IT LOOKS like an ordinary family snapshot but this is the first photograph to be published of the children who were in Osama Bin Laden’s compound on May 2 last year when he was shot dead by US Navy Seals.
The three children on the right, Hussain, 3, Zainab, 5, and Ibraheem, 8, are the youngest of the Al-Qaeda leader’s offspring, thought to number between 20 and 25. Hussain is wearing a man’s watch on his right wrist. His brother Ibraheem is fidgeting and does not smile. If he did, it would be possible to see that he has just lost his first front tooth.
Zainab, their sister, whose covered head reflects the family’s religious conservatism, is wearing a pink school tunic even though she has never gone to school.
When the commandos burst in, these three children, and two siblings aged 10 and 12, were on the second floor of Bin Laden’s house along with their mother, Amal, a 29-year-old Yemeni who became his fifth wife in 1999.
Amal was shot in the knee as she apparently tried to shield her husband, and the children were then caught up in the terror, according to her brother Zakaria al-Sadah, who took the photograph.
“All of them witnessed his death because at the time of the attack all the kids ran to him,” Sadah said.
The three children on the left — Fatima, 5, Abdullah, 12, and Hamza, 7 — are grandchildren of Bin Laden. They were discovered cowering in another room as Seal Team 6 swept the house. A fourth grandchild found with them is not pictured here.
Their mother, who was one of Bin Laden’s daughters by an earlier marriage, is said to have died in childbirth. They were being cared for on the first floor by Khairiah and Siham Sabar, the Al-Qaeda leader’s third and fourth wives.
The photograph was taken at a house in Islamabad where Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency has allowed Amal, the youngest wife, to see her brother on several occasions since last November in the presence of guards.
For most of the time, however, the three wives and nine children from the compound have been held in a windowless three-room flat under constant ISI supervision.
According to Sadah, they are forbidden to leave the flat except for occasional meetings, and the wives are refusing to eat in protest.
“The children will not eat also, as they are too traumatised,” Sadah said. “They have heaters for the winter cold and restricted access to television. But they have hardly seen the sun in nine months. They feel as if they are shouting in the dark.”
After the US raid, the government of Pakistan promised to free the family when its inquiries were complete. Last October a government spokesman confirmed that Amal, Khairiah and Siham had undergone “exhaustive” interviews before a judicial commission.
Sadah, a 24-year-old journalism student, said he had been asked by the Pakistani authorities to come to Islamabad on November 1 on the understanding that he could escort his sister and her children back to Yemen the next day.
The authorities in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, had agreed to issue passports, he said, and Amal planned to move in with her mother in the city of Ibb, in southwest Yemen.
Instead, all the wives and children have remained in their “cell-like” rooms. Amal has asked repeatedly to return to Yemen. Khairiah and Siham, who both married Bin Laden in the 1980s, want to go to their native Saudi Arabia. Siham’s son Khalid, 24, was killed with his father.
However, senior military sources say ISI attitudes have hardened. Some officials believe Amal and the others may have concealed critical details of how Bin Laden came to be living in the garrison town of Abbottabad, barely a mile from a military academy.
Sadah, who insists his sister knows nothing incriminating, fears she could be charged with committing crimes against Pakistan and never be released.
The commission that questioned Bin Laden’s wives has already ordered a case for treason to be registered against Shakeel Afridi, a doctor who helped CIA officers looking for the Al-Qaeda leader.
Sadah said Amal was still unable to walk as a result of her bullet wound, which had initially been treated at a military hospital in Rawalpindi.
“My sister cries constantly,” Sadah said. “These children have seen their father killed in front of their eyes and they need a caring environment, not a prison — whatever you think of their father and what he has done.”
The family were “innocent parties in all of this terror and subterfuge” and his nephews and nieces were too young to understand their father’s infamy.
Amal’s eldest, Safiyah, 12, was cradling her head when Pakistani security forces arrived at the compound shortly after the American raid and, according to Sadah, remains deeply traumatised.
“Her wounds are not visible but they are deep. The children are like young trees that have been kept in the shadows: they do not see the sun and their skin is very yellow,” he said.
Amal al-Sadah was just 17 when she was presented to the 43-year-old Bin Laden in an arranged marriage for which he paid $5,000.
Sadah said that although his family knew who Bin Laden was, they had no objection to the union.
“In 1999 Bin Laden seemed to be a great freedom fighter. That is why my father consented. No one considered him a terrorist,” Sadah said.
That changed in October 2000 when Al-Qaeda launched a suicide attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors.
By then Amal was living with Bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and had just given birth to Safiyah.
Her father, Ahmed Abdelfatah al-Sadah, made a brief visit in early 2001 and was apparently warned by Bin Laden that a world-changing event was imminent. But Amal seemed happy and her father, a civil servant, returned to Yemen entirely ignorant of the planning for the September 11 attacks on the United States, reporting that “all was well”.
In October, however, attacks by US and British forces drove Bin Laden into the Tora Bora mountains and his wives scattered. His first wife, Najwa, went to Syria and denounced her husband. Khairiah, the third wife and the “spiritual mother” of the growing Bin Laden clan, was detained in Iran but was eventually allowed to go home to Saudi Arabia. Siham, the fourth wife, and Amal disappeared.
A year after 9/11, Amal, now aged 19, re-emerged in Yemen, when she revealed that the family had lived in a cave for two months. She said Pakistani officials had eventually helped her to flee.
It is not clear how Amal, Khairiah and Siham rejoined Bin Laden in Abbottabad.
But to judge from the ages of Amal’s children — Hussain, 3, Zainab, 5, Ibraheem, 8, and another son aged 10 — it is obvious that Bin Laden had maintained regular contact with her. Once he had set up home in Pakistan he called for his wives and children.
Behind the five-metre-high walls, each family unit had its own section of the house.
Khairiah, Siham and Amal all took it in turns to spend time with Bin Laden, who was 54 when he died. Apparently exhausted by his years on the run, he spent much of his time locked up in a room without windows that he called his “command centre”.
Bin Laden once described his older children as “Islamic warriors” and encouraged his favourite sons to follow him down the jihadist path. Saad Bin Laden, a son born to Najwa, had held an important position in Al-Qaeda until he was apparently killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2009.
Hamza, Bin Laden’s eldest son with Khairiah, was later chosen as his heir. Online video clips show him taking part in a raid on a Pakistan army base and chanting anti-western messages alongside his father. According to Sadah, he was not in the Abbottabad compound when it was raided and his whereabouts are unknown.
Amal told her brother that Bin Laden had become “filled with regrets” about the life he had chosen for himself and his progeny in his declining years. He urged them to go to university in America or Europe and to live peacefully rather than pursue jihad.
“You have to study,” he is said to have told them. “Live in peace and don’t do what I am doing or what I have done.”
In keeping with his wish for the children to be well educated, Khairiah, a child psychologist, and Siham, an Arabic teacher, turned one room on the ground floor of the house into a classroom with a whiteboard. But they had few toys.
Sadah said that although he had taken the children presents in Islamabad, none of them understood how to play.
Before leaving the compound with the bodies of Bin Laden and Khalid, the Seals secured the hysterical women and children with plastic ties. Minutes later Pakistani policemen arrived, followed by the army and ISI, and they were detained.
Sadah said that when he was reunited with his sister in a meeting authorised by Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, it was the first time he had seen her since she had married Bin Laden. He had never met his nephews and nieces but said the trauma they had endured was written all over their faces.
For the first two months he visited his sister once a week and spoke regularly to her on the telephone.
“I did not see where she was living as we were always brought to a neutral location. I was told the address and would arrive to find my sister and the children waiting, surrounded by armed guards,” he said.
The Pakistan authorities assured Sadah’s sister that she was safe: “\ told me they had said it would be beneficial to remain in Pakistan. She was warned that if she went back to Yemen or elsewhere the CIA might come after her, kidnap her.”
In particular, ISI officials told her she could become “another Aafia Siddiqui”, a reference to a Pakistani neuroscientist who was arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of links to Al-Qaeda. She was shot and wounded after allegedly grabbing a gun during her interrogation and was sentenced by a US court to 86 years in prison.
As for the children, Sadah said that having been starved of attention for seven months, they had quickly warmed to their new uncle.
“I did not want to remind them about all the bad things they have experienced but I just went to see them with a smile on my face,” he said. “I have tried to be positive but they are very miserable. They have never had a normal life. They do not know what it is like to see the sun and to run around a garden. It breaks my heart to see them.”
They had missed out on any normality up to now, he said: “They know what it is to have fear. But they do not know what it is to be happy.”
For the past four weeks Sadah has been denied access. Last Thursday he submitted an appeal to Iftikar Muhammed Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan, to release the family.
Later that day he was finally allowed to speak to the family on the telephone. “The children were crying and they were asking, ‘When will you come for us? We miss you so much — please don’t leave us’.
I just told them I will come to take you soon and we will all go back home.”
He added: “I have tried to call the interior minister and other authorities but nobody will talk to me. My sister and the children have done nothing wrong. She may be Osama’s wife but she is a typical Yemeni wife. She has had no part in what her husband has done and should not be punished for that.”