United Nations update on the group earlier this year estimated there are between 200 and 500 members of the group spread across Afghanistan and intelligence officials claim they are closely embedded with the Taliban, sometimes giving guidance.

“Al-Qaeda assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country,” the report said.

The group this week declared that America had been defeated in Afghanistan and warned that "war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world".

Shabbir Ahmed khan a resident of Osama street who used to live close to the compound.  - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph
Shabbir Ahmed khan a resident of Osama street who used to live close to the compound. - Saiyna Bashir for the Telegraph

If the Taliban managed to return to some form of power in Afghanistan it would be seized on by the group as a propaganda victory and also again give them a haven, experts believe.

The Taliban still insist they will not let anyone use Afghan soil to launch attacks. Pulling out of Afghanistan will remove from the region much of the military and intelligence might that America used to find and kill bin Laden a decade ago.

"When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That's simply a fact," William Burns, the CIA director said last month.

Joe Biden argues that the threat is not what it was and he has far greater priorities, including China, Russia and domestic extremism. What threat remains can be held at bay from further afield, he says.

While counter terrorist experts debate the threat, back in Abbottabad, bin Laden's compound no longer pulls the volume of sightseers it once did, though it remains a well known local landmark for delivery drivers.

One house opposite has an address plaque declaring it is on 'Osama Street'.

Some residents may bemoan the notoriety their neighbour has caused, but Mr Tanoli clearly revels in the connection.

“Abbottabad has become famous because of bin Laden. I work in Dubai often and if anyone asks about where I live, I say I am bin Laden's neighbour.”

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