Osama Bin Laden Dead: The Mysterious Khan Family Who Were 'Good Neighbours'
They spoke perfect Pashtu – the language of Pakistan's unruly tribal areas – in a cultivated, urban accent. They were careful to pay their bills on time and popular with local shopkeepers.
Women and children came and went, travelling mostly in a red Suzuki van. The family were well off, telling locals that they had made their money trading gold. Certainly, they were reclusive.
The imposing house in Abbottabad had high walls and was fortified by barbed wire. They never handed out their phone numbers. There were no telephones in the house, and no internet.
When children playing cricket knocked balls into their compound they were never allowed in to find them. Instead the Khans would pay them 100 rupees – approximately 70p – as compensation.
But nobody made anything of it. Neighbours simply assumed that the head of the household, who called himself Arshad Khan, had, like many other Pakistan businessmen, made some powerful enemies in his road to riches.
Now they know that the secret the "Khans" were hiding was Osama bin Laden, and "Mr Khan" was in all likelihood one of his most trusted couriers, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
I spoke to Mohammed Qasim, the son of a farmer whose makeshift family dwelling stands barely three yards from the 15ft wall surrounding the Khan property.
Standing beside the wall, he told me that he never once saw a visitor. "No guests ever went in. It was just themselves. They saw nobody local and nobody from outside the neighbourhood," he said.
Qasim, whose father was seized by soldiers during the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, said that two families had been living in the compound. They were headed by Arshad Khan, said to be in his forties, and his young brother Tariq.
Qasim said the Khans had eight or nine children between them, and that two or three women also lived in the house. He was not sure exactly how many because the women always wore burkas when they left the compound.
He knew the names of two of the children, Abdur Rahman and Khalid, both six or seven years old. These children also spoke in cultivated Pashtu.
Qasim told me that every morning the mothers and their children would leave the house a 1987 red Suzuki van. "I'm not sure if they went to school or some other place," he said.
He insisted, however, that he never saw Osama bin Laden, adding: "I don't believe he was there."
It may have been a quiet life, but it could hardly have been spent in more beautiful surroundings. The Khan residence is surrounded by expertly cultivated fields of tomatoes, wheat, cabbages and cauliflower.
I also noticed that wild cannabis grew along the outer walls of the compound itself, exuding a pleasant fragrance in the hot early summer air.
To north and south, the Khans home is flanked by the Serban and Kakol mountain ranges, imposing in the middle distance. Tall poplar trees grow all around the house, swaying gently in the summer breeze.
Surveying the scene, it is impossible to understand how the mysterious and aloof Khan family eluded the famously paranoid security experts of the Pakistan army and intelligence services.
Last night Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, even disclosed that he jogged regularly past this compound whenever he visited Abbottabad.
The house was clearly built to frustrate prying eyes and intruders. There are no balconies – a feature of almost all other homes in this part of Abbottabad — and with its high walls another unusual architectural feature it feels more like an institution than a family home.
One neighbour, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s not a proper house. It’s more like a warehouse. It’s not like a home where anyone would want to live.”
It is five years since “Arshad Khan” purchased an isolated plot of land in this prime area of real estate.
He hired a local contractor to build the house and told those who asked that he came from Charsadda, a village near Peshawar, the city which acts as a gateway to the war-torn tribal regions.
There was no question that the family were very wealthy. Their grand property sat apart from other dwellings in one of the smartest areas of town.
Some neighbours believed that Mr Khan, a clean shaven and well-groomed man with a signature Pashtun moustache, had made his money dealing in foreign currencies.
But he told the gardener, a well-known local character called Nazar, that gold dealing was the basis of his fortunes.
As well as lacking phone or internet connections, the house did not even have satellite TV – an obligatory feature of any house of any size in Pakistan.
The Khans even burned their own rubbish, leaving no traces of what they had consumed. All the other neighbours had put their rubbish out for collection.
Their neighbours said that the Khans very rarely walked anywhere, choosing to travel by car even on very short journeys. Zarar Ahmed, 12, one of the few locals who visited the family, said they would give him rabbits.
“They had installed a camera at the outer gate so they could see people before they entered the house,” he said.
“I used to go to their house. He had two wives, one spoke Arabic, and the other one spoke Urdu. They had three children, a girl and two boys. They gave me two rabbits.”
Yet for all the Khans’ strange traits, they do not seem to have aroused suspicion, perhaps because rich Pakistan families often refuse to mingle with people they regard as hailing from the lower orders. The Americans now say that Arshad and Tariq were acting as couriers for the al-Qaeda leader.
They were his eyes and ears and his link to the outside world. It was through the “Khans” that bin Laden accepted, digested and interpreted the world beyond the confines of the compound.
The world’s most feared terrorist was entirely in their hands and at their mercy. The last years of his life must have been maddeningly claustrophobic. The Khans may have been his protectors, but they were also his prison guards. It is likely that, inadvertently or by design, it was the Khans who betrayed bin Laden.
America claimed that the couriers were spotted on one of their trips on his behalf and followed. But many in Abbottabad have a different theory. The killing of bin Laden was conducted so cleanly that it has raised suspicions.
Many I spoke to believed that the feared ISI – the intelligence arm of the Pakistan state – must have known that the Khans’ safe house, scarcely a kilometre from the Pakistan military academy, harboured the world’s most wanted man. In the end bin Laden may have been turned in by his captors in a grand bargain between America and Pakistan.
Mohammed Qasim, the farmer’s boy, was caught up in the momentous events that led to bin Laden’s death in the early hours of Sunday. He said that one of the US special forces helicopters landed in the field just behind his house. Masked men emerged — Qasim said they spoke fluent Pashtu.
He heard them smash their way into the Khans’ fortress, followed by the cries of alarm from women and children. Twenty minutes later, he heard the helicopters depart, bearing with them all of the reclusive Khan family, and the body of bin Laden.
There were practically no signs of a fight when I arrived at the Khan’s family house. No bullet marks punctured the walls. Inside the compound, however, one of the walls looked badly charred – Probably where an American helicopter crashed.
Despite what seems to have been an intensive clean-up operation by the Pakistan army, pieces of burned out metal and mangled steel were scattered across the wheat field and cabbage patches surrounding the residence.
Local children were rummaging through the fields, picking up pieces of the wreckage with a view to selling them on. I paid 100 rupees for a scarred steel tube to take away as a souvenir.
But the rest of Abbottabad was quiet. Local people seemed strangely indifferent to the historic event that had just taken place on their doorstep.
Driving away, I stopped to watch a group of local students playing a cricket match. After asking the score, I asked Faizan, the opening batsman, what he made of the sensational event that had made his home town so notorious.
Telling me off, he said: “This is not our problem. We should be worrying about our studies.”