Harem scarum? Did squabbling wives betray Osama bin Laden?

Christina Lamb, from the Sunday Times & The Australian,  23 May 2009

THE three widows of Osama bin Laden are turning on each other in custody, with two older Saudi women blaming a much younger Yemeni wife for leading US intelligence to their hideout. “It’s vicious,” said a Pakistani official briefed on the interrogation of the widows. “The older wives think the younger one tipped off the Americans or was tracked when she came to join him.”

The al-Qa’ida leader was living with three wives when he was killed in Abbottabad three weeks ago. Until US investigators discovered his hiding place, it was not known whether bin Laden and his family were alive. Some reports suggested they had been killed in the US bombing of Afghanistan. Although the compound where bin Laden hid for five years was large, the three wives were all cooped up in the same house. The older two lived on the second floor and the youngest one on the top. Their husband alternated between them. Pakistani officials who have been debriefing the women portray life in the compound as an Islamic version of Desperate Housewives.“It’s a well-known fact that when you have two older wives and then this young one comes along half their age, they don’t like it,” said one. The wives even dispute who tried to protect their husband in the raid. The youngest was reported to have attempted to save him, sustaining a bullet wound to her calf. But the older wives say they were the ones who rushed to shield him. Their version appears to be corroborated by an account of the raid, given by US officials last week. They said that when the Navy SEALs reached the top floor, two women were in front of bin Laden, trying to protect him. One SEAL shoved them away, fearing they might be wearing suicide bomb vests.

Bin Laden’s third and fourth wives, the older Saudi women, married him in the 1980s. At 62, Khaira Husain Sabir is eight years older than her husband. Known as Umm Hamza, or mother of Hamza, she has a degree in Arabic and before their marriage in 1985 worked as a teacher of deaf children. Siham Abdulla bin Husain, 54, known as Umm Khalid – mother of Khalid, a son who was killed in the raid – has a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence, and taught Arabic. The two women converted a room in the Abbottabad compound into a classroom for Khaira’s grandchildren.

Bin Laden’s first marriage was in 1974 to his Syrian cousin, Najwa, when he was 17 and she just 15. Described by her sister-in-law Carmen bin Laden as “meek, submissive, highly religious and constantly pregnant”, she had 11 children, the last one just before the September 11 attacks of 2001. His second wife, Khalifa, was a Saudi teacher who divorced him.

According to Najwa, who with her son Omar co-wrote a book, Growing Up Bin Laden, the original four had such good relations she called the others her “sister wives”. A fifth marriage lasted only 48 hours. But the older wives resented Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, a Yemeni whom bin Laden married in July 2000 when she was 17. Even his mother was said to have told him off.

According to Najwa’s account, he kept his wives behind walls from the start. Expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, they spent five years in Sudan, until the Khartoum government kicked them out and they travelled to Afghanistan. They lived on a mountainside in Tora Bora until the Taliban took power, when they moved to Kandahar. Apart from their time in Tora Bora, the wives always had separate houses or apartments. Bin Laden divided his nights between them.

“The joke in Pakistan is that bin Laden called in his location to CIA because he was being driven mad cooped up for five years with so many wives and children,” said Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik. Electricity bills seen by The Sunday Times show that the compound used hardly any power, just enough for lights and a small television that bin Laden kept in his top-floor bedroom. Even before going on the run, his wives found that their husband lived a remarkably austere life.

His first wife recounts how he refused to allow airconditioners or a refrigerator, even in the sweltering desert heat. She, her son Omar and her youngest children escaped Afghanistan in 2001 only days before the September 11 attacks. When the US responded by bombing Afghanistan, the al-Qa’ida leader fled to Tora Bora.

Pakistani officials said the wives crossed the border into western Pakistan. From there Khaira and Siham travelled by land into Iran. Amal made her way back to Yemen, where she gave birth to a daughter, Safiyah. At some point bin Laden appears to have become lonely and summoned them all back. First to arrive was Siham – then Khaira and their son, Hamza, and then Amal. “No one wants to hear it, but bin Laden is a very good family man,” said Mike Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit.

It was a huge risk. While the CIA may have lost track of some of the wives in Iran, it seems likely Amal had been under surveillance since 2002, when she gave an interview to al-Majalla, a Saudi magazine in London. “The agency and every conceivable agency were looking for them,” said Glenn Carle, a former CIA official.

“It’s not an implausible suspicion that someone who was outside could lead, either innocently or deliberately, to him.”

The growing number of people living in the compound meant more food had to be ordered. The extra shopping may have raised suspicions. Malik said the youngest wife gave birth to twins this year in the Abbottabad hospital. “Not using cellphone or internet, that’s all sound professional strategy,” said Carle. “But living behind 18ft (5.5m) walls with large numbers of women and kids is not.”

Some reports suggest the SEALs intended to take the wives with them but the crash of their stealth helicopter meant they did not have enough room. The youngest is now under guard in Rawalpindi military hospital and the other two in an intelligence service safe house in Islamabad.

The Sunday Times

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