The last Hasna Ali Yehye Hussain heard of her husband was a shattering explosion which hung heavy in the cold desert air of an Iraqi night.
Cowering in the sand 200 metres from her house, she had listened, terrified, as American and Iraqi commandos closed in on the home where, in the cellar, her husband had been hiding.
Abu Ayyub al-Masri — an Egyptian who is a warlord, Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, and the man responsible for promoting three years of sectarian war — had known he was surrounded. Indeed he had prepared for what would happen should the Americans storm the gates.
The blast thundered through the house and over to the sand berm where Hussain and her children trembled. It signalled their father’s end — blown to pieces by a suicide bomb.
He was not alone in that moment: killed with him was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, himself an Al Qaeda leader.
No sooner had the blast subsided than Hussain, Baghdadi’s wife, Wathi al-Jassem, and their children were swept away on helicopters to a world which has become more forbidding and foreign with each day.
Three months after that night Hussain is led to meet a journalist in a secure building in the heart of Baghdad.
Hussain, 31, seemed lost but circumspect. “You are the first man I have willingly spoken to apart from my husband or father for the past seven years,” she said, her uncovered face revealing thick round spectacles, and the granting of a rare opportunity of insight into life as a terrorist leader’s spouse.
The petite Yemeni had spent five years being shuttled from one safe house to another between summonses from her husband, with whom she had three children. She had raised them alone. They now share her prison cell in the Iraqi capital, but they will soon be made wards of a state that they do not belong to.
‘Yes, I have regrets’
“I made no choices in my marriage,” she said, tears welling. “I brought up my children in Tarmiyeh and Mosul [both cities caught in the Sunni insurgency]. Even when I was with him in the house, I was on the first floor and he was living in the cellar. I was not allowed to talk on the telephone, or to listen to music or watch TV. There was one TV in the house, but it was in a private room used only by my husband and his group.”
She said she did not know her husband’s allegiances. From early 2004, however, she had a sense that he was fighting the Americans.
“But when they told me [during interrogations last month] that he had been involved in killing innocent people, my son was screaming, saying: ‘Mama, mama, listen to what they are saying about him, it’s impossible.’”
She added: “I will lose my children soon — and for what? What have I done, and what have they done to live their life without a mother? All I want is to take them back to my father in Yemen and forget about Iraq. Yes, I have regrets. Of course I do.”
400 women in jail
Women are rarely jailed in Iraq; but when they are, there are few legal protections for them. There are 400 women jailed across the country. Those linked to terror offences have next to no protection, and there seems little intent to distinguish the actions of wives from those of their husbands’.
‘I would have been killed’
Baghdadi’s wife, Jassem, 39, is held along with Hussain. Officials in the building readily confirm that both potentially face a death sentence after an investigative process.
Jassem said she had been aware her husband was no longer the pious poor man she had been forced to marry in Baghdad. “I knew he was the emir of the Islamic state of Iraq,” she said warily. “I would have been killed if I had tried, and so would my children,” she said.
“The Americans, the Iraqi forces, Al Qaeda — all of them would have killed me if they could. Anyone who even thought about leaving this world would have been executed instantly.” “Women get executed even for complaining here.”
By the end of 2006, she came to believe her husband had become central to the violence in Iraq, by then spiralling out of control.
“He was a taxi driver before then, and we lived all around Baghdad. But we moved to all the flashpoint areas, Fallujah, Haditha. For three and a half years it was a very hard life. “He did not listen to anyone, including his wife. All I did was raise children and prepare food. For nine months before the raid I did not even step outside the house.”
Both Jassem and Hussain had lived among violent men in an atmosphere that cast as apostates deserving slaughter anyone who did not take the Qur’an as incontrovertible and literal lawbook for life. They appeared to adhere to a strict version of Sunni Islam that avoided all western trappings.
Despite their humble beginnings, the two men rose through the ranks of the insurgency and assumed outright control for much of the violence in Iraq from mid-2006. After the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, they were the most hunted pair in the world. American investigators say evidence of direct links to Osama bin Laden and his deputy in south Asia were found on the house’s computer hard drive.