Running alongside the Silk Road, on a dusty path, they embarked on a decaying bus from the Soviet era that was covered in mud. The females, accompanied by the rest of the children, and he, nine-year-old Ladin, the sole remaining boy, boarded the bus. His older sons were supposed to reunite with their father and other siblings at a undisclosed destination. Except for the fact that their spouse desired to relocate them and their youngest offspring away from Kandahar, no one disclosed the reason. Osama bin Laden’s spouses were instructed to pack one piece of luggage each on September 10, 2001.
“When the motor ceases, you disembark,” Osama informed them.
The Khairiah family’s organized matriarch was in need of a clean-up. Empty bottles of chemicals and discarded food packaging were scattered everywhere, along with discarded ammunition boxes. It was a landscape reminiscent of a lunar setting, with adobe huts surrounding it, earning it the nickname “Wars Star” by Saad, Osama’s third son. The grandiosely named Star of Holy War, Najm al-Jihad, was the fort that served as the training camp for al-Qaida, located in a nearby village. Crowned with guard towers and surrounded by 4m-high mud walls, the fort was a fort-colored dun structure. After a few uncomfortable days, they eventually came to a halt on the outskirts of Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan, next to a fort.
Amal, the youngest wife of Osama, gave birth to a baby, just like Wafa, the wife of Saad bin Laden. Their husbands were Mujahideen fighters, two Saudi brothers in their thirties who already had wives and children. Fatima, the half-sister of Khadija who is twelve years old, got married in a double wedding two years ago. Recently, Khadija, Osama’s fourteen-year-old daughter, became a mother. The three mothers who were breastfeeding were given the best selection of food; they would cook on a traditional Afghan bukhar, an open stove. Someone repaired the water pump and managed to start an old generator in the basic kitchen area. The narrow pathways that connected the apartments to a tin toilet outhouse were cleaned. The women checked the bedding for scorpions and snakes, and hung up woolen rugs for insulation, and filled thin foam mattresses with old clothes.
The recent rumors about a group outside of Osama’s tight-knit core called “Operation Planes” were circulating in Kandahar. While they were on the road, they overheard scraps of news about 9/11, which were dissected by everyone. It was understood that the male guards were not allowed to speak to the wives of Osama, who were known for their religious conservatism.
Inevitably, America now witnessed the emergence of war as enemy jets scouted the sky. He lay on his back, staring up, with a role even a nine-year-old Ladin had. The wives had been instructed to blow themselves up if the situation became critical. Only the al-Qaida guards, who could not enter the same room, were there to protect them without any adult male relatives.
Their spouse and male offspring, pondering on the uncertain moment of their reunion, gathered closely beneath a cover with an automatic rifle and a supply of explosive devices during the nighttime, contemplating the fate of those acquaintances and relatives who remained in the urban areas.
The wives of Osama recently lived in concrete huts adjoining the ancient fort of Qila Tarnak in the southwest desert of Kandahar Airport, until 9/11 and months and years after. Before we were able to build a picture of their life, which we had never spoken about before, through interviews with family members who wanted to remain anonymous, senior members of al-Qaida, and members of the family. They turned a small allotment yard into a shared space where they reared chickens and rabbits. Sometimes, when the men emptied the compound, they gathered there to uncover their faces while the children fought over Madonna’s snatches on their father’s transistor or played on a battered Nintendo.
Lately, there had been dissonance, but Omar, the teenage son of his father’s striking resemblance, had never shared his father’s obsession with war. After learning about his father’s involvement in Operation Planes, Omar became determined to come to his mother, Najwa, pleading for her to disobey her husband and slip away from him. She had never disobeyed her husband before, but she had never seen Omar witness so many screaming rows with members of al-Qaida.
However, after giving birth to 11 children and remaining loyal to her husband for 26 years, Najwa, a woman who experienced a change of heart, made an unexpected act of rebellion by requesting to go back to her parents in Syria. By the end of August 2001, she couldn’t shake off Omar’s words from her thoughts.
She never intended to be a jihadi bride, Najwa. Ghanem, a beautiful and glamorous woman from an old Syrian cultured family, had grown up in the cosmopolitan seaside resort of Latakia where women wore bikinis. She had married Osama in 1974 when she was just 16, and he was still forging a reputation as a reckless fast-driving car enthusiast and a soccer player demon. She had been charmed by this doe-eyed boy, the 17th son of one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men, her cousin. Reluctantly, she donned a niqab and chador as Osama’s young wife, but still wore black folds underneath her designer clothes and lipstick.
Carmen, the former wife of Osama’s half-brother Yeslam, says that she almost seemed completely invisible. She had demands over the years from Osama’s worn-out and tired personality. Being pregnant and constantly feeling downcast and dull, she remembers her brothers-in-law’s wives.
Afterwards, she stated, “and that our lives may go back to normal.” She continuously prayed for tranquility to prevail in the world. In order to block the harsh wind, she sealed the bullet punctures in her dwelling with unprocessed wool. Utilizing a single-function camping stove and donning an Afghan burqa, she ultimately found herself residing in a humble dwelling in Kandahar. Najwa never envisioned that she would ultimately find herself in a modest dwelling in Kandahar.
Saad, the third son of Osama and Najwa, was autistic and had hydrocephalus (water on the brain), preferring unconventional remedies and refusing conventional treatment in his fate in the desert. The developmental problems possibly exacerbated by the fact that their first two sons were born with some suggestion of developmental problems, possibly exacerbated by the fact that their first two sons were born with some suggestion of developmental problems, possibly exacerbated by the fact that their first two sons were born with some suggestion of developmental problems, possibly exacerbated by the fact that their first two sons were born with some suggestion of developmental problems. Osama later divorced Najwa, and she had not seen eye to eye with her second husband, possibly exacerbating the developmental problems with her third son, Saad. Additionally, there was also the question of Najwa’s eye to eye with her new husband. It just wasn’t the Operation Planes.
Najwa sought help for her sons at a clinic in Jeddah where she met Khairiah, a child psychologist of seven years older. Khairiah suggested that Osama, judged by Prophet to be perfect, should enable women to share the joy of motherhood by marrying men deemed “unmarriageable”. She also suggested that education could assist him well in achieving this goal and that he wanted as many children as possible.
In Kandahar, everyone gathered in her room to discuss upcoming changes and resolve disputes, as Hamzah, eventually bore a son named Osama, while fervently following her father’s religious role as the family’s extended matriarch. She also inherited Khairiah’s role. Additionally, there was a need to lobby for extra rice sacks, schoolbooks, basic medicine, or any other necessary items.
Seham, the fourth wife of Osama, was deeply religious, claiming descent from the Prophet. Before marrying Osama in 1985, she worked as a teacher and held a PhD from the University of Medina. She had the task of teaching many children herself, as she remembered how Osama would occasionally interrupt impromptu English and math tests with his lined up children. Before 9/11, Seham’s family lived in a hut in Kandahar, where they purchased secondhand exam papers and chalk slates from the bazaar. Unlike Najwa Khairiah, Seham was devout and already on the path to jihad when she married Osama.
Osama expected all his children to play a part in Jihad. Instead of celebrating birthdays and visiting scenes of battle, the boys were videotaped brandishing weapons. Al-Qaida’s influence expanded as their daughters, who were married at the onset of puberty, became fighters twice the age of mujahideen fighters.
Najwa fought hard to soften the world of children, as she procured treats that they were eager for and they were drawn to her, especially when she was eating Maggi noodles with a packet of tomato puree – improvising it into a bolognese spaghetti, while listening to American pop radio.
In the dusty surroundings, Najwa decided to leave her family behind and drive away to Syria, as her adult son, who had disabilities, relied on her. Najwa also took her youngest children with her and gave birth to her daughter, Amal, shortly before the tragic events of 9/11. It was in June, when Najwa transformed into an unconventional and dysfunctional family, that Osama made the decision for his 18-year-old Yemeni teenager, Amal, to marry into the al-Sadeh family.
Later, she exclaimed, “Amal was frozen, but Seham and Khairiah stayed out.” My heart broke into little pieces as I watched the silhouettes of my little children.
Then arrived September 11th, surpassing all other worries.
In November 2001, when Osama bin Laden unexpectedly arrived at the women’s fortress with his sons, explosives were dropping all over Jalalabad. Seham and Khairiah were overjoyed, whispering prayers and expressing gratitude to the Prophet. However, this was not a prolonged reunion. Osama urged them to hastily pack their belongings. He was making his way to his olive plantation in Melawa Valley, the entrance to Tora Bora, his stronghold in the elevated mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, while US forces and their Afghan allies were advancing. Only his sons Othman and Mohammed would stay by his side. Hamzah, Khalid, and Ladin would be responsible for taking care of the women and youngest children. The eldest brother, Saad, as the oldest male family member, would formally lead the convoy, which also included relatives by marriage and grandchildren.
Their old Saudi passports were sealed in brown envelopes. During the 90s, they lived in Sudan and used documents provided by Sudanese authorities to attempt to cross into Pakistan at a remote checkpoint. They would travel through the night, dressed in tribal robes, as a family. He left behind suitcases containing gold coins and clothes. Osama departed, urging his sons to stay true and strong to Islam, and giving each of them a string of prayer beads.
Pakistan, a critical partner in President Bush’s “War on terror,” recently signed up as a secure and accessible haven desperately needed by Al-Qaida. However, it was no longer a safe haven in Pakistan as families and hundreds of fighters with connections to Osama and his movement had reached there. America was determined to remove the Taliban and dismantle al-Qaida, targeting anyone connected to Osama or his movement and seeking power. Osama was last seen facing a fierce US aerial bombardment in Bora Tora, as America was determined to remove the Taliban and dismantle al-Qaida. Afghanistan was engulfed in war, and Osama was missing since December 2001.
Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed, a religious scholar from Mauritania, who was a close friend and spiritual advisor to Osama, was given the responsibility of babysitting by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. After narrowly escaping an ambush at the Pakistan border and reaching Karachi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed welcomed the family. However, he was occupied with plotting his next “spectacular” and therefore delegated the task to the remaining members of al-Qaida’s council, also known as shura.
Several Arabs who closely resembled Osama and spoke no local languages were tall and fine-boned: they were among the most wanted in the world and relatively easy to spot. He needed an escort to take him somewhere completely off the limits of America. US helicopters flew along the Pakistan border. CIA agents were closing in everywhere. Mahfouz debated with his colleagues for days about what to do with Osama’s family.
In the end, when Iran, the hub of Shia influence, decided to grant asylum, they made the decision to send the wives and children of Osama bin Laden, the head of a banned Sunni paramilitary group.
In these uncertain times, choosing to trust Iran on a surface level seemed like a foolhardy plan. The regime, known for being self-serving, mercenary, and unpredictable, appeared on the scene. Since the 1979 revolution, there had been no diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, and Iran shared borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tehran was also renowned for backing causes that antagonized Israel and America, its sworn enemies. In fact, there was a secret history of contact between Tehran and al-Qaida. Giving sanctuary to al-Qaida could potentially strengthen Iran’s regional position and provide a shield from future terror attacks.
Tehran was categorized in George Bush’s “axis of evil” in January 2002. Al-Qaida was aided by Iran’s covert Quds force, a secretive branch of the country’s Revolutionary Guard, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, following this. In the uninhabited area just beyond the Iranian border with Afghanistan, a refugee camp was established by them. Families arrived in buses and dilapidated taxis, on foot, or by pony, in large numbers. Foreign humanitarian workers, journalists, and any other unwelcome visitors were prohibited by Taliban guards, while approved families were accompanied to Tehran by well-dressed officials.
To a secluded farm, they were led by Saif al-Adel, the military leader of al-Qaida, in Iran, east of Zabol. In Pakistan, Seham and her children had chosen to remain, whereas Khairiah and a cohort of Osama’s offspring were part of the al-Qaida families that arrived.
Saif advised everyone to stay where they were, as no phone calls meant they had to keep their heads down. Saif pointed out that intelligence agencies had been cooperating with the US in reports about President Bashar al-Assad. Then, someone suggested crossing into Syria and travelling to Turkey overland. Saif reminded them that the Bush administration had ruled out any rapprochement and that their Saudi citizenship had been rescinded long ago due to the proximity of Riyadh. He wanted to go home to his grandmother Allia, who lived in the exclusive compound of Osama Bin Laden’s family in Jeddah. Saad, a creature of habit who found small changes in his routine alarming, nervously asked for a guide about their safety.
I gave him that look every time and I spoke that word every time, I always remembered my father’s smile when he later wrote about that painful moment in a letter, the advice was of no comfort to Hamzah, who still carried his father’s prayer beads in the olive groves of Melawa.
“What has occurred to us?” He begged in 2002. “Inform me, Father, something beneficial regarding what I perceive,” he couldn’t envision any future. Now that he was in Iran, Hamzah had never experienced tranquility. Being born into holy war, subsequently freed by al-Qaida, Hamzah penned a letter to him when Saif made it evident to the family that he was directly communicating with Osama.
“Although security is no longer present, the danger persists,” they were still not out of harm’s way. He had a message for the entire family: despite their arrival in Iran, it is enough to say that I am filled with sorrow and lamentations. Please forgive me, my son, but I can only envision a highly challenging road ahead, Osama, who is currently in hiding and evading capture, responded. Several weeks passed by.”
This place is perhaps where Iran is hiding its nuclear bombs, remarking on the arrivals of one who remembers Mahfouz. It was a windowless room with narrow ducts drawing in fresh air from the eaves, known as “Block 100.” It suggests that hasty decisions had been taken to contain them.
Al-Qaida has been critically weakened, and they accepted it. The White House rejected Tehran’s proposal to detain the family of Osama as well as the spiritual and military chiefs of al-Qaida. The White House was focused on invading Baghdad, claiming that it was the mentor of al-Qaida. The only thing Dick Cheney and President Bush were obsessed with was toppling Saddam Hussein. Now, General Major Suleimani trumped the offer of easing sanctions and diplomatic recognition by offering prisoners to Washington, DC. The government in Tehran had caught the wind of the secret migration of al-Qaida, founded by the civilian government, and their fears grew as the days turned into weeks of paranoia for the Bin Ladens.
Khairiah, another member of the shura, suffered from excruciating dental problems and died due to the lack of medical treatment. Wafa, Khairiah’s wife, also passed away earlier, as she refused to visit the hospital and died from the same dental issues. Saad, now the father of three children – two little girls and a boy named Osama – had endured the toll of unsanitary conditions and terrible food, leading to tensions with their hosts. In 2007, Osama’s family, along with several grandchildren, had been relocated to another building in the 300 Block complex, where they faced numerous challenges.
Saif al-Adel, who was being pursued by Western authorities with a $5m reward on his head, swam in the same lanes as foreign diplomats. Occasionally, Osama’s sons and members of the shura were brought to a sports complex in Elahieh, where they socialized with American tourists. Iranian escorts organized day trips for family groups to visit renowned landmarks in Tehran. As tensions escalated, Mahfouz, who resided with the family, advocated for compromises.
Osama’s sons were welcomed by officials in a small waiting area covered with prayer mats, who guided them through the security gates and around the rear of a prayer hall. A vehicle arrived at Block 300 to transport them before heading towards Tehran University. In return, the officials extended an invitation to the Iranians to have a meal with them in the compound. In October 2007, the Iranians treated al-Qaida to an iftar (breakfast) meal at a high-end restaurant located in downtown Tehran, as part of Ramadan festivities.
“Protest Against America” – voices of protest against America echoed through the air, as young men nervously gathered near the door. From behind the pulpit of Ayatollah’s private room, prayers were being broadcasted worldwide on Iran’s TV. The sons of Osama bin Laden, were present in the room, behind Ayatollah Khamenei Ali, the supreme leader. As officials, clerics, scholars, and devotees stood in rows, their attention fixed on the TV wall, a loud roar of support filled the air outside.
As a result of losing his Kuwaiti nationality and being in custody, Ghaith Abu Suleiman, a Kuwaiti preacher and the eldest daughter of Osama’s, married Fatima. He described his writing hours as going on a hunger strike, waking up and spending time as a book he rejected, embittered by Jihad Osama. Following 9/11, he became a manipulated mouthpiece of Osama, turning into a source of problem for the portly Kuwaiti preacher. This soured the relations between the Iranian hosts and the guests of al-Qaida in the spring that followed.
They said that they would rather remain living in this cemetery than be prosecuted. Our ongoing incarceration goes against international law. They shouted and thumped the wall, saying that we have been illegally kidnapped and concealed in this secret jail. Mahfouz remembers watching as grandsons of Osama were pelted with stones by guards. Libyan and Egyptian brothers of al-Qaida secretly stockpiled fuel, daubed anti-Shia messages on the walls, and hurled petrol bombs, setting fires and shattering wooden beds while ripping up sheets. When the guards tried to manhandle him, a full-blown prison riot exploded. Eventually, Abu Ghaith’s presence caused mania among the Iranians.
Despite their fear, everyone hesitated to talk tough. However, someone had to be the first to raise the alarm and escape. Meanwhile, Iman, the 17-year-old daughter of Osama, wished for her mother Najwa to go to Syria. On the other hand, Khairiah, Hamzah’s mother, declared that she would return to her husband’s side. Hamzah vowed to sign up for the jihad.
The household estate nestled above a profound melancholy. Fatima was crushed. The second individual, a young woman, was gravely unwell. Furthermore, one infant had passed away; Fatima discovered that her beloved sibling, Khadija, had perished in Waziristan while delivering twins.
Members of the general public walking past were able to catch a glimpse through the primary entrance, where their mothers were seated. Shortly after, their mothers joined them and took a seat near the main gate. In order to avoid harming children, the guards of the Quds force decided to step aside, causing a surprise at the entrance as they swiftly moved away. Saad bin Laden, speaking rapidly in Arabic, instructed his nephews and nieces to quickly escape after noticing that the gate had been inadvertently left open. Iranian officials arrived in May 2008, carrying boxes filled with sweets and cakes, with the intention of fostering a peaceful resolution.
The Iranians eventually sent soldiers dressed in black ski masks and overalls to block 300 families from going back. Exasperated, General Major Suleimani sent ice-creams for the children and served a lavish meal for the adults. Meanwhile, they were confronted with a top-secret cache of al-Qaida hostages. Mahfouz remembers the women chanting, “We want human rights, we want freedom,” as they remained immovable for the next 36 hours.
Enclosed by a modest mud-brick barrier, their fresh abode was a villa with a hue reminiscent of sand. They were transported to the heart of the nation’s vast desert, to the ancient metropolis of Yazd. The household was relocating as the Iranians could no more manage their al-Qaida visitors. Several days subsequent, Osama’s kin received a notification of merely 24 hours to prepare their belongings.
He was determined to rescue them all and find his father in Pakistan. Saad slipped over the wall into the desert night, knowing that he would never survive – his siblings shook their heads in disbelief. “I will do it,” said Saad, the eldest son. Besides, he was too young, just 19, and his wife Asma had just given birth to a daughter. Khairiah vetoed it. Hamzah volunteered to hop back over the wall. But there were no security cameras at the rear. They wandered as a lost family. They had lost such privileges. They said there would be no more trips out. The Iranian escorts took them to the closest rooms to the main gate.
After discovering Saad’s escape, Osama’s family was transported back to Tehran, where they found a new kind of prison waiting for them at the heart of the Quds force complex. Referred to as the “Complex Tourist,” it consisted of purpose-built apartments for each family, a swimming pool, a football pitch, a mosque, and a school, all surrounded by tall walls and censors.
At the end of the first month, they were offered phone calls from some of Osama’s sons. They were whisked to the Afghan border and given a Thuraya satellite phone – a device intended to confuse American eavesdroppers and conceal their precise location. They were ordered not to say anything about their exact whereabouts. Omar, Osama’s son who had left Afghanistan before 9/11 and was living in Qatar with his British wife Zaina, had written to the United Nations and the International Red Cross in search of his family. Now, they were stunned to receive a call from the desert, asking for help.
Tehran’s spirits were lifted as they received news from Pakistan. However, the news of Osama bin Laden’s son, Saad, being killed in a drone strike in Waziristan dampened their mood. That night, Osama’s grieving sons gathered, realizing that Saad had been reunited with their father. They now felt hopeless, knowing that their reunion with Saad and their father had been shattered.
Iman said that explaining, “Now it’s yours,” as she handed over a gold ring. They were alone when Iman took off the ring, requesting her best friend Khadija to see it. On November 21, 2009, Mahfouz heard a knock at the door when he was deep into reading the Qur’an late at night.
Filled with diplomats, Shahrvand, a modern supermarket located on Argentine Square, guided them to the bus where she and Khadija sat side by side. Iman was talkative, and the al-Qaida females assembled in the courtyard for a unique Eid shopping excursion the next day.
Iman phoned back, prior to disappearing into the multitude. “What does it resemble?” Khadija whispered. Then, she wrapped the doll in a blanket as if it were an authentic infant, embraced her companion, and departed. Khadija observed, astonished, as her companion transformed into them, removing her black abaya and niqab, and altering her appearance with an Iranian chemise, a pair of jeans, and a vibrant headscarf wrapped around her hair in the Iranian fashion. Iman seized a life-sized baby doll and retrieved some garments she had taken from a different section of the store. Wasn’t this activity too mature for them, Khadija inquired? As Khairiah and Fatima bin Laden filled their shopping carts, accompanied by enthusiastic young children clamoring for sweets, Iman pulled Khadija into the toy department.
He decided to make a phone call in advance. Iman was ordered to quickly make her way to the Saudi embassy. Finding it hard to believe that he was conversing with someone he had assumed was deceased, he gave Iman directions to urgently head towards the Saudi embassy. She contacted her eldest sibling, Abdullah bin Laden, a businessman residing in Jeddah who had distanced himself from their father’s chosen way of life in 1995. However, Iman was too speedy for them and approached the first woman she encountered who possessed a phone, requesting if she could borrow it. It took a few minutes for their Iranian escorts to realize that she was absent, and soon after, intelligence agents swarmed the area.
“She has arrived,” it stated. “Iman is in good health.” However, this particular message was distinct. Typically, it contained updates on services or advertisements for nearby kebab establishments. A continuous stream of text scrolled across the lower part of the television screen as Mahfouz and his family tuned in to a local cable channel. Then, for a span of three days, there was a complete absence of news. The family remained silent, too afraid to let hope resurface in the Tourist Complex.
In the beginning of 2010, Iman bin Laden was brought together with her mother Najwa in Syria after being inside the Saudi embassy in Tehran for over 100 days. Together with various siblings, including Fatima, she currently resides in Jeddah. Her mother frequently journeys to Qatar, where numerous other relatives reside, including Omar and Ladin.
In 2010, Khairiah, the wife of Osama’s son Khalid, narrowly escaped a raid by the US. Osama was officially designated as a “global terrorist” by the US earlier this year and he was set to become the new figurehead of al-Qaida. However, he was killed in the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. Khairiah was with her husband when he was killed, but she survived. Both Osama and Khairiah had been in Pakistan, with Osama heading there from Iran after being released late in 2010.
Today, Amal, Seham, Khairiah, and their 11 children and grandchildren were deported from Pakistan, where they had been living in detention for a year after witnessing the killing of their husband outside a compound in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Mahfouz, who watched the news reports on Osama’s death from the Tourist Complex, finally escaped Iran in 2012 and returned to Mauritania.