US Special Forces recovered thousands of messages exchanged between members of al-Qaida during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011; many ended: ‘destroy after reading.’ There was also a 220-page handwritten document inaccurately described by the CIA as bin Laden’s ‘journal’: for the most part, it is a transcription of family discussions during the last two months of bin Laden’s life. It gives us a lot of information about the contribution of bin Laden’s family – especially some of its female members – to his public statements. The most closely involved were his third wife, Siham, and their daughters, Mariam and Sumayya. He asked them, for example, to ‘start thinking about the public statement’ he wanted to release in response to the Arab Spring, and ‘to put together the ideas’ that should be included. Sumayya pushes her father to think whether the Arab Spring might undermine the need for jihad. A couple of pages later, we read what seem likely to be the thoughts of Mariam, who probably transcribed the document, on the ‘new vision’ of al-Qaida that her father was planning to announce on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Bin Laden had four wives: Najwa, Khairiah, Siham and Amal (he was divorced from a fifth). Najwa left Afghanistan days before the 9/11 attacks to go to Syria, but the other wives were with him when he was killed. His second wife, Khairiah Sabar, who had a PhD and taught deaf-mute children before her marriage in 1985, also fled Afghanistan in 2001, taking her son Hamza along with six of bin Laden and Najwa’s children to Iran, where they were arrested and detained. In 2010 Khairiah and Hamza were freed and ushered towards Waziristan. Al-Qaida operated in the area, but there was heavy surveillance by US drones, and it took a while to organise safe passage – for Khairiah, first of all – to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
When bin Laden found out that Khairiah had arrived in Waziristan, he sent her several letters, on one occasion enclosing ‘a modest gift to keep you warm’, and on another ‘dried dates from our home country’. He also sent her ‘everything I have on my computer so that you may contribute to the public statements that we are preparing to release on the occasion of the tenth anniversary … of the blessed attacks on New York and Washington.’ Bin Laden wanted them to ‘exploit the media value of the 9/11 attacks to recall the victories that Muslims accomplished’. He told her that he had sent money ‘to the brother at your end to buy you a laptop, its accessories and USBs on which you can send me your letters, including other writings and suggestions that you have for me, such as ideas I should include in the public statements’.
On 11 February 2011 Khairiah arrived in Abbottabad: on the same day the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned (‘the worst dictator’, Khairiah wrote to her son, who was still in Waziristan). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her recent arrival, Khairiah’s contribution to the public statements was minimal, though a few of her suggestions are recorded in the lengthy document in which the family’s discussions were transcribed.
Bin Laden’s third wife, Siham bint Abdallah bin Husayn, accepted his marriage proposal on the condition that she could continue her education: she completed a PhD in Quranic grammar after their marriage. The Abbottabad papers contain letters she sent to the wives of other jihadis, consoling them for the loss of their husbands or sons, and urging them to remain steadfast. ‘I pray to God, the Exalted, the All-Capable. May He strengthen the jihadis so that they can break the necks of the infidels and the tyrants,’ she wrote. She also wrote numerous letters to her son-in-law, Abdallah al-Halabi, after her daughter Khadija died giving birth to her fourth child in 2007.
Siham saw Khadija as ‘the first martyr’ in the bin Laden family. One of her letters includes a poem:
Khadija is my sister, my friend, my companion
She was the first to utter the dearest word [i.e. mother]
Oh the sorrow of losing my Khadija
If only I could give birth to you, my Khadija, one more time
She told al-Halabi to tell her relatives in Saudi Arabia of Khadija’s death, and to ‘send them the following words from me’:
Blood has been shed in our family
Now that Khadija is among the martyrs
Felicitation and tidings to her family
Praise the Lord for this gift
The poem went on to shame men who did not take up jihad:
Our women and children are facing the upheaval of the battlefield
While some men are cowardly and servile
Siham’s letters show that she spent many hours on her husband’s public pronouncements. One to Khadija began: ‘I write this letter in haste, I am busy with your father working on the public statements.’ In another to her son-in-law she wrote: ‘I was preoccupied with the drafting of the public statements until I was exhausted and fell asleep.’ Siham was familiar with the activities of her husband’s associates in Waziristan, but she did not correspond with them directly. Al-Qaida allowed married women to write only to their husbands, and to male relatives whom it would be unlawful for them to marry (son, father or brother). Siham therefore sent instructions to al-Qaida leaders in Waziristan through her son-in-law, al-Halabi. In one letter she stressed the urgency of getting a letter by bin Laden on ‘the threat of Iran’ and the plight of his family there to his brother Bakr in Saudi Arabia. Siham also tried to involve her own family in Saudi Arabia in helping to arrange the release of ‘the children from Iran’. She gave al-Halabi her brothers’ phone numbers and asked for them to use whatever influence they had.Siham donated her dowry to the Afghan jihad, and seems to have continued to finance jihad from Abbottabad. Around 2005, she wrote to Khadija, urging her to write to her uncle ‘in your own handwriting’, and ‘notify him that I am in urgent need of 100,000 euros of my own money that he is holding for me.’
Amal Ahmed al-Sada, bin Laden’s fourth wife, a Yemeni, who married him in 2000 when she was 17 and had much less formal education than his other wives, barely features in the Abbottabad papers. No writings by or about her were recovered, although her children are mentioned affectionately in Khairiah and Siham’s letters. Amal’s eldest child, Safiyya, homeschooled Khadija’s son after Khadija died.
Mariam and Sumayya hardly had time to write to family members, ‘busy’ as they were ‘with the public statements’, and their mother often apologised on their behalf. Khairiah’s letters to Hamza shower them with praise for their work on their father’s behalf. One of the documents found in the compound was a letter Sumayya wrote at the age of 13 to Khadija, whom she had not seen in five years. Drawing on Muslim historical figures imprisoned for refusing to ‘profess falsehood’ against Islam, Sumayya assured her sister that the pain of their separation was one that true believers must suffer. Jihadis, she reminded Khadija, were still ‘enduring various forms of torture in the prisons of Arab and Western tyrants’, and ‘our problems, my sister, pale in comparison with their tribulations.’ She prayed that Khadija’s sons would grow up to become jihadis – there is ‘no better or more noble path’. In the long document that gives an account of the family discussions, Sumayya, by then aged 19, tells her father that ‘people await your position about the West’s intervention in Libya.’ They were discussing what bin Laden’s response to the Arab Spring should be. ‘The Libyans are sensitive to criticism,’ bin Laden replied. ‘They have a fanaticism akin to that between tribes, the eastern Libyans are one thing, while the western Libyans are something else. Fanaticism is severe among these two factions, I have not seen anything like it. That is why we should be careful in our discussions with the Libyan brothers.’ Bin Laden had another problem: jihadi leaders had consistently pointed to the West’s support of Muslim dictators, yet in Libya the West intervened in support of the people against the dictator. When the peaceful demonstrations that started in February 2011 escalated into violence, and Libyan government forces launched airstrikes against the protesters, the UN passed Resolution 1973 authorising ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians’, and leading to a military operation under Nato command. ‘This is a very difficult position,’ bin Laden admitted, conceding that the ‘people rejoiced’ at the intervention. Jihadis, he told Sumayya, ‘have no option but to remain silent’.
Sumayya worried that al-Qaida’s lack of involvement in the Arab Spring would be noticed. She pushed her father: ‘some points need to be addressed,’ she told him. ‘What are the negative and positive effects on the jihadis as a result of these revolutions? It is possible,’ she warned, ‘that some among the new generation will believe that political change could occur without jihad’. Bin Laden admitted the organisation’s political and operational impotence: ‘We are now somewhat constrained, our capacities are limited, and we have problems with the rank and file,’ as well as being weakened by ‘the multitude of deaths among the brothers’. He seems to have appreciated his daughter’s contribution. ‘Sumayya co-authored the statements,’ it says in the document. Siham was also proud of her daughter, and in one of her poems describes Sumayya as having ‘erected an edifice in Islam that would last until the End of Days’.
Sumayya’s older sister, Mariam, brought up Khadija’s four children. After Khadija’s death, her widower had been remarried to Mariam, but he was killed before the marriage was consummated; they never even exchanged letters. She also seems to have been responsible for transcribing the lengthy document containing the family discussions, and appears to have contributed some of her own thoughts on what should be included in the statement on the future of al-Qaida that bin Laden was preparing to release on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He planned to announce ‘a new phase to correct the mistakes we made … and reclaim the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis’. He wanted to bring the ‘brothers’ in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa into al-Qaida, though they had first to agree that only elite al-Qaida teams would carry out large-scale attacks against the US and its interests. But he was struggling to persuade them to cease their attacks and concentrate instead on winning public support. ‘An idea occurred to me concerning the new vision,’ Mariam wrote. ‘The message to the brothers should be based on God’s Word in the Quran’: namely, that ‘God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.’ She hoped that this verse would lead the ‘brothers’ to comply with ‘a programme for the life of the organisation with respect to ideas, politics, social and economic issues’.
She also contributed to his statement on the Arab Spring. In a draft, bin Laden claimed that it could be traced back to something he’d said in 2004, that ‘rulers should be made accountable.’ Mariam replaced this with a paragraph congratulating the umma on its successes, fearing perhaps that the protesters who toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen would mock bin Laden for taking the credit for their actions. The new version of the statement was audio-recorded in the early hours of 27 April. After the family listened to it, they decided it should be recorded again, feeling that it would benefit from more ‘solidarity with the umma’ and needed to be more explicit about ‘al-Qaida’s politics concerning the revolutions’. Someone added that it was best to avoid recording late at night, ‘because the fatigue is transparent in the voice’. US Special Forces raided the compound before they had a chance to amend the statement.
The last discussion noted in the document took place hours before the raid on the compound at 1 a.m. on 1 May. During that session, bin Laden said that he had told ‘Khalid and I shall say the same to Hamza that it is not appropriate to make a public appearance unless it is carefully executed’. If his sons were to assume a public role, their statements needed to be ‘precise and significant’ and should ‘serve as a signpost for the future they are seeking to establish … We shall not release public statements for Hamza or Khalid,’ he went on, ‘unless we are in a position that would allow us to sustain it on a regular basis and to have a high standard.’
Bin Laden’s wives and daughters were excluded from leadership on grounds of their gender, but their brothers were unsuitable for other reasons. Siham’s son, Khalid, doesn’t seem to have had his sisters’ intelligence. Khairiah’s letters say that he made ‘some contributions’ to his father’s work, and ‘in addition to his interest in raising chickens, he also has a cow that has a one-month-old calf.’ He was, she writes, waiting ‘for the security situation to improve so that he could leave to get married’. He wanted ‘a good wife who is a virgin, with good character, religious, compliant, around twenty years old’. His letters show his commitment to jihad, but his main task, he wrote in one letter, was ‘working with my father on video and audio recording’. (He admitted that he was producing ‘poor quality video’ and would welcome advice.) According to the Navy Seal who shot bin Laden, the CIA analyst who had worked on his file for years told them they should expect Khalid to be ‘armed and ready, his father’s last line of defence’. Khalid was indeed in the compound. It wasn’t hard for the Seals to locate him: one of them whispered his name, and Khalid responded ‘What?’ He was shot before his father.
Hamza was 13 when he last saw his father. Reports of a special bond between Hamza and bin Laden, that Hamza was being groomed by his father to become his heir, and that they corresponded when Hamza was detained in Iran, are not supported in the Abbottabad papers. When Khairiah was released from Iran, bin Laden asked her to brief him on their son’s abilities. (Her letters to bin Laden were not recovered, so we don’t know what she said.) Hamza was by then already a husband: he’d married at the age of 17 while under house arrest in Iran. The letters to his father that Khairiah delivered when she arrived in Abbottabad in 2011 express a desire to ‘serve religion’, ‘to receive training in one of the military camps’ and ‘to fight God’s enemies’, but they don’t show leadership potential: they are long on sentiment but short on vision or strategy.
When Khairiah saw the writing abilities of Hamza’s half-sisters, it was immediately apparent to her that her son had some work to do to catch up. ‘The issue to which you need to devote your attention the most,’ she wrote to Hamza, ‘is to read and listen to all your father’s public statements. This way, when God facilitates our reunion, you will be on the same page as the group here.’ He may well have been on his way to Abbottabad when the Seals raided the compound.
In 2015 the al-Qaida leadership decided to use Hamza to deliver public statements, concluding that the son of Osama bin Laden was their best chance to compete with Islamic State, which had eclipsed al-Qaida. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, introduced Hamza’s first statement with a fanfare: ‘I present to you the lion, son of the lion; the jihadi, son of the jihadi.’ Hamza’s five-part video series on the Saudi ruling family is more reminiscent stylistically of al-Zawahiri than of his father. The statements are like stilted undergraduate lectures and would have benefited from the advice of his aunt Siham and his half-sisters Mariam and Sumayya. Last September, Donald Trump announced that Hamza had been killed in a US operation; al-Qaida hasn’t confirmed his death. Saudi Arabia allowed the survivors of the Abbottabad raid to return there, and it is reported that Siham, Khairiah, Mariam and Sumayya live in Jeddah. It’s probable that their movements are closely monitored by the government, and to borrow a line from one of Khairiah’s letters, their writings are now unlikely to be ‘broadcast on television’.