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Examining Osama Bin Laden's Legacy, 10 Years After He Was Killed In Pakistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep in Islamabad. What remains here of Osama bin Laden? Twenty years ago this weekend, airplanes struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Ten years ago, U.S. forces found bin Laden hiding here in Pakistan. The U.S. military carried out his body to bury him at sea. The al-Qaida leader and his group were never broadly popular in the country where he was killed. Yet for some people here, a certain hazy sympathy for bin Laden lives.

We just got off of a major highway and rolled past a blue and white sign that says Welcome to Abbottabad.

Until 10 years ago, most Americans had never heard of Abbottabad...

Whoa - three lanes of traffic on this two-lane road.

...Though Pakistanis knew it as a vacation city where neighborhoods spread up steep mountain slopes. We stopped at what seemed like a vacant lot, where a local resident had agreed to meet us.

Mr. Massood, hello.

Massood Khan is a local lawyer, a friend of a friend, who showed up elegantly dressed in a black vest that many Pakistanis favor. He gestured across the grassy lot to a concrete slab about the size of a house.

MASSOOD KHAN: This used to be the compound. They demolished it, probably because they thought it might become a shrine or something.

INSKEEP: The compound where bin Laden hid is now open space where neighborhood kids play.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Yelling in non-English language.)

INSKEEP: What was the first thing that you saw or heard on the night of the raid that made you think something was going on?

KHAN: The explosion - there was a big explosion at around 2 o'clock.

INSKEEP: Not until later did Massood learn the explosion was likely Navy SEALs destroying one of their damaged helicopters on their way out with bin Laden's body. As he told us the story of that night, the children in the lot flew a kite above the power lines.

KHAN: And they play here. I believe this is developed into a cricket pitch. And they come here and play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Over loudspeaker, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Has anyone here heard of Osama bin Laden?

INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: They say yes, they have heard or they haven't heard?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KHAN: They have. They have.

INSKEEP: OK. What do you know about Osama bin Laden?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INTERPRETER: He says that this is - the entire plot was his.

INSKEEP: Who was he?

INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INTERPRETER: He was a good man.

INSKEEP: Now, that was just a casual question to a kid. Was he good? Yes. But some adults say this, too.

Do you think there are a lot of people here who think Osama bin Laden was a good man?

KHAN: Obviously, obviously - I mean, he is portrayed over here as a man who stood up to the United States and its policies. So they all consider him to be a hero.

INSKEEP: Bin Laden is, in other words, a political symbol.

Just as the foundation of bin Laden's compound remains in Abbottabad, certain attitudes about him persist. A couple of hours away, in the city of Rawalpindi, we talked with people in the Raja Bazaar amid the chaos of shoe vendors and banana carts. We asked the first 10 people we met about bin Laden and got two kinds of answers. Some said no comment, while others spoke well of him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken) - nice man - (non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Lion.

INTERPRETER: People consider him a lion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Lion of Islam.

INTERPRETER: This gentleman wants to say something, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I do not want to say about Osama, but I will say about this 9/11 - that was a drama. And it was orchestrated to justify an attack on a Muslim country. And they did not know country are they going to attack.

(Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: This man endorses a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence, that America attacked itself. There's little recent polling on such ideas. But a 2015 poll found about half of Pakistanis surveyed said the U.S. was responsible for 9/11. That, too, seems like a political statement. Gallup Pakistan found the numbers shot up after the U.S. killed bin Laden here without asking Pakistan's permission.

Mohsin Dawar, a Pakistani lawmaker, says he is not surprised.

MOHSIN DAWAR: People on the streets called him a good man because he has been projected as a good man by our state.

INSKEEP: Our state?

DAWAR: Yes - or media and the politicians here.

INSKEEP: If I watched a lot of Urdu TV, I would see more portrayals?

DAWAR: About him?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAWAR: Too much - you will never say anything wrong about him.

INSKEEP: What do you think of Osama bin Laden?

DAWAR: Well, I called him a terrorist. He was a terrorist.

INSKEEP: Dawar is sure of this because of where he lives, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He views bin Laden as the man who provoked 20 years of war that spread to Pakistan and even to his village. But the U.S. withdrawal from that war has boosted bin Laden's image. That's what we heard from Hamid Mir, who 20 years ago was the last independent journalist to interview the al-Qaida leader.

What is the legacy of Osama bin Laden?

HAMID MIR: The legacy of Osama bin Laden is sitting in the presidential palace in Kabul now. Who is ruling Afghanistan now? - Taliban. Who are Taliban? - the biggest allies of Osama bin Laden.

INSKEEP: Al-Qaida has been devastated through U.S. attacks over the years, though a recent United Nations report says the Taliban still shelter the group.

MIR: Al-Qaida is still there. Bin Laden is not there physically. But who are Taliban (laughter)? They refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to United States. They sacrificed their government in 2001 just for Osama bin Laden. Who is vindicated, United States or Osama bin Laden? His ghost is ruling Afghanistan today.

INSKEEP: And at least a few figures in the much larger nation of Pakistan dream of seizing the moment. Abdullah Gul is among those who turn aside the horror of 9/11 by casting doubt that bin Laden did it.

ABDULLAH GUL: Even now Osama bin Laden is being admired because not enough evidence was given by anyone.

INSKEEP: The wars in this region have lasted two generations. And Abdullah Gul is part of the second. His father, Hameed Gul, was a Pakistani intelligence chief who used to help funnel money and American-made Stinger missiles to Afghan guerrilla fighters. The U.S.-backed mujahedeen in the 1980s were battling the Soviet Union. They included bin Laden and also briefly included Abdullah Gul, who says he volunteered for his father's war.

GUL: I remember that the Stingers used to come from America. I have seen and fired one Stinger myself.

INSKEEP: These days, Abdullah Gul has started his own political party and is hoping to participate in Pakistan's next elections.

GUL: Somebody asked me - a very senior diplomat - he said, what do you think about - that Taliban are going to export their ideology? I said, no, they are not going to export their ideology. But nobody can stop importing ideology.

INSKEEP: Importing ideology?

GUL: Importing ideology.

INSKEEP: People are going to import it to Pakistan?

GUL: Look at Pakistan. The judicial system is not functioning. It is not delivering to the common man. Look at the political system. So there is a dire need of a system change in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Now, it's fair to ask at this point, what's it really matter if some people sympathize with a long-dead extremist? Al-Qaida and its tactics were never popular with the majority in this country of over 200 million. Visitors instead find a diverse and open-minded populace. Radical Islamist parties routinely stand for election and routinely lose. But, of course, one way to overturn the will of the majority is through political violence, which Pakistan still has. Pakistan's own version of the Taliban have lately claimed responsibility for new attacks. And that casts a different light on those who casually defend bin Laden.

Is it actually dangerous if lots of people think Osama bin Laden was a good man?

DAWAR: It is dangerous after so much destruction.

INSKEEP: Mohsin Dawar, the Pakistani legislator, says the wars of the past two decades killed thousands of his own countrymen.

Do you think people who say he was a good man just don't realize what you just told me?

DAWAR: Of course - there is a lot which needs to be done in terms of political education.

INSKEEP: But the political education Dawar wants may not be the education some students receive.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS RECITING QURAN)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Consider a school in Islamabad where children memorize the Quran by reciting it. Islamabad is a modern capital city. But when you step through the gates of Jamia Hafsa, you're on a sparse compound of white buildings. A man showed us in, invited us to sit on the floor and said through our interpreter that nobody here has taken COVID vaccines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) We don't put on mask either in the entire university or this religious institution because God will protect us.

INSKEEP: This is a school for girls.

TAYEBA GHAZI: That is a madrassa.

INSKEEP: I stayed behind while teacher Tayeba Ghazi led the three women in our team around a courtyard crowded with students.

GHAZI: There are students - they are now studying because today is starting our exams.

INSKEEP: Among men, she wears a niqab, with her head covered entirely in black, except for an eye-slit. She removed it among female students with our producer Samantha Balaban.

SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: Are they all from religious families? Are they from all kinds of families?

GHAZI: No, normal families.

INSKEEP: She says students come from many kinds of families and learn more than the Quran. Pakistan's government is pressing religious schools to broaden their curriculum. But this school is distinctive. Tayeba's father, the chancellor of the school, is a prominent cleric named Maulana Abdul Aziz. In the past, he described extremist movements as simple reactions to government injustice. He's considered so radical that security forces once besieged the so-called Red Mosque where he preached. And he's on a list of several thousand Pakistani figures banned from interviews or public speaking under an anti-terrorism law. He still runs his schools. His daughter is less fiery but radical enough.

What do you think of Osama bin Laden?

GHAZI: In my opinion, he is a good man because he is not a terrorist. We think he is a fundamentalist.

INSKEEP: What is the difference between a terrorist and a fundamentalist?

INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

GHAZI: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: She says, "A terrorist is a person who frightens other people. A policeman could be a terrorist." She says, "Nobody who is fighting for his rights could be described as a terrorist."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Maulana Abdul Aziz has another school for boys. People here report that some students in the past went off to join the Afghan Taliban. And after they took Kabul, more went.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: We talked with people at Jamia Hafsa while sitting on the floor of the library which makes the school's political sympathies clear. A sign above the doorway gives its name - The Library of Osama bin Laden, Martyr.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.