PAKISTAN: Local students fear Bin Laden backlash

A 45-minute operation by US Special Forces on a mansion in Abbottabad, which resulted in the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, has triggered fear and alarm among those who take pride in sending their children to the city for quality education.

Sometimes called Pakistan's 'education city', Abbottabad, just 75 kilometres from the federal capital Islamabad, is known for advanced educational facilities that include a large number of international schools, professional colleges, university campuses and military academies. Most have boarding houses for students from different parts of the country.

"We heard a bomb blast first and then some people saw American choppers [helicopters]. Heavy gunfire started then but local TV reporters could not reach the area of Bilal Town as that was cordoned off," Fareeha Jadoon, a lecturer at the Abbottabad campus of the University of Engineering and Technology Peshawar, told University World News.

"The next day American President [Barack] Obama broke the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in an operation by US Forces. We could not believe this at first as our city is known for educational facilities and activities and not for terrorism, and perhaps that is why Osama chose to hide here," Jadoon said.

There are around 40 schools and colleges within a one-kilometre radius of Osama bin Laden's hideout in the Thanda Choa area of Abbottabad's posh locality of Bilal Town.

Since the US attack on Bin Laden's compound on Sunday night, attendance at Abbottabad's many institutions has almost halved, according to local estimates.

A great number of boarding students either returned to their home cities or have been confined within buildings, fearing a backlash from the Taliban and Al-Qaida, which have threatened to take revenge first on Pakistan and then on the US for the killing of Bin Laden.

"Our attendance has dropped sharply and we are receiving telephone calls from parents of boarding students asking about the security of their children, which we cannot assure as we are part of a city facing backlash from the Taliban or even more such operations by commandos," Abdul Wahid Mir, Principal of Modernage College, told University World News.

"This event will have a negative impact on education here and will increase the sense of insecurity among pupils and their parents, which shall result in sharp decline in enrolments in future years," he added.

Though a small scenic city with a population of only one million people, Abbottabad has the highest concentration of educational institutions in the country, with nine medical colleges including Ayub Medical College, a medical college for women, Frontier Medical College and the National Institute of Medical Sciences.

The operation took place less than a kilometre from the Pakistan Military Academy, which is located on Kakul Road in Abbottabad. It is Pakistan's main military education and training centre, where the country's army leadership receives education and training.

Abbottabad received a large number of 'internally displaced persons' when the Pakistan army started its assault on Taliban bases in the country's north-west region. Many of them settled in the Bilal Town area near the Bin Laden hideout.

Local resident believe that these settlers changed the lifestyle in the city, and people started to take less interest in what was happening in their neighbourhood.

Some people fear that more operations like the one conducted by the US are on the cards, as there are rumours that some of Bin Laden's aides are still in the area.

"It is a really difficult time for Abbottabad residents, especially students and faculty who fear a backlash from terrorists, given their earlier attacks on universities and schools," the Managing Director of Abbottabad International Medical College, Dr Ghazanfar Ali, told University World News.

He pointed out that both groups have attacked more than 1,000 schools and colleges in Pakistan in recent years, turning many of them to rubble and killing many students and teachers.

The Pakistani Taliban also claimed responsibility for twin suicide bomb blasts in October 2009 at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, which killed seven students including four women. Many foreign students left the country in the wake of those bombings.

A December 2010 bomb blast at the campus of state-run Karachi University injured four students and created a fresh wave of panic across universities in Pakistan. It also forced the closure of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad, which the Taliban had threatened to bomb first.

Such incidents have set a precedent for the kind of attacks carried out by extremist groups.

Abbottabad "has international fame for hosting diverse and modern schooling systems which impart Western education," said Rafia Tabbasum, Principal of the Concept School of Learning.

"But the presence of terrorists in the city might slow down the growth of these institutions and many such schools might face closure if any untoward incident or a backlash from Taliban or Al-Qaeda takes place here."