Bodies in Custody: Architectures of the Osama bin Laden Compound in Abbottabad | Marina Otero Verzier.


Since October 2011, a model of a walled compound has been on permanent display in the lobby of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Springfield, Virginia. Even after being declassified, only employees and authorized visitors are able to see it. Images of the model, however, circulate freely in the media.

For six weeks a team of seven to eight NGA employees used laser cutters and utility knives to erect, at one inch for every seven feet, the walls of a far away compound and the three-story house contained within [1]. Every bit of intelligence had been mediated, through processes such as the photogenic measurement, and translated into a three-dimensional architectural representation. “Nothing you see would have been included if we didn’t see it there,” claimed NGA official Greg Glewwe on May 16, 2012, during the presentation of the model at the Pentagon [2]. In Glewwe’s statement, though, “see” and “there” involve complex processes and unmanned technologies, which challenge the generally assumed proximity between the seeing eye and the seen object, as well as the correlation between what “you” see and what “we” see.

Model of Osama bin Laden’s walled compound. Source: CNN Security Clearance

The model acquired a historical dimension when on May 1, 2011, in a televised appearance from the East Room of the White House, US President Barack Obama delivered a statement on a military operation against a compound of high walls:

“It was nearly ten years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory—hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground…. Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

The account’s pictorial quality prioritized a type of “national memory” founded in sublime imagery in which the space between the cloudless sky and the ground is occupied by a performance of architectures and the violent actions by which those architectures were destroyed—imagery televised live, in real time. And yet, in the same speech, the President’s laconic account of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden is deployed without any such visual narration.

To date, images of the operation against that compound in Abbottabad and the “body” in custody haven’t been officially released. The principal evidence was, according to the official account, buried in an undisclosed location at sea. Following the clandestine burial and the vacuum it left behind, the raid itself therefore inevitably occupied the required evidentiary role. The image of its architecture displaced that of the body, circulating tirelessly in the form of aerial photos, diagrams, plans, replicas, and scale models.

Bin Laden’s compound, main building. Source: The New York Times

As with his corpse, Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad became a body in US Government custody, one that—using Archille Mbembe’s notion of archive“encompassed both the building itself and the documents stored there.”

As evidence goes, it didn’t last long. On February 25, 2012, the compound was demolished, adding to the growing list of “bodies” that has been buried, demolished, or just kept as classified in the archives of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], the Department of Defense [DoD], and the NGA. However, while classified documents are segregated from our visible world, their architectural representations such as scale models, mock-ups in military bases, and film stages, along with their images, remain in visible circulation.

Turned into the principal material evidence available to the public, these representations create friction between the abstractions of cultural media and the material processes of warfare, between images and bodies; or, using Mbembe’s reflections on the writing of history, they continuously bring “the dead back to life by reintegrating them in the cycle of time, in such a way that they find, in a text, in an artifact or in a monument, a place to inhabit from where they may continue to express themselves.” It could be argued, however, that the mobilization of architectural representation as evidence also reminds us about the fascinating capacity of architecture [and its techniques] to make material fictions acquire the appearance of truth [3].

Speaking about the movie Zero Dark Thirty, the director Kathryn Bigelow pointed to the enhanced realism of the raid’s scenes, filmed inside a 1:1 replica of the compound in Jordan. “We wanted the movie to feel as naturalistic as possible,” Bigelow explained, “but naturalism takes work.” Ultimately this work was so successful that it provoked a debate regarding the release of classified information between CIA, the DoD, and the filmakers, who quickly assured the government that every detail was recreated using information that was publicly available. “You’d be amazed at what’s on the personal websites of soldiers these days,” claimed the production designer Jeremy Hindle.

Navy SEALs
“Zero Dark Thirty” film still [AP Photo/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.]. Source: The Huffington Post

Rehearsals not only took place in the 1:1 replica in Jordan, but also at the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity facility in North Carolina, where, according to the authors of the 2012 book No Easy Day, a team of SEALs performed practice runs of the raid in a compound built using “plywood, chain-link fence, and shipping containers.” The representation of the borders with a chain-link fence instead of a twelve-foot wall, however, was pointed out by unofficial sources as the cause of the crash of the U.S. military helicopter during the raid itself, as it obviated the potential effects of the high walls on the its lift capabilities.

In these multiple architectures of bin Laden’s compound, the limits between fiction and non-fiction are continuously contested and renegotiated. While an architectural representation could make an inaccurate historical account appear as truth, it might also shed light onto the mechanisms by which the state manages and controls the creation and circulation of information—and ultimately what “we” “see.”

One year after the raid, in May 2012, the model built by the NGA was put on public display for the first time, and a copy is now exhibited at the CIA Museum together with a brick claimed to have come from the demolished compound. This gives the public limited access what was billed as so valuable during the raid’s planning, execution, and initial description. As a senior NGA analyst explained to Federal Times “we say, when you can see it, you can believe it, and when you can see it, you can understand it.”

Model —with a brick of the compound— of the Abbottabad house, at the CIA Museum. Source: Naij

The walls of the model and the story they tell are validated by their detail and by the remains of the architecture they represent —which is itself there presented by a brick. The image of architecture has, again, displaced the one of the human body; ethics are avoided in favor of technical description. In the custody of a museum not open to public but whose collection of images is accessible online, the architectural representations of the Osama bin Laden Compound remind us how the visual culture of our time—and its corresponding aesthetic sensibility, ethics, and politics—is built.


[1] Information provided by Gary E. Weir [Chief Historian, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency] in an interview conducted at the NGA on December 12, 2012.
[2] Justin Fishel, “Intelligence officials unveil scale model of bin Laden compound used to plan raid,” FoxNews website, May 16, 2012, accessed November 24, 2012.
[3] Another example of such thought can be found in contemporary discourse on “forensis” and forensic investigations in architecture.


Marina Otero Verzier is architect and curator. Director of Global Network Programming, Studio-X. GSAPP, Columbia University.

This post is part of her on-going PhD research and forthcoming book Bodies in Custody: Architectures of the Osama bin Laden Compound in Abbottabad and it seeks to unpack the role of architectural representations in the construction of the raid’s historical narrative, through analysis of the methods by which they are construed up as grounds for belief. Based on an understanding of history as an ongoing process, and government and military archives as embedded in a cycle of continuous creation and destruction of evidence, the documents and sources considered in the book are subject to conflicting interests and, therefore, have an unstable status. Rather than attempting to stabilize their meaning, the book invites reflection upon methodological and historiographical questions, taking into account official, nonofficial, open source, primary, and secondary sources. The scale models, mocked-up structures in military bases, and bricks from a razed compound in Abbottabad show, with precision, not the stage on which bin Laden was found, but the story that made it possible.

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