The videos and various photographs found in the Abbottabad files clearly reveal that the wives and children of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden endured a life of great hardship and trauma for over two decades.
It is clear from these photos and videos that the descendant of one of the most famous and wealthiest of households turned his children and grandchildren into fugitives, leaving them to seek shelter in deserts, mountains and caves, poorly clad and bereft of any clear identity.
The second generation of the bin Laden family does not speak the Arabic language, and has ended picking up different languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan, mainly Pashto and Urdu. They also don the traditional clothes worn by Afghan children. Even Bin Laden’s wives gave up wearing traditional black abayas of the Arabian Peninsula in favor of the Afghani Chadri and burqa.
Another noteworthy point about the videos is the difference they show in the looks and features of Bin Laden’s grandchildren. Some of them have blonde hair and blue eyes, while others have inherited Arab Gulf features.
In-law with the Egyptian leaders of extremist groups
Osama bin Laden found a novel way to strengthen ties within his ‘international’ organization by forging matrimonial alliances with his colleagues particularly with leaders of Egyptian extremist groups. Thus, Osama’s son Muhammad was married to the daughter of Abu Hafs al-Masri or ‘Muhammad Atef’. Osama’s other son Saad married the daughter of his father’s friend in Sudan, while the third Hamza married the daughter of Abu Muhammad al-Masri or ‘Muhammad al-Zayat. Othman married Safia the daughter of Saif al-Adl, to be his second wife.
Bin Laden’s daughters married to men from the Gulf
As for the daughters of bin Laden, it seems that the leader of al-Qaeda followed Gulf customs and traditions, where the girls marry a Saudi or any other Gulf national. During his stay in Kandahar, Osama’s daughter Fatima got married at the age of 12 to the Kuwaiti Suleiman Bughith in 1999. Meanwhile, his other daughter Khadija got married to Abdullah al-Halabi from Al Madina El Monawara, when she was only 11-years-old. The documents do not show if his daughters Mariam, Sumaya and Iman lived with the bin Laden family in Iran, before fleeing to the Saudi embassy, and whether they got married or not.
The documents show that his Bin Laden’s Khalid was not able to get married after the September 11 incident. As Osama bin Laden asked his eldest daughter Khadija, who lived in Waziristan (died in 2009), to find a suitable bride for Khalid, she sent him pictures of a number of girls. Khalid had requested that his prospective wife should be “beautiful, with good manners and a virgin”. In 2009, he chose the daughter of Bin Laden’s close associate Abu Abd al-Rahman, but because of security reasons, Khalid had to live with his father in Abbottabad and could not get married until his eventual death in 2011.
This explains why there were pictures of a number of girls found in Bin Laden’s documents, as well as other videos showing older women who are likely to be the wives of Bin Laden’s companions.
The misery of women
The misery of the al-Qaeda fighters’ wives is evident from the videos. They lived a tough life and were deprived of even the most basic necessities of life. However, they played an important role in providing the needs of Al-Qaeda leaders. Besides, they giving birth to their heirs, they had to prepare food and drink for the men without the modern amenities of electricity, refrigerators, or even water, in dilapidated houses crowded with children.
The children or the grandchildren suffered all kinds of hardships. Some of the lucky ones stayed with Bin Laden in his hiding place, while others were scattered to various parts of Waziristan and Iran. Some of them became orphans very early, while others could not sustain a life of hardships and succumbed to malaria and typhoid.
In the released videos, some of the children could be seen dancing on music tracks, playing with sticks and stones. They also watched cartoon movies like Captain Majid. Living in the hideouts, these children were deprived of school education.
The memoir of bin Laden’s wife, son
Many interesting details are contained in a book co-written by Najwa Ghanem, the first wife of Osama bin Laden and her son Omar, titled He is Bin Laden (published in 2011). Many of the facts revealed in the book found their validation in the videos confiscated from Al-Qaeda leader’s hideout.
In the memoir, Omar sought to convey what he could not have otherwise said to his father directly. However, he knew that his father might eventually read the book. In 1990, Osama bin Laden informed his large family — which consisted of four wives and 14 children — that they had to leave everything in Saudi Arabia forever and move to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, which was only their first stop before reaching the Tora Bora mountains and finally to Tehran.
Wives and children travel from Jeddah airport
The 18 family members of Bin Laden boarded a plane at the Jeddah airport, which included Najwa Ghanem, and Bin Laden’s eight children, Abdullah (15), Abdul Rahman (13), Saad, also known as ‘the Joker’ (11), Omar (10), Othman (8), Mohammed (6), Fatima (4) and Eman (one year). In addition, the second wife Khadija Sharif, had her three children — Ali (7) Amer (2) and Aisha. Bin Laden’s third wife Khairiya Saber also travelled with her only son Hamza (3), the eventual heir of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s fourth wife Siham Saber came along with her three children Khadija (4), Khalid (3) and Mariam (one year).
During the five-year stay in the Riyadh neighborhood in Sudan, in a three floor building with 22 rooms, Bin Laden had more children. Siham Saber gave birth to her fourth son Amer, and her daughter Sumaya. Khadija gave birth to her first daughter Aisha. As for Najwa, she gave birth to her son Laden, who changed his name to “Bakr”.
Bin Laden received a request from the Sudanese government to leave for any destination of his choosing. He chose to go to Jalalabad and then to Tora Bora mountains, where Mullah Nurullah dedicated one of its mountains for him, his family and the fighters.
However, the stay in Sudan was a fork in the road for bin Laden’s family, as they started to split after his wife, Khadija Al-Sharif, decided to return to Saudi Arabia with her three children Ali, Amer and Aisha. Shortly after that, Abdullah (15), the eldest son of Osama bin Laden, followed them.
Three caves for the wives and their 30 children
According to Omar, who decided to leave his father in 2000, Bin Laden’s family members were shocked when they came to know that their Saudi nationality had been replaced with the Sudanese nationality, and that they would have to change their surname of bin Laden with that of ‘Mohamed Awad Abboud’.
In the Tora Bora mountains, where bin Laden had allocated three separate caves to his three wives and their children, Najwa gave birth to her eleventh and last child ‘Nour’. The fourth wife, Amal Al Sadeh then joined them from Yemen and gave birth to more children, whose numbers doubled after staying at the Abbottabad hideout.
As stated in a letter written by Khalid to one of his brothers in 2010, the other children of Bin Laden were Asia (then seven years and a half ), Aisha (who was a few months older to Asia), Ibrahim (six),Osama (a month younger), Zeinab(4 years 2 months), Seham , Al Hussein (2 years and half) and the youngest two children Safia and Abd Allah. Thus, most probably bin Laden had about 30 children.
In 2011, Bin Laden finally allowed his wife Najwa to travel to Syria, only with her eldest son Abdul Rahman, who suffered from autism, and her two young daughters, Ruqaya and Nour. Bin Laden prevented her from taking her daughter Iman and her other son although knew what would happen to his family, after the terror strikes at the World Trade Center towers.
Iman, 10, and Laden, 6, had been living in Iran for nine years before the Iranian regime allowed them to go to Syria and join their mother.
The wives returned to their families
On the other hand, the other three wives and 11 children at Abbottabad had to return to their families after being arrested by Pakistani authorities, ending the one-year prison term for illegally entering Pakistani territory.
As for bin Laden’s daughter Khadija — the wife of Abdullah al-Halabi — she died in 2009 after giving birth to her fifth daughter Fatima in Waziristan. However, her sister Fatima, the wife of Suleiman Bughith, was lucky to leave Iran and return to her family with her children in 2013; along with her two sisters, Sumaya and Mariam.
As for the brothers Saad was eventually killed in a drone strike after he left Iran, while the fate of two others remains unknown. However, Hamza fell into the clutches of his father’s old friends, thus becoming what Osama had once wished his children to be: “My children must be like the fingers of my right hand, and my thoughts should control your actions just as my mind controls the movement of my limbs”.
In the end, the father and the leader of the most dangerous terrorist organization was killed, and the children were left in the hands of Egyptian authorities.