Osama bin Laden once gave his wives the option of leaving Afghanistan, but his young Yemeni bride was determined to stay and be “martyred” alongside him.
The pledge early in her marriage to the terror leader, recounted by her family, reflected the determination of Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, now 29, to rise above her divorced mother’s social standing.
It came, they said, before the September 11 2001 attacks and the decade-long manhunt that ended May 2 when United States commandos killed the al-Qaeda leader in a raid on his compound in Pakistan.
Amal al-Sada was shot in the leg as she rushed the Navy Seals, according to United States officials. She is now in Pakistani custody, along with her daughter and two other Bin Laden wives, according to Pakistani officials, who say they eventually will be repatriated.
Amal al-Sada’s family told the Associated Press (AP) that they saw her only once after her marriage in late 1999 to the al-Qaeda leader — during a month-long visit to Afghanistan the following year. Communication was largely limited to messages delivered by couriers.
The interviews with AP took place in the family’s apartment in a two-story structure made of white, black and red rocks in Ibb, an agricultural town nestled in the mountains about 16km south of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Shops occupy the ground floor.
The family portrayed Amal al-Sada as a simple but determined and “courageous” young woman, religiously conservative but not fundamentalist. She was a high school dropout but was eager for knowledge and to realise something more than their modest life seemed to offer.
‘Destiny from God’
Amal al-Sada always told her friends and family that she wanted to “go down in history”, recalled her cousin, Waleed Hashem Abdel-Fatah al-Sada.
The door for fame opened in 1999 when her older sister’s husband arrived at her uncle’s home with a proposal. A Saudi named Osama bin Laden was looking for a bride.
Joining Dr Mohammed Ghalib al-Baany — her sister Farah’s husband — was a man named Rashad Mohammed Saeed, also known as Abu al-Fedaa. They were both friends of Bin Laden, the family said.
Her uncle, Hashem al-Sada, recalled telling Amal al-Sada that he knew Bin Laden was from a “devout and respectable family” in Saudi Arabia but didn’t know them personally. He told the AP that he wasn’t aware Bin Laden “was wanted by the Americans” for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“The choice is yours,” the uncle said he told her. “It’s your future.”
He said his niece’s response was direct: “This is destiny from God, and I accept it.”
The fact that she hadn’t met Bin Laden, whose family was of Yemeni origin, was of little concern. Most marriages in Yemen are conducted either through intermediaries or through the selection of the prospective spouse through a picture.
This marriage was no different.
No easy trip
Weeks after the proposal, the uncle signed the marriage contract as her guardian and Abu al-Fedaa signed on behalf of Bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader arranged for $5 000 to be paid to the bride’s family, according to Yemeni traditions.
After two wedding parties, including one in a Sana’a hotel, Amal al-Sada left Yemen. Accompanied by Abu al-Fedaa, she flew to Dubai and then to Pakistan, before making the trip to Afghanistan to meet her bridegroom.
Her father, Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, said they later learned through a courier that she had given birth to a daughter named Safiya.
Members of the family then went to Afghanistan to visit Amal al-Sada and the baby. Although they said the visit took place before the 9/11 attacks, this would be no easy trip.
They spent more than 20 days in a hotel in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, under the watchful gaze of fighters loyal to Bin Laden, according to the father. Among them were two men who had been on the same flight from Yemen.
One night, he said, a car took them to the Afghan border. Then came a six- or seven-hour ride in another vehicle until they reached a large tent guarded by mujahedin. Inside the tent was an opening to an underground passageway. They walked in the passageway for about 30 minutes before emerging on the other side. Then another vehicle took them to Bin Laden’s cave, according to his account.
The father said he was greeted by his daughter. The following morning Bin Laden arrived along with other al-Qaeda leaders and Afghan tribal officials. There was a celebration honouring the Yemeni family’s arrival, complete with a 21-gun salute and a lavish lunch attended by dozens of people.
Bin Laden was a “kind and noble” man, the father recalled. He described the al-Qaeda leader as “easygoing and modest, giving you the feeling that he was sincere”.
‘I won’t leave as long as you’re alive’
The father recalled Bin Laden apologising for the family’s delay in Pakistan, saying it was a security matter out of his control.
On the final day of the visit, the cousin recalled Bin Laden telling his two wives — the other one at the time was from Syria — that they could either stay with him in Afghanistan or return to their home countries.
He said Amal al-Sada quickly put the matter to rest.
“I want to be martyred with you and I won’t leave as long as you’re alive,” he recalls her saying. Even when Bin Laden told them that he was “subject at any moment to death”, Amal al-Sada cut him short. “I’ve made my decision,” she said.
Amal al-Sada’s cousin recalled her describing Bin Laden as a “noble” man who treated her well.
“It’s true that my life is one of moving between caves in Afghanistan, but despite the bitterness of this life … I’m comfortable with Osama,” she apparently told her father.
Bin Laden is believed to have spent most of his time during this period in a house in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar but was known to have visited al-Qaeda training camps in remote areas. He went into hiding after the September 11 attacks.
‘A big event that will occur in the world’
Amal al-Sada’s uncle said the terror leader complained about Arab leaders, particularly Sudan President Oman al-Bashir, who he said “sold him for nothing”, a reference to Bin Laden being forced to leave Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996.
According to the uncle, Bin Laden said he was the focus of several “assassination” attempts by Arab and US intelligence services, including airstrikes, and that one mosque in which he was delivering a sermon was struck by a cruise missile.
“I was injured … and a lot of people were killed,” Bin Laden reportedly said. “But I was spared from death because God wished it.”
In August 1998 the US fired cruise missiles at four militant training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden was believed to have been at one of the camps but left a few hours before the attack.
The cousin said Bin Laden told the family during their visit to Afghanistan “of a big event that will occur in the world”.
Later, when the cousin and Amal al-Sada’s father were listening to news of the 9/11 attacks, the father said: “Osama Bin Laden did it.” — Sapa-AP