Before Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, he was locked in a house for five months with three wives and over a dozen children.
By Rafia Zakaria
On pleasant afternoons, when he was not feeling ill, when the tumult of 23 children didn’t weigh too heavily on his nerves, when the onerous demands of being equally loving to three wives and five daughters didn’t wear him down, Osama bin Laden took a walk. He began at the door that led from his bedroom, then went through a veranda shielded by the now-infamous seven-foot walls. From here he followed a path at the back of the house; the path was flanked on either side by tall trees grown just to shield him. Above his head was the clear Abbottabad sky, over the horizon, the faint outlines of the mountains in the distance. Around the walls and the trees, beyond the gates, was a country whose language he did not speak, and whose government and military his organization, Al-Qaeda, had declared infidel for their crackdowns on Islamic militants.
As Osama walked the tree-lined path, he may have rolled between his fingers the wooden spheres of prayer beads that had accompanied him from the palaces of his childhood to the craggy caves and safe houses of Waziristan, a few hundred miles to the west. At the end of Osama’s walking path would have been a small, sparse building known as the hujra. In Pashtun towns, such buildings are placed front and center of every settlement; they are the beating heart of the tiniest collection of homesteads. The hujra is and has always been a place for men: where important matters can be discussed away from women, their plaintive cries and petty wants. Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, likely presided over many hujras dotted over the terrain of southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, where he had spent the past decade. But here, in the small building set apart from the main house, he received no visitors. Like others before it, this hujra was a place only for men, always the same men: one or two of the Kuwaiti-born Pashtun couriers who had procured the house and overseen its construction, and sometimes his son Khaled bin Laden, a man of 24. Osama had come to Abbottabad to hide from the world, but, in the little hujra, he could also hide from the women and children who suddenly, completely surrounded him.
Equality and justice are perhaps easier to enforce when marital life forms one small part of a man’s existence, enacted in short visits and rotating nights instead of prolonged sojourns with no end in sight.
In the year following the May raid on the Abbottabad compound that yielded the world’s most wanted man, the narrative around bin Laden’s death has grown and multiplied, sustained by growing tensions between Pakistan and the United States. Unsurprisingly, most of the details of the man and the house, of who knew and who didn’t know and who could have known, have aligned with the interests of those releasing said details. Statements from American intelligence officials spin a yarn of complicity, of a wanted man living close to the pulsing nerve center of Pakistan’s military, luxuriating in a large home, surrounded by a harem who could not but have escaped notice.
On their end, the Pakistani military—in information released to a retired Pakistani investigator and consequently to various media outlets—have their own stories, focused on the squalid ordinariness of the Abbottabad house and the curious mix of transience and tradition that stanched neighborly inquiries into the inhabitants. This battle of narratives focuses entirely on who knew, when they knew, and if they shared their knowledge. In its complications it reveals only how the mistrust between the two countries most touched by Osama bin Laden continues to live on even a year after his death.
Among these torrential questions of complicity is the slow, regular bleed of details, escaped facts that have emerged in the year since the raid, all scanned by fervent analysts and journalists, then discarded for not fitting neatly in the war of who knew and who lied. These discarded facts tell a more complicated story: They tell of a wanted man’s end and of the abuse of tradition in the society where he met his end and of the erosion of identity by age and circumstance. Together, they pose the question of whether the retired Osama bin Laden—living in hiding behind a set of wives from different stages in his life and a horde of children ranging from a three-year-old to adults in their twenties—could have been the man who pranced from cave to cave in Tora Bora, whispering commands into a walkie-talkie and leading a surreptitious organization into the world’s limelight.
Not Quite Sister Wives
The house in Abbottabad included three wives and about 16 children. The wives were Khairia Hassan Sabir and Seeham Sharif—both in their fifties and mothers to bin Laden’s grown children—and the young Amal Abdulfattah and her five small children, the last two of whom were born in Abbottabad. Khairia Hassan Sabir, the eldest of the wives, did not join the family homestead in Abbottabad until early 2011, when she and her children—including Osama’s adult daughter Iman bin Laden—were released from Iranian custody following a prisoner exchange deal that swapped them for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat.
The household she joined in Abbottabad was a crowded one. According to released plans and pictures of the household, Osama bin Laden shared a floor and a bedroom with Amal Abdelfattah, the young wife who enjoyed the privilege of having most recently borne him children. Seeham, Kharia, and their mostly adult children shared the floor beneath. Photographs show that the landings between the floors were separated by metal doors with padlocks on both sides, creating separate households whose privacy could be enforced from either end. Sometimes, Seeham slept upstairs on Amal’s floor, in a room used during the day as Osama bin Laden’s study. The bin Laden household, a fraction of the size of the converted McMansion that houses the Duggars of “19 Kids and Counting” fame, was not a place of orderly queues where diligent older siblings handed out cereal bowls to younger ones.
Polygamous households were familiar to Osama bin Laden, whose father sired tens of children by several wives. Osama’s own mother was one of the discarded ones, divorced a few years after Osama’s birth as Mohammad bin Laden moved on to others. In an interview given to his friend Jamal Khalifa, the young Osama was critical of what he saw as his father’s sexual motives in wedding so many women, which he called “not the Islamic way at all.” Otherwise largely infatuated with his father, Osama insisted that polygamy in Islam was a solution to “a social problem” arising from his belief that there were more women than men. “You have to be fair, you have to give equal justice between all of them,” the young Osama, not yet a polygamist, exhorted his friend. Theirs was to be a different sort of polygamy than the indulgent life of his father.
The Abbottabad house reflects some, but perhaps not all, of this intent. Each of the bedrooms assigned to the wives had their own kitchenette, stocked with food. Based on the Islamic prescriptions Osama interpreted literally, this seems to be an attempt to provide the separate hearth—if not a separate, distinct household—that most polygamous arrangements, generally the prerogative of wealthy men, follow in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Wives of a single man are thus entitled not simply to perfect equality in emotion and attention and resources, but also to a degree of separation from their co-wives. Islamic polygamy is neither Big Love nor Sister Wives; indeed, while a man may be entitled to marry four women, he can never marry two sisters at the same time, and they can insist on never sharing anything other than the man himself.
If the young Osama, used to the endless resources of Jeddah and Riyadh, had been a staunch proponent of equality, the retired Osama, relegated to a cramped household, may have found it a more difficult proposition. Or perhaps it was just old age that made him reconsider his position, evaluate on a more selfish scale the bloom of a young wife, and father infants in his fifties. News reports emerging from interviews of the wives salaciously point out again and again that he bedded only Amal, the youngest, in whose bed he was killed that final night in Abbottabad. There are other clues pointing to tensions, clues about the pokes and jabs of women competing over a man. Egged on by them, the Qadir report even considers the possibility that the jealous rage of Khairia Sabir, an older wife passed over in favor of the girly Amal, may have been instrumental in giving Osama bin Laden away. The claims of competition seem to have continued after the raid.
The energy previously given to dodging drones and clandestine meetings with a wanted husband were now likely channeled by just-as-fervent discussions about whose turn it was to do the dishes.
Pakistani intelligence officers arriving at the scene in the early hours of May 2, 2011, report that Khairia, the only English-speaking wife, insisted that she be allowed to take her belongings from her bedroom. When permitted, she asked that Seeham, the other elderly wife, also be allowed to do the same. Neither bothered to take anything belonging to the injured Amal Abdelfattah, even as they walked by the bedroom she had shared with the now-dead Osama.
Wifely jealousies undoubtedly heightened by the forced proximity of the two floors also point to the inversion of power particular to Osama’s polygamous lair. It was different not simply because of the cramped conditions or because the women from different stages of life and love collected under a single roof, but because Osama himself was unable to fulfill the crucial role of the man in the center of a gaggle of women. The household’s privacy and seclusion did not, as in Saudi Arabia or Kandahar, extend only to the women. It extended even more particularly to the man who, hidden and secretive, could not be the public face of the household. Equality and justice are perhaps easier to enforce when marital life forms one small part of a man’s existence, enacted in short visits and rotating nights instead of prolonged sojourns with no end in sight.
Warrior or Retiree?
The Osama bin Laden who arrived in Abbottabad after a tumultuous decade spent dodging drones and detection could not have been used to the domesticity of a quiet retirement. Statements by youngest wife Amal Abdelfattah describe a marriage spent zipping between houses and borders, a wedding in Yemen, and motherhood in bustling Karachi in seven homes in nine months before a reunion in Kandahar. It must have been an exciting life, its episodes of domesticity made exhilarating by the danger always lurking around the corner. Abdelfattah, herself a PhD, says she married Osama because she wanted a husband who was a warrior. Her description of the early years of their marriage—a life on the run—certainly seems to have fit the bill.
Whether the man in Abbottabad was still a warrior is a different question. Hiding and seclusion are different things, and the sedentary permanence of the Abbottabad home highlighted the difference. Its three floors housed four separate households. The first was inhabited by the Kuwaiti-born Pashtun courier who had arranged for the lodging and lived there with his own family. The second and third floors were used by the bin Laden family, whose women could not, per strict Islamic rules, appear unveiled to the man below. In addition, sources who visited and photographed the house insist that at least one of three bedrooms on each of these floors was used as a storage room, leaving even less room for habitation. The kitchenettes were stocked with imported food items and a lot of dates, but cooking and washing on the small sinks could not have been a pleasant task. The energy previously given to dodging drones and clandestine meetings with a wanted husband were now likely channeled by just-as-fervent discussions about whose turn it was to do the dishes.
The retired Osama thus was likely not just fought over by his women, but probably also ruled by them.
Reports and pictures of the house reveal the truth of this; repairs could only be made by the members of the household, and the profusion of servants that would normally have been a fixture of life in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or even Afghanistan would have been out of the question while hiding in Pakistan. These inconveniences may have mattered little in the dangerously romantic squalor of caves in Waziristan or in safe houses inhabited for weeks, but they must have loomed large in Abbottabad where those saddled with the ignominy of cleaning after the others would see their menial tasks as denigrations of their position within the household. The squalid testaments of such spats can be seen all over the two floors: in the makeshift shelves likely built to hoard everything from medicine bottles to detergent, the worn sheets and soiled pillows—all artifacts of a segmented household where the responsibilities of care and cleaning were heavily contested and often ignored.
Killing a Dead Man
The November 1996 issue of Nidaa ul Islam Magazine, quoted Osama bin Laden saying the following:
As for their accusations of terrorizing the innocent, the children, and the women, these are in the category of ‘accusing others with their own affliction in order to fool the masses.’ The evidence overwhelmingly shows America and Israel killing the weaker men, women and children in the Muslim world and elsewhere.
Hiding in Abbottabad, the retired Osama retreated to the most private and intimate realm available in Pakistani culture: the women’s world. In placing him deep within a feminine world, one whose sanctity has strong historical, cultural, and religious precedent, his Al-Qaeda handlers calculated the successful concealment of their leader. But in doing so, they also enabled another transformation: his emasculation and deposition from a position of leadership in both of his family and the organization he helped found.
While the details of Osama’s end can be endlessly debated on the basis of who knew what and when and whether he was given away by his own or the omniscient eye of an unseen satellite, the details of his living quarters, the squabbles of wives, the bottled-up tensions of teenagers and toddlers squashed in small rooms likely achieved a de-throning equally macabre in its deadly domesticity. In being sentenced to it, the man at the center of it all was left at the mercy of those who, in another life, merited only the barest, most accidental of his attentions, leftovers from the martial strategizing that dominated them. Suddenly it was the women, wives and daughters and children, who determined every detail of his day and the course of every hour spent in secrecy.
The retired Osama thus was likely not just fought over by his women, but probably also ruled by them. Everyone from the U.S. Navy Seals to the Pakistani intelligence officials who entered the Abbottabad compound was stunned that it had no escape route, no underground maze or secret passage that could allow a man to scurry to safety in the event of an attack, provide some chance against apprehension to the man who rocked the world with terror. In the case of Osama bin Laden, their observations represent more than merely a physical reality. The retired terrorist squirreled away in Abbottabad, by accident or design or intrigue or sympathy, may have perished long before he was actually killed, and the Osama bin Laden who was left was no longer hiding but waiting, passing day after banal day, in the hope of an exciting death.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, and author of the forthcoming book Silence in Karachi (Beacon Press).