The family life of Osama bin Laden is a complex matter with many murky corners. Even the numbers of wives and children that the Al Qaeda leader had before his death in 2011 are open to debate. He almost certainly had five wives, and possibly a sixth, while the number of children varies between 20 and 26 from source to source.
Of course, it’s hardly surprising that Osama’s private life is hard to pin down, since he and most of his family lived as fugitives after the 9/11 atrocity. In fact, life on the run started the day before 9/11, with Osama clearly aware that he would be a hunted man after the events in the U.S. had unfolded.
So it was on September 10, 2001, that the bulk of Osama’s family at the time – some wives had already been divorced by then – were packed aboard a clapped out bus with a permitted luggage allowance of a single suitcase each. This journey started in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and after a 400-mile trek was to end at a mud-walled fort on the edge of the Afghani town of Jalalabad, close to the Pakistani border.
Osama himself subsequently disappeared with his older sons. Meanwhile, the party left behind in Jalalabad included a couple of bin Laden’s daughters. One of them – 14-year-old Khadija – had just had a baby. She had been married for two years at the time. Another baby present in the compound was Osama’s by Amal, his youngest wife.
Although Osama was a strict patriarch, there had been dissent within the family in the lead-up to 9/11. Osama had married his first wife, Najwa, in 1974 when he was just 17. And she had given him no less than 11 children. One of them, Omar, was seen by Osama as his heir apparent. But the teenage Omar was not enamored with this role.
Although for obvious reasons the forthcoming 9/11 attack was shrouded in secrecy, rumors of a mission called the “Planes Operation” had circulated freely in Kandahar. It seems that Omar learnt about the operation, and he was certainly disillusioned with the violent life of the jihadi. It was a role that he’d been training for since the age of 14.
In fact, it was the Planes Operation that made up Omar’s mind. He now decided that he wanted to break with his father once and for all. He subsequently begged his mother Najwa to leave with him. But Najwa had always obeyed her husband and was unable to change that habit.
Omar nonetheless made good on his vow to flee from his father. In 2017 The Guardian quoted Omar as recalling, “[My father’s] violent path had separated us forever.” Moreover, Omar’s mother was soon to follow suit, finally escaping Osama and going back to her native Syria. It was the end of a 26-year marriage to Osama, who was also her first cousin.
Najwa’s exit may well have been connected to the fact that Osama had just taken another wife in June 2000. His new bride was Amal al-Sadeh, who was just 18. Even more importantly for the future of the bin Laden dynasty, his chosen heir Omar had flown the nest. So, who would take Omar’s place?
For the moment, the question was moot. Osama disappeared after 9/11, and even most of his family didn’t know where he was. Then, dramatically, he appeared at the Jalalabad compound in November 2001. He told his family to get ready for another move, this time to his farm near Tora Bora, the Al Qaeda mountain hideout close to the border with Pakistan.
Two of Osama’s sons would accompany him to the caves of Tora Bora, while his four other sons would stay with the women and children. Then Osama disappeared again following a massive U.S. assault on the Tora Bora, an attack that he managed to escape.
The wives and children had by now fled to Pakistan. However, that was no longer felt to be a safe haven, as the Pakistani government had agreed to join the U.S. “War on Terror.” As a result, it was eventually decided that the family should travel to Iran.
On the face of it, the choice of Iran as a sanctuary was a highly improbable one. Don’t forget that Al Qaeda and Osama were Sunni Muslims, while the Iranian ayatollahs were Shias. But the Iranians accepted the bin Ladens as refugees on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Consequently, anyone who opposed the U.S. was potentially welcome in Iran.
But life in Iran for bin Laden’s wives and children was characterized by hardship and uncertainty. Elements within the Iranian regime were turning on each other. However, one faction in particular was keen to help al Qaeda. This was the Quds Force, a sinister group within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Quds established a refugee camp for fleeing Al Qaeda members, and some of Osama’s family ended up there. While at the camp, there was some clandestine contact between Osama – who was now at a hideout in Pakistan – and his son Hamza. According to The Guardian, in 2002 Osama wrote to Hamza, “Suffice it to say that I am full of grief and sighs. Pardon me, my son, but I can only see a very steep path ahead.”
At one point, the Iranian government, upon discovering the Al Qaeda refugee camp that had been kept secret by Quds, offered to hand its occupants over to the U.S. in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and diplomatic recognition. But the offer was rejected out of hand by the Bush administration.
The years passed in Iran, with the bin Laden family growing as more children were born to Osama’s sons. The bin Ladens were held as prisoners by the Iranian regime, but in 2008 Osama’s son Saad escaped, determined to join his father in Pakistan. However, Saad was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan the following year.
Saad could have perhaps been another candidate to succeed his father in an Al Qaeda leadership role. But now he was dead. And after his death came the 2011 raid on Osama’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Osama and his son Khalid were killed during the U.S. special forces operation.
It was to be another of Osama’s sons, Hamza, who would eventually take on his father’s mantle. Hamza’s first known communication confirming his new role came in 2015. The BBC reported that the message, disseminated through social media, called on Al Qaeda followers “in Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza to wage jihad, or holy war, on Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv.”
Other members of bin Laden’s family settled in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In his 2009 book, Growing Up Bin Laden, Omar wrote, “As the son of Osama bin Laden, I am truly sorry for all the terrible things that have happened, the innocent lives that have been destroyed, the grief that still lingers in many hearts.”