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How Osama’s secret marriage split the Al Qaeda

The authors of a new book on Osama bin Laden, examine how family politics as it played out between the emir’s wives in the Abbottabad compound had an impact on the epoch of terror

books Updated: Jun 23, 2017 18:12 IST
Outside the bullet-riddled villa of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a few days after US Special Forces killed him in a ground operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011.
Outside the bullet-riddled villa of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a few days after US Special Forces killed him in a ground operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

Before they escaped to Pakistan, and bedded down in their ‘bunker’ in Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden’s four wives (and children) lived at Tarnak Qila, an ancient fort in the desert southwest of Kandahar airport. Here, the outfit made its field headquarters, the second most important base after Osama’s cherished Tora Bora cave complex. Inside, the wives shared a small allotment where they reared rabbits and chickens. When the compound emptied, the women uncovered their faces, while the children fought over a battered Nintendo or scanned their father’s radio for snatches of Madonna. Their story, how they struggled to create a snowdome of normality, and then, after the U.S. invasion, how their lives became increasingly harsh in their Abbottabad sinkhole, reveals extraordinary things about the Al Qaeda emir. But the kitchen sink politics also impacts unexpectedly on the epoch of terror the Al Qaeda’s emir was a catalyst for.

Wife one was Najwa who married Osama in 1974, when she had just turned sixteen and he was still forging a reputation as a demon soccer player at his university and for driving fast cars recklessly. Her father and Osama’s mother, Allia, were brother and sister, and she had been charmed by the doe-eyed shyness of her cousin, who was the seventeenth son of Saudi Arabia’s richest man. Finding herself in Kandahar, Najwa filled her shelves with foreign cosmetics, donning a jogging suit after dark to run around the courtyard, singing. Wife two was Khairiah, Osama’s favorite, who married him in 1985 when he was already on the path to jihad, a vision she shared. Seven years older than Osama and a child psychologist, she had been introduced by Najwa, who had met her after seeking out help for her disabled sons at a clinic in Jeddah. Khairiah presumed she would spend her life as a spinster, while Osama announced that Khairiah was perfect as the Prophet decreed that men should wed “un-marriable” women to enable them to share the joy of motherhood. Wife three was Seham who married Osama in 1987. A Saudi who claimed to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed, she held a Ph.D. from Medina University and had worked as a teacher. After having four children, she shut the bedroom door and returned to her role, teaching their children, turning her hut in Kandahar into a classroom. Wife four, eighteen-year-old Amal, was a surprise and Osama’s secret marriage proposal upended the family, splitting Al Qaeda.

A picture of Amal, Osama bin Laden’s youngest wife. (US Armed Forces Doc-Ex)

HIs decision to wed a Yemeni teenager was as much an attempt to deal with an existential question as it was about his libido. By 1999, Taliban emir Mullah Omar had asked Al Qaeda to quit Afghanistan, and facing eviction, Yemen was an obvious choice. But when in early 2000 Osama’s emissary began looking for a wife in Hadraumat, in eastern Yemen, where Osama’s father was born, families backed away.

Instead, a brother at Tarnak Qila who had married the daughter of an unemployed Yemeni civil servant, recalled she had unmarried sisters who were poor. One of them was Amal, who was only seventeen. She agreed, despite her brother telling her she was “crazy.”

In June 2000, Osama sent his head of security to Sana’a with $5,000 to buy bridal gowns and gold jewelry, before Amal was escorted to Karachi and then Kandahar, where Amal was shown into a drab hut with bolsters and bedrolls lining the walls. She heard men muttering and then gunfire, realizing that she had just got married. Afterwards, a tall, lean figure entered, dressed in a white robe. He was far more handsome than she had imagined. The next morning, when Amal woke, Osama was gone, but staring down at her from the window were Khairiah and Seham incandescent with their husband.

Youngest wife Amal’s jewellery and passport (US Armed Forces Doc-Ex)

Marrying a teenage bride broke with the pattern of austerity and moderation. Khairiah accused Osama of suffering from a midlife crisis. A man who had once railed against the sleaziness of President Bill Clinton and who described polygamy as like “riding a bicycle, fast but a little unstable,” was ‘having sex with a child.’

The wives turned their backs on Amal. Osama’s head of security, feeling uncomfortable, quit - taking his extended family to Sana’a, the outfit’s leadership group undermined at a critical time.

On this occasion, it was Amal who inadvertently caused a split. The next time, in August 2001, it would be Najwa, distressed by her husband’s murderous plans, who abandoned Osama, fleeing back to her mother in Syria. In February 2011, it would be Khairiah who, released from Iran, where she had been held since 2002, travelled to Abbottabad, tracked by the CIA, or so Osama and the other wives believed.

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Osama children and grandchildren in Abbottabad. (Author collection)

After the premier of Downfall that portrayed Adolf Hitler’s final days in the Berlin bunker, a doom-laden drama that fizzed and crackled like a shorting fuse box, the movie was slammed for making the Nazis ‘too human.’ Director Bernd Eichinger would have none of it: ’For me,’ he responded, ‘the terrifying thing is that [Hitler] was human… If he had been a monster rather than a man, it would take the guilt away from other people - from his millions of followers.’

Adrian Levy, Catherine Scott-Clark (Caroline Forbes)

Eighteen years into an epoch of Islamist terror, almost no books have told the story of Al Qaeda from the inside or attempted to portray the life of Osama and those who invested in him. Part of this is down to difficulty. Getting into any volatile, paranoiac outfit that executes outsiders as spies is hair-raising. But most of it is also down to an act of control by Western governments that would rather advance a simple Disney-esque moral parable, about an outfit that is permanently depicted as a force for pure evil, run by pathological madmen.

Read more: For first time, bin Laden’s wife Amal tells the story of the night he was killed

This has to change. Post, 9/11, from Paris to London Bridge, and Madrid to Mumbai, Molenbeek and Manchester, we need more detail, nuance and understanding. And it is from this place—a desire for a contemporary, complex, untidy, knotted, verbal history, where no one is regular or consistent, in which good men and women make poor choices—that our work on The Exile began.