UPDATE, May 3: Hours after Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said at a press conference that Osama bin Laden had used a woman believed to be his wife as a human shield during the raid that killed him, the White House walked back its initial claim, saying that it was unclear whether the woman was used as a human shield and saying she was not his wife. Instead, Bin Laden’s wife was injured but not killed in the raid.
As the expression goes, behind every great man stands a great woman. Osama bin Laden showed himself to be something else, reversing the formula during the raid that killed him Monday night, ignominiously hiding behind one of his wives as Navy SEALs stormed the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where he was hiding, according to the White House.
Gallery: A Timeline of Osama bin Laden's Life
The gesture was futile—both she and her husband were killed—but it brings bin Laden’s personal life into focus. Although Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan announced that the woman, one of five people killed and the only woman to die, was bin Laden’s wife, he did not name her. Meanwhile, regional news sources reported that two other wives and six of his children were among the 17 people captured during the early-morning raid.
Like much about him, bin Laden’s family life is partially shrouded in confusion. However, it’s generally believed that he has been married five times, having divorced one of his wives. He may have anywhere between 12 and 24 children.
Bin Laden first married when he was 17, entering a union with Najwa Ghanem, a Syrian cousin of his, in 1974. The couple later became estranged, and in 2009 she and Omar bin Laden, Osama’s oldest son, wrote a memoir called Growing Up Bin Laden about their life with him. Osama later decided that polygamy—an ancient Islamic custom that has declined in many parts of the Muslim world but remains more common on the Arabian Peninsula—was the appropriate way to lead his life, and commented that four wives was the easiest and most stable formulation, according to Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower. Wright also reported that Umm Ali, the other divorced wife, requested a divorce after years of cool relations; bin Laden had sworn never to request a divorce, allowing his wife to do so.
“He did not like anybody to talk to him,” said his wife. ”He became angry if I tried to talk to him and I would therefore leave him alone.”
Here’s a list of bin Laden’s wives, along with what is known about them:
-Najwa Ghanem: married 1974 when she was 14. Also known as Umm Abdullah (“mother of Abdullah”). She says she had not been in contact with him since the September 11 attacks.
-Amal al-Sada: married 2001, when she was 15.
-Umm Ali: divorced 1996.
-Umm Hamza: married 1982.
-Umm Khaled: an Arabic teacher.
He was a difficult father, often remote and consumed with jihad. While living in Sudan, he reportedly sought to make his family’s life more austere, believing they were too coddled. In 2002, The Guardian interviewed one of bin Laden’s wives, who described how she and three other wives each had separate houses in which they lived. “He did not like anybody to talk to him,” she said. ”He became angry if I tried to talk to him and I would therefore leave him alone. He used to sit and think for a long time and sleep very late. He did not sleep for more than two or three hours. Though he was beside me, I sometimes felt lonely.” He was as controlling of his wives as one might expect of a strict Wahhabi Muslim, barring them from leaving home.
Omar bin Laden, in Growing Up Bin Laden, described a father who was driven and ambitious, always seeking to be best. He had little time for family life and little patience for his family, beating his children with his trademark accessory. “I tried to force him to show affection and was told that I made a pest of myself. In fact, my annoying behavior encouraged him to start carrying his signature cane. As time passed, he began caning me and my brothers for the slightest infraction,” Omar wrote in an excerpt. He recalled his break with his father, which came when Osama asked him to volunteer to be a suicide bomber and Omar refused. Upon demanding how he could ask such a thing of his sons, bin Laden replied, “’You hold no more a place in my heart than any other man or boy in the entire country’… My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.”
If a dysfunctional family environment growing up can explain how an adult lives his or her life, it may be possible to trace a line from Osama’s childhood to his own family life. His mother Alia was the fourth wife of his father, sometimes called the “slave wife” by more senior wives. She was just 14, and was—like Najwa—a Syrian rather than a native Saudi. His father Mohammed was distant and frequently traveled on business, according to The Looming Tower, building a massive and successful construction business. When Osama was 4, Mohammed divorced her and married her to Mohammad al-Attas, an executive at his company.
With his death in Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden leaves his children much as Mohammed bin Laden left him: fatherless, but with his imposing, larger-than-life influence looming over them.
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.