Al-Qaeda in Yemen pushes for return of bin Laden's wife

It was early in September 1999 that Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismael, a Yemeni sheikh in his early 20s working as a preacher and a leading member of al-Qaeda in Kabul, received the most important phone call of his life. Osama bin Laden had decided to marry for the fifth time and had charged Rashad, one of his closest aides, with the important task of finding him the right woman.

The aide listened carefully as bin Laden described to him his desired spouse: “She must be pious, dutiful, young [preferably aged 16 to 18], well mannered, from a decent family, but above all patient. She will have to endure my exceptional circumstances.”

Luckily he knew just the right girl: Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, the 17-year-old daughter of a civil servant and a former student of his, was, according to Ismael, “the perfect match” for the al-Qaeda leader, then 44.

Now, just over 10 years later, Ismael, who describes himself as a staunch supporter of al-Qaeda in Yemen, is fighting for Al-Sadah and her daughter, who are being detained by Pakistani authorities, to be brought back home in the wake of bin Laden’s death.

“We have a strong practice in Islam called ardth [family honour],” he said. “When a woman like Amal is widowed, it is a duty upon all Muslims to look after her and ensure her safety. All the Yemeni people want her to come home.” Others fear that if Al-Sadah is brought back to Yemen she may be handed over by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the Americans for further questioning.

Any attempts by the United States to hurt Al-Sadah or any of bin Laden’s family, Ismael said, “will cause an explosion between the West and the Islamic world. Women are not warriors. America knew that bin Laden never used women to participate in his battles.”

In 2000 Ismael returned to his home town of Ibb, a verdant city in Yemen’s south-west, to make the necessary arrangements. He went to the woman first, explaining to her who bin Laden was, what he was like and how he moved from one place to another pursued by the Americans. After she “dutifully accepted” bin Laden’s offer, a dowry of $5 000 was wired to Al-Sadah’s family, triggering a bout of pre-marriage celebrations in preparation for the young woman’s departure for Afghanistan.

The matchmaker, Al-Sadah and her elder brother left Yemen for Pakistan, first to Karachi, and then to Quetta, where they stayed for a few days until bin Laden sent some guards to pick her up and take her into Afghanistan. The wedding ceremony, which took place in Kandahar, then the heart of the Taliban’s operations, was an all-male affair, carried out in traditional Yemeni fashion. The men sang and danced and a lamb was slaughtered at bin Laden’s feet as distinguished guests recited poetry and sang songs written for the occasion.

Today Ismael believes the fate of bin Laden’s family, especially his wives, is as important to al-Qaeda as bin Laden’s death—if not more so.

“We [al-Qaeda in Yemen] received the news of bin Laden’s death with happiness because we knew it was his aim to die as a martyr at the hands of the Americans. But the question of his relatives is one of women’s honour, something we consider untouchable.”

With bin Laden’s death, some officials believe the Yemen-based affiliate, which is autonomous and more internationally active than the old core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, may now represent the gravest threat to the US.

Yemen’s weak central governance, rugged terrain and widespread poverty has gifted militants significant elbow room over the past few months in tracts of the southeast where they have been able to thrive despite a barrage of air strikes and raids by Saleh’s US-trained counterterrorism forces.

But despite the group’s own near-daily assaults on Yemeni security forces, local experts insist that al-Qaeda remains a marginal group with a few hundred hardcore fighters hiding out in the mountainous provinces of Marib and Shabwa.

A week ago the US launched a missile strike from a drone on a village close to Ismael’s village, incinerating a car, with two alleged al-Qaeda militants. US and Yemeni officials later claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual guru of al-Qaeda in Yemen, had been the intended target but that he had evaded the missile. Ismael said he anticipates further US strikes on Yemeni soil in the near future. “The policy of the Arab world rulers has lost them the sovereignty of their countries. All constitutions and laws have been sacrificed,” he said.

“The Americans will continue to bomb us because Saleh’s regime no longer controls anything and will use anything to gain support and stay in power.” When asked about the size of the organisation in Yemen and its support base, Ismael replied: “Al-Qaeda is a complicated web that has no end or beginning.

“This is not an organisation with application letters and a database. Those who want to join al-Qaeda receive standard religious lessons and basic military training; after that they’re considered members.”—

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