The world’s once most wanted man Osama bin Laden, who changed the face of terrorism by orchestrating the September 11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in which around 3,000 people were killed, tried to ensure that his family and children stayed safe in the aftermath of the attacks. But his jihadist ideology rendered their lives with uncertainties.
Osama’s family was on a constant run after the September 11 attacks. It moved from Kandahar to Tora Bora mountains, then to Pakistan and eventually entered Iran as refugees and after the May 2011 Abbottabad raid, his three wives Khairiah and Hamzah and Amal were detained in Pakistan for a year.
After this, they were finally deported, along with 11 children and grandchildren, to Saudi Arabia.
A report written by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy and published in The Guardian talks of the ordeal the family of the former al-Qaida had to face since the eve of the unfortunate attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon till his death.
Bin Laden’s wives and his youngest children packed their bags on the eve of the attacks – September 10, 2001 – to move away from Kandahar, while older sons and brothers accompanied the former Al-Qaeda chief to an undisclosed location.
After travelling for three days, his wives and youngest children, including the nine-year old Laden, reached Jalalabad in the north-east of Afghanistan adjacent to a fort surrounded by 4 metre-high mud walls and crowned with guard towers.
The fort named Najm al-Jihad, the Star of the Holy war was actually a barrack for the al-Qaeda training camp. It was surrounded by adobe huts and was dubbed “Star Wars” by Osama’s third son, Saad.
Khairiah, the family matriarch cleaned-up the place by removing discarded ammunition boxes, food packaging and empty bottles of chemicals, so that the members of the family could stay.
A rudimentary kitchen was also created as both Saad bin Laden’s wife, Wafa and Osama’s youngest wife Amal al-Sadah had babies. Osama had married 18 year old Yemeni girl Amal a year before the 9/11 attacks, while his 14-year-old daughter Khadija had given birth to a baby.
Kandahar had then been awash with rumours about the “Planes Operation,” but his wives didn’t care much.
The operation that was discussed by people of Kandahar on the streets couldn’t reach the ears of his wives because the Islamic tradition barred women to speak to males apart from family members or relatives.
And only Osama’s close knit core group knew about the September 11 attacks.
Osama had instructed his wives to blow themselves up if any eventuality arrives.
They used to keep Kalashnikov and a stash of grenades under their blankets. Before the 9/11, Osama’s wives had lived with their husband in adjoining concrete huts at Tarnak Qila, an ancient fort in the desert south-west of Kandahar airport.
“At Tarnak Qila, the wives shared a cordoned-off yard that they turned into a small allotment and where they reared rabbits and chickens. Sometimes, when the compound emptied of men, they had gathered there to uncover their faces, while the children remember fighting over a battered Nintendo or scanning their father’s transistor for snatches of Madonna,” the report says.
Osama and his son Omar used to have verbal fights as he had been training him as his heir. Omar had never been obsessed with war as his father was and after he came to know about the ‘planes operation,’ he pleaded her mother Najwa to leave home with him, but she refused. He later slipped away alone.
By the end of August 2001, glamorous Najwa returned to her cultured Syrian family which had grown up in the cosmopolitan seaside resort of Latakia.
Ultra modern Najwa, who wore designer clothes underneath the black folds, had married Osama in 1974. Najwa was not in talking terms with Osama’s second wife but the third, Kharriah, had been her suggestion, because her sons had been born with developmental problems.
“Two had hydrocephalus (water on the brain), and her third son, Saad, was autistic. But Osama refused conventional treatment for them, preferring to put his fate in desert remedies and the hands of God.”
Najwa had sought help for her sons at a clinic in Jeddah, where she met Khairiah, a child psychologist, seven years older than Osama. Osama wanted to have as many children as possible “for Islam” and Najwa suggested Khairiah could help him achieve that, as well as assist with their sons’ education. Osama judged that she was perfect: the Prophet had decreed that men should wed “unmarriageable” women to enable them to share the joy of motherhood.
Khairiah eventually bore Osama a son, Hamzah, who went on to inherit his father’s religious fervour, while she forged a role as the extended family’s matriarch. Osama’s fourth wife, Seham, was also deeply religious, claiming descent from the Prophet and holding a PhD from Medina University. She too set herself the task of having as many children as she could.
Osama expected all his children to play their part in jihad and even videotaped them brandishing weapons or visiting the battle scenes. While daughters were married to mujahideen fighters to expand Al Qaeda’s sphere of influence.
But Najwa never wanted to be jihadi bride and allowed children to listen to American pop music and eat maggi noodles. She took the youngest children and one adult son, who was dependent on her due to disabilities to Syria .
“The U.S. forces launched attacks all over Jalalabad in November 2001 and when Osama arrived at the fort to meet his wives and children, Seham and Khairiah were ecstatic, murmuring prayers and thanks to the Prophet.”
Osama urged them to pack immediately. The U.S. forces and their Afghan allies were advancing, so he was heading for his olive farm in Melawa Valley, the gateway to Tora Bora Mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan. Only his sons Othman and Mohammed would remain with him. Hamzah, Khalid and Ladin would be expected to take care of the women and youngest children; as the oldest male family member, older brother Saad would nominally lead the convoy, which also consisted of in-laws and grandchildren.
By December 2001, war with America was raging across Afghanistan, and Osama escaped a fierce U.S. aerial bombardment at Tora Bora. America was determined to dismantle al-Qaida and remove the Taliban from power, and anyone connected to Osama or his movement was a target. Osama’s family, along with hundreds of fighters and their families had reached Pakistan.
The family had narrowly survived an ambush at the Pakistan border, and reached Karachi, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, welcomed them. But he was not interested in being a chaperone.
Emboldened by success, he was already busy plotting his next “spectacular”. He passed the babysitting job to the remnants of al-Qaida’s council, or shura, and in particular a Mauritanian religious scholar called Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed, Osama’s spiritual adviser and close friend, the Guardian reported.
Aware of the fact that the CIA agents were closing in everywhere, Mahfouz debated with his colleagues for days how to save world’s most wanted Osama and his family. In the end, they decided to send the wives and children of Osama bin Laden, leader of an outlawed Sunni militia, to seek asylum in Iran, the centre of Shia power.
Specifically, Iran was chosen as Tehran had no diplomatic relations with the U.S. since the revolution of 1979. Tehran was also renowned for backing causes that antagonised its sworn enemies, America and Israel; in fact, there was a secret history of contact between Tehran and al-Qaida.
Giving al-Qaida sanctuary in these uncertain times could strengthen Iran’s regional position and potentially shield it from future terror attacks.
In January 2002, George Bush included Tehran in his “axis of evil”.
After this, Iran’s secretive Quds force, a clandestine division of the country’s Revolutionary Guard, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, went out of their way to assist al-Qaida. They set up a refugee camp in the no man’s land just beyond the Iranian border with Afghanistan where al-Qaida families including Khairiah and a group of Osama’s children arrived, while Seham and her children had elected to stay behind in Pakistan. In Iran, they were guided by Saif al-Adel, al-Qaida’s military commander, to a remote farm east of Zabol.
Among the al-Qaida families to arrive in Iran were Khairiah and a group of Osama’s children where they were guided by Saif al-Adel, al-Qaida’s military commander, to a remote farm east of Zabol; Seham and her children had elected to stay behind in Pakistan.
Saad, a creature of habit who found every small change in his routine alarming, nervously asked their guide about their safety. He wanted to go home to his grandmother, Osama’s mother Allia, who lived in the exclusive Bin Laden family compound in Jeddah. But Saif reminded Saad that their Saudi citizenship had been rescinded long ago, and that Riyadh’s proximity to the Bush administration ruled out any rapprochement. Then someone suggested travelling overland to Turkey and crossing into Syria. But, Saif pointed out, according to reports in the Arab press, President Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence agencies had been cooperating with the U.S.
Saif advised everyone to stay where they were and keep their heads down, which meant no phone calls.
The advice was of no comfort to Hamzah, who still carried the string of prayer beads his father had given him in the olive groves of Melawa, a moment so painful that he later wrote about it in a letter, saying he “remembered every smile that my father smiled at me, every word that he spoke to me and every look that he gave me.”
When Saif made it clear to the family that he was directly in touch with Osama, Hamzah wrote him a letter, later released by al-Qaida. Born into jihad, Hamzah had never known peace. Now that he was in Iran, he could see no future. “Tell me, Father, something useful about what I see,” he pleaded in 2002. “What has happened to us?”
A few weeks later, Osama, though in hiding and on the run, replied: “Suffice it to say that I am full of grief and sighs. Pardon me, my son, but I can only see a very steep path ahead.” He had a message for all the family: even though they had reached Iran, they were still not safe. “Security has gone, but danger remains.”
As days turned into weeks, the Bin Ladens’ paranoia grew. Iranian government had caught wind of the secret al-Qaida migration and now trumped the freewheeling Major General Suleimani by offering prisoners to Washington D.C. in exchange for diplomatic recognition and an easing of sanctions.
By 2007, Osama’s family in Iran had expanded, with the birth of several grandchildren, and they had been relocated to another building in the complex, this one called Block 300. Tensions with the Iranian government escalated with terrible food and unsanitary conditions had taken their toll. Wafa’s another son died due to lack of medical treatment.
A temporary rapprochement was reached during Ramadan in October 2007, when the Iranians took al-Qaida out for an iftar (breaking the fast) meal at a five-star restaurant in downtown Tehran. Officials in Iran took Osama’s sons to the back of a covered prayer hall into a small waiting area carpetted with prayer mats.
A roar rose up outside as a TV on the wall focused on rows of devotees, scholars, clerics and officials standing for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The sons of Osama bin Laden were in a private room behind the Ayatollah’s pulpit, his personal guests at Friday prayers that were being broadcast around the world on Iran’s Press TV. A man gestured from the door, and the nervous young men got to their feet, transfixed by the rising clamour of voices crying out, “Marg Bar Amrika” – death to America.
The following spring, relations between the al-Qaida guests and their Iranian hosts soured again due to Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a portly Kuwaiti preacher whom Osama appointed his mouthpiece after 9/11; he was also married to Osama’s eldest daughter Fatima. Abu Ghaith had lost his Kuwaiti nationality and, now in custody, spending hours writing what he described as his “book of regrets”, an embittered rejection of Osama’s jihad.
Abu Ghaith’s mania eventually caused the Iranians to snap. But when the guards tried to manhandle him, a full-blown prison riot exploded. Egyptian and Libyan al-Qaida brothers ripped up sheets and shattered wooden beds, setting fires, hurling petrol bombs made with secretly stockpiled heating fuel and daubing anti-Shia messages on the walls. Mahfouz remembers watching as Osama’s grandsons pelted guards with stones. “We have been illegally kidnapped and concealed in this secret jail,” they shouted, thumping the wall.
“Our ongoing incarceration goes against international law.” They would rather be prosecuted than remain in this “living cemetery”, they said, reported by the Guardian.
In May 2008, Osama’s family was given 24 hours’ notice to pack. Since the Iranians could no longer control their al-Qaida guests, the family was moving. They were driven into the country’s central desert, to the historic city of Yazd. Their new home was a sand-coloured villa surrounded by a low mud-brick wall.
Iman bin Laden was reunited with her mother Najwa in Syria in early 2010, after spending more than 100 days inside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. She now lives in Jeddah with several siblings, including Fatima; her mother often travels to Qatar where many other family members live, including Omar and Ladin.
Mahfouz, who watched the news reports on Osama’s death from the Tourist Complex, finally escaped Iran in 2012 and returned to Mauritania.