It was early in September 1999 when Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismael, a Yemeni sheikh in his early 20s working as a preacher and a leading member of al Qaeda in Kabul, received the most important phone call of his life. Osama bin Laden had decided to marry for the fifth time and had charged Rashad with the task of finding him the right woman.
The aide listened carefully as bin Laden described to him his desired spouse, “She must be pious, dutiful, young [preferably aged 16-18], well mannered, from a decent family, but above all patient. She will have to endure my exceptional circumstances.”
Luckily he knew just the right girl, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, a 17 year old daughter of a civil servant and a former student of his, was, according to Rashad, “the perfect match” for the al Qaeda leader, then 44.
Now, just over 10 years later, Rashad, who describes himself as a staunch supporter of al Qaeda in Yemen, is fighting for Amal and her daughter, currently being detained by Pakistani authorities, to be brought back home in the wake of bin Laden’s death. “When a woman like Amal is widowed, it is a duty upon all Muslims to look after her and ensure her safety. All the Yemeni people want her to come home,” he says.
Others fear if Amal is brought back to Yemen she may be handed over by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the Americans for questioning. In 2000, Rashad returned to his home town of Ibb in Yemen to make the necessary arrangements. He went to the woman first, explaining to her who bin Laden was, what he was like, and how he moved from one place to another pursued by the Americans.
After she “dutifully accepted” bin Laden’s offer, a dowry of $5,000 was wired to Amal’s family, triggering a bout of pre-marriage celebrations in preparation for the young woman’s departure to Afghanistan.
Bin Laden’s matchmaker, Amal and her elder brother left Yemen for Pakistan, first to Karachi, and then to Quetta, where they stayed for a few days until bin Laden sent some guards to pick her up and bring her into Afghanistan. The wedding ceremony, which took place in Kandahar, then the heart of the Taliban’s operations, was an all-male affair.
The men sang and danced and a lamb was slaughtered at bin Laden’s feet, as distinguished guests recited poetry and sung him songs written for the occasion.
Today Rashad believes the fate of bin Laden’s family, especially his wives, is as, if not more, important to al Qaeda than bin Laden’s death.
“We [al Qaeda in Yemen] received the news of bin Laden’s death with happiness because we knew it was his aim to die as a martyr at the hands of the Americans. But the question of his relatives is one of women’s honour, something we consider untouchable.”