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05.09.11

Osama bin Laden's Loyal Harem

Osama bin Laden's three widows have become the latest front in the tussle between Pakistan and the U.S., as the Americans clamor to interrogate the women. David A. Graham on what we know about the various women who vowed to spend their lives with the world's most-wanted man.

After a bit of back of and forth, Pakistan has finally agreed to grant American officials access to Osama bin Laden’s three widows, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told CNN on Tuesday. U.S. authorities will reportedly be given “direct access,” sources say, meaning that they’ll be available for interviews rather than just submitted questions. Malik didn't give a timeline for the talks.

But what will the women reveal? The Daily Beast’s David A. Graham breaks down what we know about the various women who vowed to spend their lives with the world’s most wanted man.

When Osama bin Laden was shot and killed, his matrimonial life came into quick focus as rumors circulated that he had used a wife as a human shield. That story was soon debunked, but the same young wife aroused even more interest when it emerged that she had been shot during the raid. And in a third twist, bin Laden’s companions have now become more than objects of popular fascination: they’ve come to be seen as potentially valuable intelligence assets.

U.S. officials say they want to question the women about their late husband, his life in Pakistan, and who in the country might have known he was there. Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, the wife who was injured in the raid, has reportedly already told Pakistani interrogators that the bin Laden clan lived in Abbottabad for five years and spent two and a half years before that in a tiny village not far away. But Pakistan isn’t allowing American officials access to them. In fact, it’s not even clear who the women are—but evidence suggests that they are Abdulfattah; Khairiah Sabar, also known as Umm Hamza; and Siham Sabar, also known as Umm Khaled.

Information on the three women, as well as on bin Laden’s estranged wife, Najwa, and divorced former wife, Khadija, is minimal. Polygamy is not uncommon for well-off Saudi men, even ones of fewer means that bin Laden, says Madawi Al-Rasheed, an anthropologist at King’s College, London, who has written about Saudi society in Contesting the Saudi State. What’s more, the al Qaeda chief kept his views on marriage—both personal and theoretical—close to the vest, with little mention of them in his public statements, according to Bruce Lawrence, a professor at Duke University who edited Messages to the World, a collection of all of bin Laden’s utterances.

In The Osama Bin Laden I Know, Peter Bergen quoted a college friend of bin Laden’s with whom he formed a view of marriage. Their fathers had practiced polygamy, and they intended to do so as well: the Prophet Muhammad had said that as many as four wives at a time were permissible, as long as none was neglected. Jamal Khalifa said bin Laden felt his father had erred in failing to give all his wives equal attention. “We look at polygamy as solving a social problem, especially when it’s confirmed that there are more women than men in the society,” Khalifa recalled. “It’s not fun, it’s not a matter of just having women with you to sleep with—it’s a solution for a problem. So that’s how [Osama and I] looked at it, and we decided to practice [polygamy] and to be a model.” In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright quoted bin Laden using a vivid analogy to describe how he dealt with his complicated domestic life: “One is okay, like walking. Two is like riding a bicycle: it’s fast but a little unstable. Three is a tricycle, stable but slow. And when we come to four, ah! This is the ideal. Now you can pass everyone!”

“It’s like the sultan sitting there in his harem, although unfortunately for bin Laden, he did not have the luxury.”

Each wife had her own apartment or house where the family lived as the family made repeated moves—leaving Saudi Arabia for Sudan in 1991, then transplanting itself to Afghanistan in 1996, and later moving around Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along the way, all but two of bin Laden’s wives apparently stayed with their husband all or some of the time, a rough-and-tumble path of deprivation and difficulty.

What do we know about each of his wives? Here are short biographies.

1. Najwa Ghanem:

Bin Laden first married when he was a teenager, wedding Najwa Ghanem, a Syrian cousin who was born in 1958, according to her memoir, Growing Up Bin Laden. They married in 1974. Speaking to Peter Bergen, her former sister-in-law Carmen bin Ladin described her as "meek, submissive, highly religious and constantly pregnant”—and indeed, she bore bin Laden 11 children. Although she was the “senior” wife, having married Osama first, she was younger than all his other wives until Amal. Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower, reported that she was an avid jogger and not well educated, but friendly and especially fond of decoration and aesthetics, keeping her house in Sudan beautifully appointed and seeking out Western cosmetics and lingerie.

Wright reported that Osama and Najwa had a somewhat tumultuous relationship, fighting frequently in Khartoum. Nonetheless, she traveled with him to Afghanistan when he was exiled from Sudan in 1996. At some point, however, she tired of the austere lifestyle. Even in Saudi Arabia, the family had lived modestly, but in The Longest War, Peter Bergen says Najwa recalled bin Laden taking the family into the desert of Sudan, where he would have them sleep in trenches with limited food and resources. “There will come a day when you will not have a shelter over your head,” he told them. It wasn’t what Najwa had bargained for when she married the young scion of a wealthy family, and in 2001 she left bin Laden and returned to Syria with her son, Abdel Rahman, who is developmentally disabled. Jean Sasson, who co-wrote Growing Up Bin Laden with Najwa and Omar bin Laden, one of Osama’s sons, wrote for The Daily Beast that Najwa is unwilling to discuss her life beyond what she wrote in the book, but added—despite the stormy departure from Afghanistan—that “Najwa never spoke a negative word to me about her husband.”

2. Khadija Sharif, a.k.a. Umm Ali

Khadija married Osama in 1983 (like bin Laden’s other wives, she is often known by a nickname derived from her son—“Umm Ali” means “Mother of Ali”). Wisal al-Turabi, the wife of a Sudanese leader, got to know the bin Laden family while they lived in Sudan, and told Bergen that Osama saw his second, third, and fourth marriages as good deeds: “He married the other three because they were spinsters. They were going to go without marrying in this world. So he married them for the Word of God. In Islam we do this. If you have a spinster, if you marry her, you will be rewarded for this in the afterworld, because you will bring up your offspring as Muslims.” Unlike Umm Abdullah, Umm Ali was a professional woman, a teacher of Islam, and was nine years older than her husband, according to Growing Up Bin Laden. Like Najwa, she eventually found the austere lifestyle too trying. While bin Laden had sworn that he would not divorce a wife, finding it immoral to throw a woman out, he readily assented to her request for a split, his former bodyguard said. Still, Wright said, the divorce hurt bin Laden deeply. She left Khartoum and returned to Saudi Arabia with her three children.

3. Khairiah Sabar, a.k.a. Umm Hamza

No woman seems to have been better suited to Osama than Khairiah. Seven years older than bin Laden, she apparently was a professor of child psychology, although other reports call her an expert on Islamic law—perhaps a confusion with Umm Ali. Wright reported that her distinguished, wealthy family opposed the match, but she went ahead because “she wanted to marry a true mujahid [holy warrior].” Her commitment to jihad made her bin Laden’s favorite wife, but it also endeared her to others in the al Qaeda community. Umm Hamza is said to be frail and have bad eyesight, and she frequently miscarried, bearing only one son, but she traveled with her husband to Sudan and later to Afghanistan. While in Sudan, she commuted to Saudi Arabia to continue her teaching—work that would fit in with bin Laden’s lifestyle, as it wouldn’t create unsavory business or political ties, and would put her in a gender-segregated work environment. Her son, Hamza, was initially said to be the adult son killed during the raid that killed his father.

4. Siham Sabar, a.k.a. Umm Khaled

Like Umm Hamza, Umm Khaled is well-educated, a professor of Arabic grammar. She was always quiet and well organized, and like Umm Hamza, commuted to her home country to work while living in Sudan. The couple was married in 1987, and produced three daughters and a son. Her brother was a mujahid, according to Bergen.

5. Unknown

While little is known of bin Laden’s marriages, even less is known of his brief and quickly dissolved 1994 match. While in Khartoum, he reportedly wed but never consummated the marriage, which was annulled with 48 hours. It’s a taboo subject that his confidants won’t discuss.

6. Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, a.k.a Amal al-Sabah

Amal, bin Laden’s youngest wife, was the one injured in the raid. While details remain sketchy, it’s been suggested that Amal, loyal to the end, rushed at Navy SEALs in an attempt to protect her husband. She had been married to him since she was practically a girl. Osama married her in 2000, a move that was apparently political: he sought to shore up the support of Yemeni tribes by marrying one of their own. Sheikh Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismael, a one-time bin Laden aide, recounted the story of the marriage in great detail to the Sunday Times in 2010. Ismael brought a girl from his hometown of Ibb, a hardscrabble town that he figured would prepare the girl well for a spartan existence with the al Qaeda chief, who paid a bride price of $5,000. “Even at her young age she was religious and spiritual enough and believed in the things that bin Laden—a very religious, pious and spiritual man—believed in,” he told the Times.

Her age is disputed, but a picture of what is said to be her passport in a Pakistani paper puts it at 24, meaning she would have married bin Laden when she was about 13 or 14. She was brought to Kandahar, and soon bore bin Laden a daughter named Safia, who is likely the daughter reports say saw her father gunned down. In a 2002 interview with a Saudi magazine, Amal said she left Afghanistan and returned to Yemen following the 9/11 attacks, but it’s not clear when she returned. ( The Guardian has a translation of the interview.) While she said she seldom talked with bin Laden about his work, she readily defended him verbally—and perhaps did so physically on his final night in Abbottabad.

Even as a clearer picture emerges of these women’s lives, how much does it tell us? Al-Rasheed, the anthropology professor, said she’d been fielding strange requests in the days since bin Laden’s death: How would the death affect the plight of Muslim women? While laughing off such a question—it will have no effect to speak of, she concludes—Al-Rasheed remains intrigued by the response. To a certain extent, it looks like textbook Orientalism, a projection of exotic harem fantasies onto bin Laden, the most famous Muslim of his age.

“It’s like the sultan sitting there in his harem, although unfortunately for bin Laden, he did not have the luxury,” she says.

But many around the world seem to be fascinated with bin Laden’s domestic arrangements, simply as a window into the life of an enigmatic and misunderstood man. “Here is a radical who had been terrorizing the world. There is an assumption that his world would be really interesting,” Al-Rasheed says. “One tries to look at his political career and project that on his private life.”

Until bin Laden’s widows speak to the world, however, we will only have spotty reports on their lives with him—fleeting glimpses through the purdah of the historical record.

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.