PAKISTAN – Children play cricket on a patch of burnt grass and rubble scattered in Abbottabad – all that remains of the final lair of the man who was once the most wanted person on the planet.
It was in this Pakistani city that Osama bin Laden was killed in the clandestine attack “Operation Geronimo” by the United States Navy Seals in the early hours of May 2, 2011.
The operation had global repercussions and undermined Pakistan’s international reputation – exposing contradictions in a country that for a long time served as a backup base for Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies while suffering the effects of terrorism.
Bin Laden had been living in seclusion for at least five years in Abbottabad, hidden behind the high walls of an imposing white building less than two kilometers from a renowned military academy.
“It was a very bad thing for this place and for the whole country,” said Altaf Hussain, a retired professor, walking down an alley next to Bin Laden’s former residence.
“By living here, Osama has given this city a bad reputation.”
The attack caught Pakistan between a rock and a difficult place.
The authorities could deny that they knew he was there – but in doing so, they would effectively be admitting a shocking failure of intelligence.
They could also have admitted that the most infamous fugitive in the world was under their protection, but that would mean being powerless to prevent Washington from carrying out such a bold attack on sovereign soil.
They opted for the former, but the U.S. operation reinforced an already strong anti-American sentiment among a population tired of the heavy financial and human toll paid by the war on terror – and Islamabad’s alliance with Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Pakistan was initially receptive to the founding myth of Al Qaeda – Muslim resistance to American imperialism.
But by the time of his death, bin Laden’s local popularity had waned.
“Before, I remember that people called their children Osama, even in my village,” said Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on jihadist networks.
Bin Laden’s death did not stop extremism from spreading to Pakistan, and conservative religious movements became even more influential.
Over the next three years, several terrorist groups – mainly the Pakistani Taliban – carried out bloody attacks and established fortresses in the northwestern tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
A military campaign launched in 2014 helped to reduce violence, although a recent series of minor attacks has raised fears that extremists are rallying.
Without its charismatic leader, Al Qaeda “survived, but narrowly” and is no longer capable of launching major attacks in the West, says Yusufzai.
The group is also no longer “a major threat to Pakistan”, believes Hamid Mir – the last journalist to interview Bin Laden in person – although other groups such as Islamic State remain.
He said that while the founder of al-Qaeda is still seen as a “freedom fighter” by some, many also recognize him as “a bad person who killed innocent people and caused destruction – not just in Pakistan, but in many countries, in violation of the teachings of Islam “.
Even so, bin Laden maintains an aura in radical circles.
“He is alive in the heart of all Taliban and jihadists,” said Saad, an Afghan Taliban officer who lives in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan caused a scandal two years ago by telling parliament that bin Laden had died as a “martyr” – a noble death in the Islamic world.
Even in Abbottabad, a prosperous and largely tolerant medium-sized city, there is ambiguity about Bin Laden, whose house was razed in 2012 by authorities so that it would not become a memorial.
“There are differences of opinion on this street,” said former teenage neighbor Numan Hattak.
“Some say he was good, others say he was bad.”