Osama bin Laden was not just the head of a global terror network, he was head of a family that comprised at least five wives and 20 or more children. Their future is now steeped in doubt. Three of his wives and as many as nine of his children — the youngest still a toddler — were living in the small compound in Pakistan where he was killed last weekend, according to Pakistani intelligence services.
Officers contacted by the Guardian have built up a picture of bin Laden’s domestic arrangements behind the 5m walls of the Abbottabad compound, where furnishings were modest, children were home-schooled and rabbits, chickens and a cow were nurtured.
According to Amal Ahmed al-Sadah — bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, who was injured during the US assault — she never left the upper floors of the three-story house.
A senior official from Inter-Services Intelligence, the main Pakistani spy agency, said that in addition to Sadah, two other women found at the home by local authorities after the Americans had left had also been identified as wives of the al-Qaeda leader.
“Three wives have been taken into custody. One had been shot. She told us they had been living there for five years,” another senior Pakistani military official said. “The children are also in our protective custody.”
The household seemed to be trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. There was a large, seemingly well-tended, vegetable garden at the back of the house.
The house also had at least one cow, some rabbits and about 100 chickens in the yard.
Bin Laden married at least five times. His first wife, a Syrian, left him in Afghanistan weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A second wife was divorced in the 1990s. Sadah, who married him in 2000, was gifted to him when just 15.
This leaves third and fourth wives, both Saudis, whom he married in the 1980s.
As well as the Pakistani brothers, who were both killed, the Americans removed the remains of bin Laden’s son Hamza, believed to be 28 years old. His mother was bin Laden’s first wife. There was also another body — possibly another of bin Laden’s 11 sons.
Former associates and family members have described bin Laden as a father and husband. One, the son of a senior militant who lived with the bin Ladens in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, described bin Laden as “a human being. He has issues with his wife and he has issues with his kids. Financial issues, you know. The kids aren’t listening, the kids aren’t doing this and that.”
Abdurrahman Khadr, who was detained in Afghanistan in 2001, described bin Laden’s children as “normal.”
“They love horses and their father had promised them that he would get them a horse if they memorized the Koran,” he told an interviewer.
However, Omar, the fourth child of bin Laden and his first wife, published a book in which he recalled a strict father who allowed no toys, no ventilators for boys who suffered from asthma and took his family on hikes in the desert with no water to toughen them up.
The three women and children pose a diplomatic and logistic problem for Pakistan. It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia will accept their return. Though bin Laden was rumored to have huge wealth, Pakistani officials told The Associated Press the 54-year-old was “cash-strapped.” An amount of money — believed to be about 500 euros (US$717) — was found sewn into his clothes, it has been reported.
Intelligence services concluded after 9/11 that bin Laden had been cut off from any inheritance from his wealthy family by the mid-1990s. According to local or Arab traditions, it should be the close relatives of the dead family head, usually the brothers, who look after the bereaved spouses and children. However, this is unlikely given the rift between bin Laden and his family.