Some workers at Pakistan's Bach Christian Hospital heard explosions and rapid gunfire in the early morning hours of May 2. Others say they slept right through the U.S. attack that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The 50-bed hospital is only a few miles from the compound where the al-Qaeda leader had for years taken refuge in the Himalayan foothills city of Abbottabad. Besides a terrorist safe haven, the region north of Islamabad along the Karakoram Highway-an area of rugged and beautiful extremes that traces the route of the ancient Silk Road that once linked Europe to China-also is home to some of Pakistan's oldest Christian missions.
Christian missionaries introduced chicken farms to Abbottabad 50 years ago as a way to provide needed protein to a poor rural population. Now hundreds of poultry houses line the countryside, along with fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. Today the military runs many of the agricultural operations in the area, as well as tea plantations and grain businesses: With ample rain and mild temperatures at a moderately high altitude, the region can manage three growing seasons per year.
Bach Christian Hospital opened in 1956 in the town of Qalandarabad, 6 miles from the city center of Abbottabad, where many of the hospital staff reside. Started by U.S. physicians, Bach is supported by The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), a Wheaton, Ill., group. "Today was business as usual at the hospital," chief executive officer Luke Cutherell emailed to friends and supporters on May 2. But he also asked for prayers "for this country and for safety for the work here."
Many Christian institutions and churches in Pakistan closed following news of bin Laden's death, and Pakistani officials recommended they beef up security. Despite a long history of providing needed services-particularly medical care and education-Christian groups, even Pakistani-run ones, are viewed as sympathetic to Western interests and to the United States. And as al-Qaeda's presence in Pakistan's northern tier has grown, longstanding missions have come under assault by militants.
In 2002 militants attacked Murree Christian School, about 45 miles by road (a two-and-a-half hour drive) southeast of Abbottabad. Gunmen killed six Pakistani workers at the school and wounded four. But the attack terrorized 150 students attending class at the school, which opened in 1956, and Murree was forced to close for a year. That same week, militants attacked the Christian Hospital of Taxila, killing four nurses and wounding 25 people. Presbyterian missionaries started the 80-year-old hospital, 40 miles from Murree, but at the time of the attack Pakistanis were running it with no foreign staff. Several of the men later arrested and charged for both attacks had received training in bin Laden's Afghanistan camps.
Suicide bombings and similar attacks across Pakistan have killed more than 3,000 people since 2007, according to Compass Direct News, with locals blaming Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants. Now, some are wondering whether bin Laden's presence in the North West Frontier Province, where Abbottabad is located, was responsible for the stepped-up violence. "There have been so many other attacks all throughout this area, especially in Peshawar. One wonders if Osama had anything to do with these," said one medical worker in the province, who is not named for security reasons.
Despite the apparent danger, personnel at many Christian institutions say they've been operating normally in the weeks following bin Laden's death. Cutherell said life at Bach "has been fairly routine except for an influx of foreign news people." For most of his neighbors, bin Laden was not the icon of terror he has become in the West, but there has been anger, he said, over the unilateral action of the United States and embarrassment that nearby military personnel either were complicit or incompetent in knowing bin Laden was near. "For the most part the work of the hospital is greatly appreciated," said Cutherell. "That we provide a good quality of basic care at a minimal cost I think helps us to be seen in a different light from others from the West."
Other institutions say they also are operating normally, including ongoing classes at Murree Christian School. But further north on the Karakoram Highway, Gilgit Eye Hospital has closed, personnel say for six months, for personnel and financial reasons. One difficulty is finding Western specialists willing and able to work there, though since opening in 1995 the eye hospital has treated over 60,000 patients and performed 4,000 cataract procedures. "We depend on getting another team of Westerners together who are committed to the area and to the work," said one physician who just returned to the United States (and asked not to be named for security reasons).
The pressure hard-line Muslim groups are exerting within the government has made it harder for Westerners to receive visas to work in Pakistan. And Pakistan's brutal anti-blasphemy laws-which make it a capital crime to insult Islam-put a damper on non-Muslim workers who fear that even casual religious expressions could become grounds for prosecution.
The closer you look at Abbottabad, the more striking a safe haven it appears to have been for bin Laden. Less than 40 miles (but a two-hour drive) from the capital, Islamabad, the city lies at about 4,000 feet in elevation with nearby foothills climbing quickly to over 8,000 feet. With fertile ground irrigated by mountain streams, hills have gradually been tilled into plains for crops. Moderate weather is another reason the military located not only its prestigious academy but other installations around Abbottabad. Not to mention that it's a gateway for all commerce with China. Pakistan increasingly sees China as its chief ally, and the Karakoram Highway cuts through the city center, the last commercial hub in the country, before heading quickly into the desolate north and all the way to the Chinese border.
In addition to military convoys, the roads are frequently clogged with tractors, donkey carts, trucks weighed down with produce, men on bikes, and locals shepherding animals across the road. High-walled compounds like the one where bin Laden likely lived for the last five or more years front the road nearing the city center, where there is a KFC, a movie theater, and large retail stores.
"The military presence has made the economy boom," said the medical worker, who made regular trips to Abbottabad. With the general cosmopolitan feel of the place, less conservative than surrounding areas, he said, "It never entered my mind that one of those high-walled compounds was harboring Osama."
Or that in this pacific setting bin Laden was hoping to plan the next 9/11. Records recovered by the United States are showing that bin Laden was in regular communication from his walled compound with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and elsewhere, exchanging messages via dozens of thumb drives recovered by the U.S. Navy SEAL team that broke into the compound May 2 and shot him. In a handwritten journal bin Laden charted ideas for mass attacks along the scale of the 2001 attacks on the United States and suggested ways to choose effective targets, including trains along with airplanes. The journal and other documents discussed launching attacks in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, according to unnamed U.S. officials who spoke to the Associated Press.
In the weeks since, those findings are prompting investigators and counterterrorism officers to scramble all the more to learn about the terrorist mastermind's time in Abbottabad, how, why-and under whose protection-he found safe haven there. "Today, the United States cannot accept a situation in which al-Qaeda and its local allies have a sanctuary to plan and train for terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland," said Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who testified about the future U.S. role in the region at May 10 hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill.
Sanctuary granted by Islamic states sympathetic to al-Qaeda's mission made it possible for bin Laden to direct well-known terror plots. In Sudan between 1991 and 1997 bin Laden planned the simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies launched in 1998 in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He also made plans for what turned out to be the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, and there planned the attacks of 9/11. Jones points out that bin Laden moved from Tora Bora, his mountain enclave, to Kandahar in the late 1990s, the headquarters of the Taliban. Similarly, he kept a base in Khartoum that was close to Sudan's National Islamic Front government. That raises an obvious question: Did bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad indicate patronage from Pakistan's nearby military?
While in Pakistan, bin Laden likely planned the 2004 Madrid bombing that killed 191 and wounded over 1,800; the 2005 London subway bombings that killed 52 and injured 700; and the foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot that involved using liquid explosives to blow up U.S.-bound planes.
All that time, Pakistan's top leaders repeatedly denied that the al-Qaeda leader had made a home in their country. In 2008 then-President Musharraf told CBS: "We are not particularly looking for him, but we are operating against terrorists and al-Qaeda and militant Taliban."
His successor, President Asif Ali Zardari (who was elected when his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by militants U.S. and Pakistani authorities believe were linked to al-Qaeda), told the BBC in a September 2009 interview that he believed bin Laden was dead-though he offered no evidence to support his claim. Interior Minister Rehman Malik suggested to U.S. officials that bin Laden was in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or Iran. And when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in late 2009 pressed for Pakistani agents to capture bin Laden, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani balked: "I doubt the information you are giving is correct because I don't think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan."
U.S. officials long insisted that bin Laden was alive in Pakistan-though they believed him to be in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas rather than in North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But bin Laden had history in NWFP, having established al-Qaeda in Peshawar, the provincial capital, in 1988. He and other Arab fighters from that time forward regularly crossed the border from Peshawar to Jalalabad and Nuristan Province in Afghanistan-areas that continue to be hotbeds of terrorism and Taliban resurgence.
In the short-term the United States must press Pakistan harder to police its border and to eliminate safe havens for terrorists, said former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones. But Jones warned against punishing Pakistan and said that post-bin Laden tension in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship should instead be treated as "a pivot point to bring about reconciliation." Pakistan, he said, "deserves its share of credit" for capturing key al-Qaeda leaders and the United States "cannot risk the strategic consequences of a failed state in Pakistan."
But Americans are plainly weary of pumping aid-more than $20 billion since 2001-to a country that's not clearly on their side. Pakistan is currently the third-largest recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid, behind Israel and Afghanistan. But the fiscal year 2011 request, if granted, would move it just ahead of Israel to second place.
At the May 17 hearing where Jones testified, there was bipartisan frustration from members of the panel over aiding a country that's been sheltering America's No. 1 enemy. "Most of us are wanting to call time out on aid until we can ascertain what is in our best interest," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons went further, accusing Pakistan of playing a "double game" by taking U.S. aid and helping terrorists: "They are both fireman and arsonist in a regional conflagration."
It's a game neither Pakistan nor the United States can afford not to play, perhaps, but without uprooting more terrorist sanctuaries the current situation leaves many, including Pakistan's Christians, vulnerable.