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Last Stand in Abbottabad: The Untold Story of Osama bin Laden’s Hideout

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This week’s TIME cover story is an exclusive, detailed feature by Peter Bergen about the final days of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by Navy SEALs in a raid nearly one year ago. In the following excerpt, Bergen, who spent much of his career covering bin Laden and his network of terrorists, provides previously unpublished details about the compound where bin Laden had been living in seclusion on a third floor that wasn’t supposed to exist at all.

The Floor That Didn’t Exist

The compound was a perfect place for a discreet yet comfortable retirement.

It was to the placid environs of Abbottabad that bin Laden, half a decade after his great victory on 9/11, decided to escape. By the spring of 2011, the terrorist mastermind was in his sixth year of hiding out in the city’s Bilal Town neighborhood (see the timeline of bin Laden’s post-Sept. 11 movements below). With its porticoed white villas interspersed with small shops selling fruits and vegetables, it is certainly a pleasant place to live. Sometime in 2005, bin Laden’s compound began rising from what had once been open fields. During construction, a third floor was added to the main building. No planning permission was sought for this addition (see the original compound blueprints), a common enough dodge in a part of the world where paying property taxes is regarded as a sucker’s game.

Graphic by Lon Tweeten and Andréa Ford for TIME

But there was a more compelling reason to keep this alteration as secret as possible: the unauthorized floor was for the exclusive use of bin Laden and Amal, the spirited Yemeni who was his newest and youngest wife (one of three living at the compound, along with a dozen of his children and grandchildren). The third floor was a little different from the others. It had windows on only one of its four sides, and they were opaque. Four of the five windows were just slits well above eye level. A small terrace leading off the floor was shielded from prying eyes by a 7-ft.-high wall designed to conceal even someone as tall as the 6-ft. 4-in. bin Laden. Habitually dressed in light-colored flowing robes, a dark vest and a prayer cap, bin Laden rarely left the second and third floors of the house during the more than five years he lived there. When he did, it was only to take a brief walk in the compound’s kitchen garden. A makeshift tarpaulin over a section of the garden was designed to keep even those walks a secret from the all-seeing U.S. satellites that traversed the skies overhead.

(MORE: Osama Bin Laden’s Widow Details Life on the Run)

Inside its walls the compound was bare of paint, and in keeping with bin Laden’s orthodox beliefs, there were no pictures. It had no air-conditioning and only a few rudimentary gas heaters–in an area where summers can top 100F and winters mean snow. As a result, the electricity and gas bills were relatively minuscule, averaging $50 a month. Beds for the various family members were made from simple planks of plywood. It was as if the compound’s inhabitants were living at a makeshift but long-term campsite.

In his top-floor sanctuary, bin Laden whiled away the days with his wife Amal. The bedroom ceiling was low for a man as tall as bin Laden. A tiny bathroom off to the side had green tile on the walls but not on the floor, a rudimentary toilet that was no more than a hole in the ground, over which they had to squat, and a cheap plastic shower. In this bathroom, bin Laden regularly applied Just for Men dye to his hair and beard to try to maintain a youthful appearance now that he was midway through his sixth decade. Next to the bedroom was a kitchen the size of a large closet. Across the hall was bin Laden’s study, where he kept his books on crude wooden shelves and spent much of his time tapping away on his computer, composing lengthy missives that would be delivered by courier to key lieutenants…read the full story from this week’s issue of TIME.

MORE: A Photo History of America’s Special Ops

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