The XX Factor

The Mrs. Bin Ladens

More details have emerged this morning on who was  inside the Abbottabad* complex where Osama Bin Laden was killed on Sunday. The White House has corrected an  erroneous earlier statement from official John Brennan , who said that the woman who died in the gunfight was Bin Laden’s wife, and that he’d used her as a human shield. A wife of Bin Laden’s  was injured but not killed , they’ve now clarified; it was “another guy’s wife” who died, according to the White House official who provided reporters an updated briefing last night. The official further said that he didn’t think any woman had been used as a shield.  According to Pakistani intelligence as relayed by the BBC (with a grain of salt), survivors of the attack included a Bin Laden wife, a daughter of 12 or 13 who saw her father get shot, and eight or nine children of unidentified parentage; they’d been in the compound for “several months.” ( Time reports, via Leon Panetta , that the Bin Laden family had in fact probably been in the compound since 2005.)

The human shield detail was seized on so eagerly yesterday perhaps because it seemed a fittingly monstrous an end to Bin Laden’s life. But the narrative wasn’t quite so neatly tied up after all-and neither was Bin Laden’s relationship with his wives quite so black-and-white, at least as portrayed in the 2009 book co-written by his first wife and fourth son, Omar,  Growing Up Bin Laden , alongside biographer Jean Sasson.

It’s a rather reticent account. I kept waiting for the dramatic turn in which Najwa renounced the husband she’d left shortly before 9/11. It never came. The exact reasons she left her husband remain a little murky: pressure from her son, worry about her children’s safety, her husband’s increasing distraction from family life. Never, though, does she say clearly that she found anything morally repugnant about the terrorism network he’d built. She writes: “I was not seeking a divorce. In fact, on the morning I was leaving, I presented my husband with a round ring, a token of our years together.”

Najwa participated in the book at the request of Omar, who has publicly renounced his father. But she herself didn’t want to “hurt” Osama, according to the ghostwriter. Instead, she offers up a series of domestic details from the initially “sun-drenched” marriage that started when she was 15: Osama’s timidness (“shyer than a ‘virgin under the veil’”) the zucchini dish that was Bin Laden’s favorite, the care he took with his appearance.

Najwa also discusses her initial resistance to Osama’s desire to take another wife. Eventually, it was his argument that he wanted more children to carry on the Muslim faith that convinced her.  He’d take several more wives throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s-two teachers from Jeddah, the sister of one of the men he’d fought with in Afghanistan, an unidentified woman with whom the unconsummated  marriage was annulled after 48 hours, and Amal Al-Sadah, the  Yemeni wife presumed to be with him in the compound-and would father anywhere between 19 and 26 children, according to various accounts. Two of his wives even went into labor at the same time, with Bin Laden speeding them both to the hospital in his beloved Mercedes.

While Omar Bin Laden is less kindly toward Osama, he admits that “I never heard him shout at his mother, his sisters, my mother, or my sisters. I never saw him strike a woman. He reserved all the harsh treatment for his sons.” But Osama didn’t totally treat them delicately; at one point, after he’d moved the family to Khartoum, Bin Laden had his daughters and wives join in survival training, and he even taught them how to use guns, convinced they might need the skill to protect themselves. His second wife divorced him during this period.

Najwa isn’t the only Bin Laden wife who offered an account of life with the terrorist. In 2002, the pseudonymous A.S., rumored to be the Yemeni bride who was also probably the woman wounded on Sunday, told London-based Arabic-language weekly Al-Majallah that she didn’t know about the 9/11 attacks and Bin Laden didn’t talk to her about the embassy bombings even after the fact, though he talked about the U.S. as enemy No. 1 constantly. Separated from him at the time, she said, “I feel deep inside me that he is still alive.” It’s an odd thing to consider the domestic life of a man who was such a force for evil in the world-and even odder to ponder the loyalty his wives, through whatever combination of personal connection and cultural mores, seemed to feel for him.

Photograph of a woman in an abaya by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

* Correction, May 3, 2011 : Abbottabad was misspelled in the original version of this post.