The XX Factor

What Really Happened with Bin Laden’s Wives?

Photo by AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The early reports following the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound said that he had used his one of his wives as a “human shield.” This turned out to be false—no one was used as a human shield and Osama’s fifth wife, a young Yemeni woman named Amal Al-Sadah, survived the raid. In this week’s New Yorker, Nicholas Schmidle has the most complete accounting of the infamous Abbottabad raid that I’ve read to date. Within this gripping narrative, we finally find out which of Osama’s wives were present, and how the terrorists’ final moments went down:

The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside. He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest.

A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” After a pause, he added, “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—“enemy killed in action.”

According to Schmidle, even after she was placed in handcuffs, Amal continued yelling at the SEALs until they flew away. Who knows what will happen with these women—and their children—now that they are outside the cloistered life of that compound. In 2003, Amal allegedly told an Arabic weekly that she wasn’t worried about her children “because we accept what is written and fated by God Almighty.” I wonder if she still feels that way now.