NBC News’ Stephanie Gosk has been reporting all week from Abbottabad, Pakistan, the city where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in a secret raid. In a phone interview Friday, she responded to questions about the town and the local reaction to bin Laden’s death and the revelation that he lived there for years.
What is the reaction to bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad?
We’ve been here all week and have been able to get quite close to bin Laden’s former compound – right outside the walls. And it’s not just the media who are interested, but also the people who live in this town.
What is most interesting is how few people actually believe bin Laden was killed in that house or that he even lived there at all.
It will be interesting over the next few days to see what their reaction is to the news that al-Qaida has put a statement online confirming that bin Laden was killed and calling on Muslims around the world to rise up and avenge his death.
Is there really still that much doubt about Bin Laden even living there?
Well, this country has a strong tradition of conspiracy theories. People here don’t generally believe anything that officials tell them. So it’s not entirely surprising that they aren’t going to believe reports coming out of the White House.
What’s interesting is the reasons why they think the White House is doing this. They will say things like, “Well, Obama wants to be re-elected in the next election, so this was really just a PR stunt.” One person that we spoke to the other day referred back to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and how things at that time seemed to be done to deflect criticism around the world. So they will go out of their way to try to fabricate these elaborate conspiracies as opposed to believing what officials tell them.
What would it take for them to believe that he was killed?
Well, that was always my next question: What would it take for you to believe he was actually killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in that house? I asked if a photo would do it, and they said, “No, no, of course not. You can doctor a photo.” When I asked about video, they said, “No, you can doctor that, too.” They simply will not believe that he was killed.
With al-Qaida’s statement coming out, it will be interesting to see if people believe it now. But they may come back and say this is just another ploy as well.
Is Abbottabad really a well-heeled town? Have you seen the town’s alleged golf course?
We didn’t get a chance to check out the golf course. But we did get a sense of what daily life is like.
Despite all the international media coverage, there were a lot of people in this town who just got on with their lives.
In Pakistan, this is a place that people retreat to. It’s up in the mountains, so there is a cool breeze. It’s a good place to escape the hustle-bustle of Islamabad and the heat – so some people have second homes here. There are hotels – it’s just a pretty little town.
For the people who actually believe that bin Laden was living here amongst them and was killed here, they are shocked that it could happen in their midst. It’s a place that is known not to have much of a radical element. And in Pakistan over the last few years, there are very few places where you can say that.
We are hearing that the CIA had a safe house there, do the neighbors say that they noticed anything?
We haven’t heard from anybody that they were aware of monitoring or intelligence gathering on the ground. There is nothing that led them to any suspicions of that.
But quite honestly there was nothing to make them suspicious of the house down the road. Now people will say that it had high walls and barbed wire – which is a little unusual. And they didn’t see the women come out of the house – but that’s fairly typical. There are plenty of families where women don’t leave the house – so that wasn’t all that strange. People here didn’t really notice anything that completely out of the ordinary.
That’s really the big question: What did they know? And with that military complex down the road, how did they not know that bin Laden was in their midst?
Does that suspicion of officials and the U.S. lend itself to suspicions about the Pakistani military, too? That they had some hand in hiding bin Laden?
No, I don’t think they are suspicious of the military. What we have heard – almost across the board – is criticism of the civilian government and the fact that they are seen as puppets of the United States.
There is also embarrassment among the Pakistani military that this raid took place at all. That U.S. Navy SEALs snuck in under their radar, hugging the mountainous terrain, killed bin Laden and then left without them ever knowing it happened until they received a phone call from U.S. officials.
That has embarrassed and angered the military in this country – and the people themselves.
Where there any protests there today?
There was a small protest in Abbottabad. There were maybe 400-500 people and it was organized by a radical Islamic group. It was all men. This is a town of 100,000 people – so it wasn’t really that big.
But their message was a familiar one that we have heard all over the country over and over: that their sovereignty was violated by this raid and that President Asif Ali Zardari is a puppet of the U.S.
Is there any sense of relief that bin Laden is gone?
I think there is some relief here in Abbottabad and across the country as well. Because over the last couple of years al-Qaida has turned its attention to Pakistan and conducted a number of attacks – including deadly suicide attacks in all of Pakistan’s major cities.
So people’s tolerance of al-Qaida and their violence has really diminished. So there is real anger there over the deaths in this country and I think that killing bin Laden will bring people some relief. But I think they really want the attacks to stop.