reporting & essays Excerpt

One Night In Abbottabad

An inside view of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden

1 May 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad, Pakistan

After eating dinner and clearing away the plates, Osama bin Laden’s family prayed, before he and Amal—his fourth and youngest wife—went to bed. Amal carried two-year-old Hussein, their youngest son, while Osama cradled his Quran. By 11 pm, the emir of Al Qaeda was deep in sleep in his compound nestled in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Outside, the streets were plunged into darkness as the electricity went out all over the city.

Power shortages were so common that no one in the “Waziristan Palace” noticed. Locals had given Osama’s house the nickname, gossiping that the high-walled compound into which no one could see must have been erected by wealthy tribal merchants, living by a writ of purdah preferred in conservative tribal regions like Waziristan.

Just past midnight, Amal woke, her head buzzing with worries about their future. Something caught her ear: a thrumming up above. Chop, chop chop. It sounded like a storm and she thought she glimpsed a shadow passing across the curtained balcony window. The noise was too mechanical to be thunder, and she looked across to her husband for reassurance. Occasionally, Pakistan Air Force helicopters passed overhead—but never in the middle of the night. It became more powerful, swirling the air and the yellow flowered curtains at the windows.

Osama sat up in bed with a fearful look on his face. Whatever was out there was too slow to be a drone and too fast to be something innocuous. Amal clutched him. The object that had been hovering above swung violently to the right and then the sound panned to the left. They both jumped as a sickening screech tore through the compound. The walls of the house shuddered. To Amal, it sounded like “something extremely heavy and metallic crashing down.”

As the noise became a grinding sound, they crept through the darkness to the balcony door. “It was a moonless night and difficult to see,” Amal recalled. From the window the thing they could hear could not be seen.

Out of sight, 150 feet away to the west, a US military Black Hawk had ditched in the yard, its tail fin bent out of shape from slamming down onto the perimeter wall. Now, its rotors churned up soil and stones in a vegetable patch tended by Khalid, Osama’s ninth son, aged 22.

1 May 2011
Washington DC

In the conference suite across the corridor from the White House Situation Room, President Obama slipped in, announcing that he “should be watching this.” One chopper had dropped out of the sky and to those gathered in the room it looked like a carefully rehearsed mission had already gone catastrophically awry.

For several agonising moments, mission commander Admiral William McRaven, stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, who could see from the chat line that the president was now present, remained silent while he searched for a live update. McRaven had seen choppers go down many times and missions survive the blowout. But those in the room in Washington were panicking. Moments later, Obama saw the SEALs scrambling from both Black Hawks.

“We will now be amending the mission,” McRaven explained calmly.
Team, or “Chalk,” One’s bird was down but the unit was improvising, knowing that they had only 30 minutes to pull it off. Chalk Two’s chopper had deposited its load in a nearby field and was already back in the air. The Chalk Two operators were supposed to guard the perimeter. Now they would have to blast their way through the gate and lead the search for Osama from the ground up.

Just past midnight, 2 May 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

“We opened the doors, and I looked out,” said SEAL operator Robert O’Neill, who was in the chopper that landed in the field. “This is some serious Navy SEAL shit we’re going to do,” he murmured to himself. He liked to narrate his journey, his mind a camera. It was a great way to settle the nerves.

O’Neill’s team pounded across the muddy field toward the compound. There was no sign of the other chopper. “I looked to the left,” he said. “The mock-up had been dead-on. To actually be there and see the house with the three stories, the blacked-out windows, high walls, and barbed wire … just like the satellite photos. I was like, this is really cool I’m here.”

Sohaib Athar, a coffee-shop owner and IT consultant who lived a mile away from Bilal Town, was working late at his computer. He had heard the sound of the arriving Black Hawks, too. “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 AM (is a rare event),” he tweeted as his handle, @ReallyVirtual.

Chalk Two kept circling.

Athar tweeted again. “Go away helicopter—before I take out my giant swatter :-/”

*

Inside the Waziristan Palace, up on the third floor, Hussein, Amal’s two-year-old son, was crying. Amal went to turn on a light, unaware there was a power outage.

“No,” hissed Osama, paralysed by fear. This was not how Amal had imagined her hero behaving in a tight spot.

“Come up!” he called out hoarsely to his son Khalid, one floor down below.

From a second-floor window, Khalid and his mother, Seham, Osama’s third wife, had seen the SEALs sprinting across the field toward them.

Khalid pelted upstairs. “Americans are coming,” he panted, clutching a loaded AK-47 and dressed in his pajamas.

Amal recalled Osama telling her that the last time Khalid had fired a weapon was at the age of 13, about a decade earlier. If the Americans killed Osama’s official guardians, Ibrahim and Abrar Saeed, the so-called al-Kuwaiti brothers, untested Khalid would be his father’s last line of defence.

Amal and Seham went to comfort the younger children, who were crying in their bunk beds. Occasionally, their father had allowed them into his studio to play a bootlegged copy of Delta Force: Xtreme 2, a first-person-shooter video game, but now they were terrified. What should she say to them? Amal thought. They glanced fearfully towards the room belonging to Khairiah, Osama’s second wife. The door was firmly shut.

A blast shook the house as the gate to the annex courtyard was blown open.

Amal now felt certain of something. They had been betrayed by one of their own.

@ReallyVirtual heard it, too: “OMG: Bomb Blasts in Abbottabad. I hope everyone is fine :(.”

*

They should not have been in Abbottabad at all, Amal thought. Months before, Ibrahim and Abrar, who had become live-in caretakers to Osama in 2002 when there had been only one wife and one child to look after, had called a meeting with him to announce that they had had enough. Insensitive Osama had talked over them, revealing that his already oversize family caravan was about to grow even bigger with five new family members joining him: much loved son Hamzah, his wife and two children, and Hamzah’s mother, Khairiah. They had been held in Iran for eight years, taking an offer of sanctuary in late 2001 that by 2003 had turned into a prison sentence. But in August 2010, Tehran had finally agreed to allow them to leave and they had slowly and carefully made their way to Pakistan.

The al-Kuwaiti brothers despaired. Lives were in the balance, Ibrahim retorted. He had just come back from a doctor who had diagnosed him as suffering from terminal cancer. Abrar was suffering from chronic depression. Neither guardian wanted to spend his dying days caring for the Sheikh’s ever-expanding brood.

But Osama would not budge. Al Qaeda had rallied, it was solvent and busy plotting new attacks, and he was not going to be pushed around by his guardians. Did they not understand that he had sacrificed everything and never stolen even a moment for himself?

The al-Kuwaiti brothers looked at each other. “We quit,” Ibrahim finally said.

There had been one last indignity for Osama. Given how much time they had invested in building the Abbottabad villa, and the fact that Abrar’s name was on all the paperwork, the brothers regarded the compound as theirs, they said. They would not be moving out but Osama and his family would have to go. The Al Qaeda emir was being evicted.

On 4 December 2010, a shaken Osama had written to wife two, Khairiah, who was still enroute from Iran: “I have been living for years in the company of some of the brothers of the area and they are getting exhausted—security-wise—from me staying with them.” He had done everything he could to win Ibrahim’s continued support but to no avail. “They are down, and they asked us all to leave,” he revealed. “Our number is large and beyond what they can handle.” But he was in no rush. “It will take a few months to arrange another place.”

Osama was playing for time, hoping that strong-willed Khairiah would arrive quickly. She was the only one with the ability to talk the al-Kuwaiti brothers down, and he needed her vision and organisational skills to help him prepare for the coming tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Osama tried again to make peace with the al-Kuwaiti brothers several days later. “We have been friends on this great path for more than eight years,” he began, choosing a sombre tone. “You have given us a great gift that we will never forget as long as we live,” he tried. He needed a few more weeks. After that, he would move out with his family. They were ready to pack everything and leave. He was pained by their sicknesses. He wanted to reassure them that he was actively seeking a new companion and a new place to live. It might all happen very quickly. He pulled out his Quran: “Help ye one another in righteousness and piety.”

The glum brothers were unimpressed but an agreement was eventually hammered out.

The Sheikh, as they called him, signed a written promise to move out of Abbottabad—and he set the date: shortly after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in September 2011. The property could then be sold, enabling Ibrahim and Abrar to buy retirement homes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The Abbottabad epoch was, in everyone’s minds, almost over. To avoid any further misunderstandings, Osama wrote it all down. “We do appreciate the amount of pressure you have been under and the importance of lessening the pressure.”

Osama then harangued Khairiah to speed up and come quickly, writing to his son Hamzah, asking the same.

Osama penned a job description for the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ successors. Whoever would apply should know that: “We are in two separated houses, inside and out, and we are making our bread by ourselves, and we buy grain wholesale.” Medical needs were minimal as they kept stocks in-house. At most, the adults went out once a year. His son Khalid was the only one in the family who spoke to neighbours and he “knows Pashtu 70 percent and now would endeavour to speak Urdu.”

Early February 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

News came that after six months in transit, wife two, Khairiah, had finally reached Peshawar. Osama was delighted but also now deeply suspicious, wondering why she and their son had been released by the Iranians, and forced to go on a route via Pakistan rather than the Gulf. He worried that his wife was being followed by Iranian intelligence, or that the Quds Force, an Iranian special-forces unit, was working with the CIA. Other family members in Abbottabad shared his fears.

“Please trust me that I am working very hard to live with you,” he wrote to her. But he added: “Did you hear anything that forced them to release you … to Waziristan? We need to know if they intended to send you in this direction so they can follow your movement.”

Even if she had not been co-opted into becoming a spy, they might use her as a dupe.

Had Khairiah had her teeth x-rayed? Had anything shown up in her medical examination, like a tracking chip that, according to son Khalid’s recent research, could be implanted under the skin and be “the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli”? Could she remember the date of her last dental treatment? Or the last time an Iranian doctor had seen her? Osama demanded “every detail to help me from the security point of view.”

Returning to Khairiah’s transportation to Abbottabad, Osama rounded off: “In the coming days the brother will come from our side [Ibrahim].” She should come “if you have finished your treatment and are sure about the security matters that worry you.”

Along with the letter, the Sheikh sent 25,000 Pakistani rupees and a box of Saudi dates to sustain Khairiah on her journey.

Finally, on 12 February 2011, after dark, Khairiah, wrapped up in several dupattas, entered Abbottabad and made it to the Waziristan Palace. As the huge metal gates of the compound opened and swallowed up the white Suzuki jeep carrying her, everyone inside the vehicle exhaled with relief. But inside the building, the other residents were on tenterhooks.

Osama had last seen his wife in September 2001. This was “the beginning of a new era,” Khairiah declared as she greeted family members who lined up to receive her. She kissed the foreheads of grandchildren she had never met. She tried to hug Seham but her sister-wife stiffened.

Seham was as fearful as Osama. Khairiah could be bait—or have been tracked. Was she a traitor? Amal watched in silence as the older woman began bossing everyone about as if she had never been away.

*

Now it was the turn of Hamzah, Khairiah and Osama’s son, to make his way towards Abbottabad. A low-level Al Qaeda brother, released by the Iranians, carried a letter from him, describing his pain at watching the jihad on Al Jazeera without being able to play a part.

“My beloved father, when you left me, my brother Khalid, and my brother [Ladin], at the foot of the mountain, near the olive farm, I could not imagine the length of this bitter separation,” Hamzah wrote. Eight years had passed, with Hamzah stuck in Iran. “My eyes still remember the last time they saw you, when you were under the olive tree and you gave every one of us a Muslim rosary.”

Much was different, not least Hamzah himself. “You might not recognise me when you meet me, as my features have changed.” Still, he cherished the old memories most. “I remember every smile that you smiled, every word that you spoke to me, and every look that you gave me.” But now he needed his father’s wisdom. “I wish that I could see you, if only for a minute, to get your pertinent opinion.”

Hamzah had not wasted his time, he assured his father, but had studied hard with the Mauritanian Mahfouz Ibn al-Walid, an Islamic scholar with ties to Al Qaeda who was being held in Iran. “I have been taught by the learned brothers, one who helps me, directs me, and guides me on the path.” He had married a “pious wife,” Maryam, the daughter of Al Qaeda shura member Abu Mohammed al-Masri. They had two children: “a son who I gave your name Osama and a daughter who I named after [my] mother Khairiah.” As he could not send photographs, he asked for God to “place their image in your eye. He created them to serve you.” Rounding off, he told his father that he ached to join the world of jihad. “We will leave soon, with glorious God’s permission … I consider myself to be forged in steel.”

Osama replied immediately: “We are longing to meet you and hear your news … with God’s permission.” Shortly after, Hamzah was finally on his way, reaching Waziristan, where he was taken in by Al Qaeda field commander Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. A young, wispy-bearded Libyan brother, Atiyah was responsible for maintaining communications between Iran and Pakistan. He had joined Al Qaeda as a teenager and trained under Saif al Adel, the Egyptian head of Al Qaeda’s military command. Loyal and ambitious, Atiya had first come to the leadership’s attention when he lived at the bachelors’ dorm at Tarnak Qila, an old fort outside of Kandahar, in the late 1990s.

When Hamzah arrived in Waziristan, Atiyah soon wrote with news. Over recent weeks, he had got to know Hamzah and liked what he saw. He described the boy to his doting father as being “very sweet and good.” Osama would be pleased to know that his son had wisdom and politeness, was easy-going and warm, and had requested that he receive no special treatment just because he was the son of “someone.”

However, Atiyah was worried that Osama was expecting too much of his son. “Beloved Sheikh, he is a young man who lived years in prison.” Although Hamzah was already asking for military training, Atiyah warned that he needed to spend time getting used to his new environment first. “I calm him down as we pray together…”

In Atiyah’s opinion, Hamzah could become a great mujahid but first needed time to mature. “I promised to plan some safe training for him: firing various weapons. Perhaps I will get to do this in the coming days.” Osama should write “something proper” to him, finding some encouraging words.

Osama wrote to his son. Whatever he did, Hamzah needed to remain hidden inside the Atiyah’s compound, “unless it is absolutely necessary” to go out. If he needed distractions, perhaps he could correspond with his older brother Mohammed, who was thinking of heading to Qatar rather than staying at a safe house in Peshawar. “Write details no one but he is privy to, so that he knows that the letter is in fact written by Hamzah,” Osama instructed via Atiyah.

A few days later, the Sheikh received a reply. “Dear Father, I have a strong desire to meet with you,” Hamzah wrote, adding that now that mujahideen and mountains surrounded him, his urge to join the jihad was stronger than ever. “I would like to come and spend some time with you, after which I will serve the religion. This is my aspiration.” He was eager to receive training. “I need to join the brothers serving in Afghanistan to fight the enemies of Allah.” Until that day came, he felt only frustration, although he was mature enough to understand that Atiyah’s primary concern was his safety. “Bless them, they are very careful, which keeps me from doing anything.” He was caught between needing to learn and wanting to fight. “I do not want to work without planning or security and I do not want to stay without work.”

Atiyah, meanwhile, fretted about transporting Hamzah to Abbottabad. His fears and frustration bubbled over in a letter written to Osama on 5 April: “I am still upset with you about this. I want you to understand my point of view and … deal with the issue without rushing.” Unless they moved carefully, Hamzah could succumb to a drone strike, like his brother Saad, or be picked up by Pakistani security forces. “All I want is for … us to have safety and success,” Atiyah explained, beseeching his leader to remain cautious. “You are his father. He belongs to you. You are our leader, and we will obey you.”

There was another problem. Bored with Atiyah’s “prison,” Hamzah had taken off with Abu Khalil, a brother who taught recruits how to use explosives. Now Atiyah’s charge was in the most dangerous location of all: a designated Al Qaeda training camp. The same thing had happened to Saad before he had been killed by a drone.

Getting Hamzah to the safety of Abbottabad would take guile. But did the Sheikh understand how appalling the security situation really was? Atiyah asked. “Searches on the road have increased and become more intense. This is very dangerous and applies to travel on the highway.” If something were to happen to Hamzah—“God forbid”—then the intermediary who brought him would also be compromised, and Osama, too. “So the danger is multiplied!”

Atiyah had two suggestions: send Hamzah by the mujahideen smuggling route that went from North Waziristan into Khyber Agency, down to the town of Bara, and on to Peshawar, or send him to Quetta, from where he could fly up to Peshawar using an ID card issued for Osama’s son Khalid.

The first option was the most problematic, as Hamzah would have to be guided. “Do we tell the brothers we recruit to accompany him to Peshawar who their passenger is?” asked Atiyah. If they kept his identity secret, then Hamzah would have to fend for himself when he reached Peshawar, using addresses and telephone numbers provided. Perhaps Khalid could meet him?

For Atiyah the second option was better: Quetta to Karachi to Peshawar by air or train. “This is the least dangerous … We have the means (through southern Waziristan) and we would introduce him to people there.”

Still jittery, Atiyah reminded the Sheikh to review all communication methods. “I got rid of the [SIM] cards that I used to use between us,” he confided. “I broke them. I am using new cards now. Please do the same.”

A few days later, as the plan advanced, Khairiah wrote to Maryam, her son Hamzah’s wife. “Everyone misses you and hopes to see you.” She wanted to pass on some practical advice. “It is preferable to travel light.” She also had a message for the grandchildren: “I miss you very much. May God unite us soon. Listen to and obey your mother and father and do not anger them. Peace and God’s mercy and blessings be upon you.” She was sorry the letter was brief but “the power keeps going on and off.”

Even leafy, peaceable Abbottabad had its problems.

29 April 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

The guardians and their children returned from running errands to find that a new guest had arrived at the Waziristan Palace. There was another bin Laden family member in the main house. They heard his voice. Extra food had been purchased.

That night Ibrahim’s wife, Maryam, could not sleep. Furious, she spied on the guest: a young Arab man who looked a lot like Khalid bin Laden.

Soon there was the sound of laughter and crying. The visiting Arab youth emerged from under the carport with a heavy bag. Maryam wondered who he was and what he wanted. Was he another of Osama’s sons?

Ibrahim had assured her that there would be no more visitors to the house, which was bursting at the seams. Osama had given his written assurance. She sneaked up to the roof of the annex where Ibrahim lived with his young family, to spy and to listen in, getting angrier by the moment.

Inside the main house the young man—Hamzah bin Laden—produced gifts, as Osama explained to his long-lost boy how, with guardians Ibrahim and Abrar sick, two more adults and their two children could not be accommodated.

Osama had come to an awful and depressing conclusion. Even though Hamzah bin Laden had made it all the way out of Iran and reached Abbottabad, he and his family had to leave right away, lest their presence threaten the viability of the house.

Shortly before dawn, the sound of a car engine woke up the guardians. They heard whispering under the carport and the clang of the big gate.

The Arab visitor was leaving. Hamzah, his wife and children were gone.

2 May 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

Five minutes down: out in Khalid’s vegetable patch, the SEALs inside Chalk One had emerged unscathed and were improvising, their original plans to rappel onto the roof of the house now abandoned. After blasting through a gate into the main compound, they had fanned out, some heading for the main house while two of them approached Ibrahim’s annex. It was labelled on the SEAL’s Sensitive Site Exploitation charts as C1. The SSE charts were a compendium of everyone living inside the Abbottabad compound and its probable layout. They were brimming with information (and laminated to protect against blood splatter).

Chalk One team member Matthew Bissonnette and another SEAL identified by the pseudonym “Will” crept towards the glass doors of C1, their boots crunching the gravel.

Inside, Ibrahim and Maryam, having already been woken by the helicopter crash landing, a sound she later described as a “noise of a magnitude I had never heard before,” were sitting frozen in the dark.

Just as Ibrahim went to fetch their daughter, Rehma, who was crying in her bed, his cell phone rang. He hesitated before answering. “Salaam?” When nobody spoke, Ibrahim guessed it was his brother. “Abrar? I cannot hear you Abrar. I’m coming.” Ibrahim grabbed his AK-47, heading for the door. But then he stopped short. Someone was trying to open their door from the outside. “Is that you, Abrar?” he muttered, slipping the safety catch off his weapon.

This is it, Maryam thought; the night she had long dreaded. She wrapped herself around her 18-month-old son, Habib, as Ibrahim let off a volley of shots. The glass in the door shattered. From outside, a man speaking Arabic barked orders. “Ahmad al-Kuwaiti come out!” shouted “Will,” as Bissonnette pumped rounds through the door. Inside, Maryam watched, horrified, as her husband fell backwards, dead, blood pooling on the cement floor around him.

Rounds whizzed around her, clattering across the kitchen. Heating oil glugged all over the kitchen floor, filling the room with fumes.

A burning pain bloomed on Maryam’s shoulder as a round struck her. A second bullet pierced her cheek. Judging by Rehma’s horrified expression, Maryam realised that she must be bleeding. “Mother, don’t die!” the girl cried, shielding her brothers Khalid, six, and Ahmed, three.

“I’m not dying,” Maryam rasped, hoping these words were true.

She crawled forward, in agony. Desperate for the firing to stop, she cracked open the broken door and screamed out in Arabic: “You have killed my husband and now only I and my children are in the room.”

Eight minutes down: the family on the third floor gathered to pray, all eyes on Osama. “They want me, not you,” he finally said, instructing his wives to go downstairs with the children.

Amal refused to move, while his oldest daughters, Sumaiya and Miriam, hid out on the outside balcony with some of their younger half-siblings. Seham and her son Khalid started to descend, bumping into Khairiah, who was watching through a window as silent silhouettes advanced on the house.

Khalid, who went to her shoulder, shouted out a warning: “They’ll see you and shoot.”

One floor below, guardian Abrar, who had no idea Ibrahim was dead, sheltered behind his bedroom door with his wife Bushra and their three children.

Chalk One was clearing the ground-floor apartment first. A C-4 charge went off and the south door cracked open. As SEALs poured inside, Abrar popped up to see what was going on, and the point-man took a shot.

Abrar fell back onto a lilac and pink flowered bed sheet, arms raised. Bushra jumped forward through the darkness, hoping her husband had only been wounded. But as rounds spun towards her, too, she crumpled dead in the doorway.

Upstairs, Amal, Osama and their son Hussein were alone, listening to the pings of rounds and pops of charges.

Osama muttered prayers. After six years of isolation, the children having constantly been berated for making the smallest noise, Amal realised with cold dread that Americans were swarming in their home, readying to kill them all, and there was no emergency procedure aside from the Euros sewn into her husband’s underwear along with emergency numbers for his deputies in Waziristan. Since neither she nor her husband had a mobile phone, what use were they?

It was clear, she thought. Their safe house was a death trap and someone had betrayed them.

Ten minutes down: Bissonnette was still outside, advancing on the main house. “Through my night vision I could see multiple lasers tracking along the windows and balconies.”

Inside, Robert O’Neill’s team prepared to go upstairs. “So we’re looking down the hallway at the door to the stairwell,” he said. “I figured this was the only door to get upstairs, which means the people upstairs can’t get down.”

The breacher had to blast it twice. “We started rolling up,” said O’Neill.

Bissonnette, now inside the building, was not far behind. “Nice and slow,” he recalled. “We have a saying: Don’t run to your death.”

Osama’s son Khalid was hiding on the second landing. O’Neill was four men back in the stack when he saw the point-man hold up the line. A face had just popped up over the balcony before pulling back. O’Neill had seen the jack-in-the-box too, and he listened as the point-man whispered, in Arabic, then in Pashto, “Khalid… come here…” It was an old bushman’s trick.

“That confused Khalid,” recalled O’Neill. “He’s probably thinking, ‘I just heard shitty Arabic and shitty Pashto. Who the fuck is this?’”

O’Neill watched as Khalid leaned out just far enough for someone to take the shot. He fell back dead.

Climbing over Khalid’s body, Bissonnette noted his AK-47 was propped up on a step.

Thirteen minutes down: the advancing SEALs reached the third floor. O’Neill later claimed he was the second man in the stack. So did Matthew Bissonnette. Whoever was second turned to check his rear just as the point-man reached the top step, flicked aside a door curtain and caught sight of a ghostly face peeking out from a doorway ten feet ahead: Osama bin Laden. He fired and the head jerked back, as if he’d been shot. Swinging around, the second SEAL put his hand on the point-man’s shoulder and squeezed, “Go.”

The point-man and his number two strode across the top landing as two young screaming women charged at them. “Jesus!” It was Sumaiya and Miriam, lunging at the Americans through the darkness. The point-man grabbed one under each arm and propelled them backwards against a wall. Everyone in the house was presumed to be strapped into suicide vests, and in that moment he tried to shield the rest of the team. It was the first time the girls had ever been touched by a man outside the family and they became hysterical.

With the girls (and any explosives they might have been carrying) covered, O’Neill rolled past the point-man and went on into the bedroom, where he came face-to-face with a very tall and very skinny Arab in a white prayer cap looking blindly through the darkness.

O’Neill noticed there was someone in front of Osama—a woman. Before their marriage Amal had said she wanted to go down in history, but she had never expected it to end like this.

For a split second, O’Neill wavered. Who posed the greater threat?

Amal saw the American raise his weapon, and she instinctively rushed him. He shouted, “No! No!” and, zing. Amal felt the searing pain in her leg and collapsed onto the bed bleeding. The last thing she remembered before passing out was “a red beam of light but I heard no sound.”

O’Neill raised his weapon extra high to meet the main target’s head. “He’s going down,” he thought as he loosed a round. “The tall man crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! Same place.”

The target’s tongue was lolling. His head was split open. O’Neill watched him suck in a last breath. Bissonnette dropped down to take a closer look. “The man’s face was mangled from at least one bullet and covered in blood,” he recalled.

More SEALs thumped up the stairs to take a look. A volley of muffled shots rang out as commemorative, vengeful rounds were pumped into the body. Amal came to and knew she needed to play dead on the bed. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. When O’Neill swung around, Amal remained as still as she could.

O’Neill saw a young boy watching from the other side of the bed. It was Hussein, who had witnessed everything. He picked him up, threw water from a CamelBak on his face, and put him down next to his mother.

Fifteen minutes in: no one wanted to call it in—until they were sure. Amal, motionless, listened horrified as the SEALs held Sumaiya and Miriam over their dead father. O’Neill towered above them, demanding they confirm the dead man’s identity. Bissonnette, who had put on latex gloves and was wiping blood from the corpse’s face using a blanket from the bed, compared the profile against pictures of Osama bin Laden in the laminated SSE booklet. He was still not convinced. The nose looked right but the face was “way younger” than expected. He pulled the beard this way and that. Bissonnette asked another SEAL to pull the good eyelid open so he could get a picture of the dark brown iris. The room was filled with the noise of women sobbing.

Sumaiya and Miriam wanted to turn their father’s body towards Mecca as was traditional after death, but the Americans pressed on.

“What’s his name?” ordered a SEAL in Arabic.

“The Sheikh.”

“The Sheikh who?” he asked.

Miriam whispered: “Abdullah bin Muhammed.”

O’Neill shrugged. He did not understand.

Sumaiya spoke in Arabic to her sister. “Tell them the truth, they are not Pakistanis.”

Miriam could not speak.

Bissonnette continued to clean Osama.

Sumaiya piped up. “My father,” she said at last. “Osama bin Laden.”

Still not certain, the Arabic-speaking SEAL grabbed Amal’s 11-year-old daughter, Safiyah, from the balcony.

“Who’s that?” he asked, gesturing to the body.

Safiyah was hysterical. “Osama bin Laden.”

Another SEAL grabbed Khairiah, who was in the hallway.

“Stop fucking with me,” said the SEAL, shaking her. “Who’s that?”

Khairiah started to shake. “Osama,” she murmured.

“Osama what?” he asked, still holding her arm.

“Osama bin Laden.”

“Hey, dual confirmation,” announced the Arabic-speaking SEAL. “Confirmed it with the kid. Confirmed it with the old lady.”

*

Sumaiya, who had been cuffed and placed in a far corner, listened to the sound of her father’s head bumping as his body was dragged down the staircase. A minute later, she and Miriam were taken down, too, following the streak of blood, stepping over her dead brother Khalid. Seham came next, trying to negotiate steps made slippery with his and Osama’s blood. She saw Khalid, whispered a prayer and knelt to kiss his forehead but the SEALs pulled her away. Everyone was cuffed as SEALs charged about, stuffing whatever they could into bags—cell phones, DVDs, paperwork, hard drives, thumb drives, cameras—leaving behind what appeared to be a large haul of raw opium, stuffed into duffel bags under a bed.

Drop-dead time: before departing, the SEALs tried to corral the women and children and take them out of the house to a corner of Khalid’s vegetable plot. The Arabic-speaking SEAL spun them a line aiming to keep them where they were: we’ll return in two hours.

Any plan to take bin Laden’s family with them had been dropped when the first Black Hawk went down. The bodies of Khalid, the two Kuwaiti brothers and Bushra were left where they fell.

Five minutes later the body of Osama was loaded onto the still-functioning Black Hawk and the Chalk Two team was ready to go.

Up in the top-floor bedroom, Amal lay gazing up at the blood-spattered ceiling, thinking about her dead husband. After six years cooped up in this airtight place, the end they had never dared discuss had come and gone in minutes.

She felt Hussein trembling beside her, but her leg was throbbing and she could not find the strength to sit up. Where was everyone else?

An orange brilliance filled the room and lit up the yellow flowery curtains as a huge explosion shattered the windows, scattering glass over them. The stricken Black Hawk had been blown up.

A replacement US Chinook came down to scoop up the remaining SEAL team. After only a few seconds on the ground, it skimmed off down the valley.

After a few minutes, Amal heard chatter outside as frightened neighbours began coming out of their houses. They shouted out: Who needs help? Was everyone in the house dead? She clutched Hussein, pulling him closer.

A few streets away, @ReallyVirtual tweeted: “Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicopters, and since they’re saying it was not ‘ours,’ so must be a complicated situation #abbottabad.”

*

For the first time ever, the gates of the Waziristan Palace were wide open. The only security official in sight was a thin constable from the nearby Nawan Shehr police station.

An off-duty clerk from the Abbottabad provincial administration entered the buildings and found Maryam, lying in the annex with blood oozing from her wounds. Speaking in her native Pashto, she told him that “foreigners” had killed her husband. “Some of the Arabs, too,” she said. He had no idea what she meant and went further into the house to investigate.

Climbing the stairs, the clerk stepped over Khalid’s body. When he reached the top bedroom, he found Amal weeping. “They have killed Hamzah’s father,” she whispered, pointing to a blood smear on the concrete floor. The clerk had no idea to whom she was referring.

But by the time he went back downstairs, an ISI colonel had arrived, accompanied by the deputy inspector general of police and a commander from the nearby Pakistan Military Academy. Together they cleared everyone out and began roughly questioning the survivors.

On the family side, the only one who spoke was Khairiah, and she confirmed in broken English that the body on the stairs was that of “Khalid, son of Osama bin Laden.”

As ISI agents barked further questions, she broke into furious screams: “Heli come, heli go and take away one or two.” Jabbing her finger in their faces, she shouted: “Now you come, when everything over.”

Leaving the women and children cuffed up, ISI agents took what they could from the scene: photographing the bodies of Khalid, Ibrahim, Abrar and Bushra, recovering whatever documents, weapons and computers had been left behind. The police would be the last to search the crime scene. No First Information Report, the initial document in any criminal inquiry in Pakistan, would be lodged.

@ReallyVirtual tweeted: “What really happened doesn’t matter if there is an official story behind it that 99.999% of the world would believe.”
As the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in the city, the entirety of Abbottabad was locked down. “Watching the watchers watching the watchmen watching the compound … or something like that …” @ReallyVirtual tweeted over a picture of the house that he referred to as “la Den.”

Afterwards

The Pakistan military ordered a board of inquiry led by the adjutant general, a senior military officer. But behind the scenes, the ISI began a cleanup operation. In Kohat, two of Ibrahim’s nephews and his brother-in-law were taken away by the ISI. In Shangla, relatives of Maryam were picked up.

Osama’s innocent neighbour Shamraiz Khan vanished, as did first-on-the-scene Constable Nazar Mohammad. Next to go were two of the men who built the Waziristan Palace, and a female nurse who had innocuously gone door-to-door in Abbottabad as part of an immunisation programme organised by the CIA to try and obtain DNA samples from the compound’s residents, for verification of their identities. Then the spies came for Dr Shakil Afridi, the doctor who headed that programme, announcing to the media that he had been arrested while trying to flee to Afghanistan. His incredulous wife, Imrana, denied it: “He was picked up while shopping in the market in Peshawar.” The doctor’s passport had a valid US visa inside so he could have run, but he chose not to.

Next went a mechanic who had repaired Ibrahim’s vehicles, and the man who had cut down trees in the compound just before the raid. Finally, the milkman disappeared.

Even Pakistan’s vociferous media was warned off. Najam Sethi, among Pakistan’s most respected commentators, who had accused the army of being complicit or incompetent, was tipped off that his name had been maliciously added to a terrorist hit list. He and his wife temporarily left the country.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Asia Times Online Pakistan bureau chief, who had already fallen foul of the ISI by claiming that Osama had recently met with intelligence-service proxies, had been threatened but chose to keep going with his reports, even though a colleague had been the subject of a vicious attack the previous year. Investigative reporter Umar Cheema was set upon by men in commando outfits who made it clear they were acting on behalf of the ISI. Abducted in Islamabad, Cheema was filmed being sodomised with a metal rod, before being dumped in a ditch ten miles outside Islamabad.

Now, Shahzad, who had started investigating Al Qaeda’s infiltration of the military, vanished on the way to a television interview. A farmer fished his body out of a drain the next morning. According to the postmortem, the reporter had been beaten to death with a metal rod, his rib cage smashed on both sides, his lungs and liver ruptured.

Zafar Sheikh, his friend and colleague, spelled it out. “I used to be a brave journalist,” he said. “But I don’t want to get killed like Saleem. I am just writing stereotypical bullshit stories [now]—and no one is angry.”

 

Two days after Shahzad’s death, a perturbed Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, broke protocol by telling reporters in Washington that Shahzad’s killing had been “sanctioned” by senior Pakistani military officers.

*

Shortly after the raid, Osama bin Laden’s wives, children and grandchildren were moved to an ISI safe house in a middle-class sector of Islamabad, close to Aabpara, the spy directorate’s grey headquarters. The wives tried to cope with traumatised children who suffered frequent nightmares and wet their beds. The most affected were Hussein, who had seen his father being shot, and Sumaiya, Miriam and Safiyah, who had been forced to identify his body. While Khairiah guarded the front of the house, Seham, who had lost not only her husband but also her son, Khalid, and a daughter who had died in childbirth in Waziristan in 2007, retreated into her Quran. Amal, whose leg wound had still not healed, stayed in bed.

The ISI reserved its harshest treatment for Maryam, Ibrahim’s wife and the sole Pakistani survivor of the raid. She was arrested and threatened with the death penalty. She was held in secret detention, while close family members in Shangla and Kohat were interrogated. Rejected by her parents and in-laws, Maryam was not only physically scarred but also a widow with no financial means and eight mouths to feed—her own children and dead Bushra’s. “As far as I was concerned my life was already over,” she said.

It would take almost a year for Osama’s family to wriggle free of the ISI’s clutches. On 27 April 2012, an excited crowd of journalists gathered outside the Islamabad villa. Osama’s youngest sons, Hussein and Ibrahim, looked out through curtained windows. Making efforts to maintain the women’s modesty, police and guards had strung plastic sheets and blankets across the driveway before the family boarded a curtained bus. At the airport, they were ushered onto a private jet bound for Jeddah.

Waiting at the other end were Omar, Osama’s third son, and his mother, Najwa, Osama’s first wife, who had deserted him two days before 9/11. Osama’s older brother Bakr, the powerful head of the family clan, offered the returning wives homes in the vast bin Laden family compound on the outskirts of Jeddah so long as they agreed never to speak about their experiences.

After they settled in, Bakr paid for the whole family to go on umrah (pilgrimage) to Mecca: Amal and her children; Seham and her two surviving daughters and four grandchildren; Hamzah’s mother, Khairiah; and Osama’s older daughters Iman and Fatima, who had spent almost a decade in Iran.

Najwa, Osama’s first wife, headed for Doha, the capital of Qatar. The day after the Abbottabad raid her mother, who lived in Syria, had died of shock, and Najwa associated the bin Ladens with loss. Having spent time in Mecca with Khairiah, she was also convinced that the “old sourpuss,” as she called her elder sister-wife, had cost Osama his life.

With its palm-fringed Corniche, smart malls, fancy Western restaurants and relative freedom, Doha represented a fresh start. Najwa moved into a smart cul-de-sac in West Bay, where Omar and his British wife, Zaina, lived, leaving behind her daughter, Iman, who had recently married a bin Laden cousin.

In a deal brokered by Zaina, Najwa, sons Abdul Rahman, Omar, Othman, Mohammed and Ladin, and daughters Rukaiya and Nour, had the run of six large villas with crenellated roofs that were provided rent-free by the Qataris, along with top-of-the-range SUVs and a full complement of servants. Sometimes even the grocery shopping was done for them. Other bills were picked up by Bakr bin Laden, who paid each family member a stipend.

Wafa, the widow of Saad—Osama’s third son, who had died in a drone strike after escaping from Iran—had broken away, taking her young children to live with her parents in Port Sudan.

*

Although Bakr and the Qataris kept a tight rein on finances, Omar bought Harleys, raced super-bikes and smoked cigars. Othman drove expensive cars and Ladin travelled in private jets. Occasionally, Najwa’s youngest daughters, Rukaiya and Nour (both of whom were now fashion-conscious college students who wore mirrored sunglasses with their stylish abayas), accompanied their mother on shopping trips to London, travelling on Qatari passports.

Najwa spent money on things she would never have been allowed to buy when Osama was still around: make-up, clothes, skin treatments, luxury goods, and gifts for her daughters.

Occasionally, Najwa and her daughters flew to Paris to meet up with Osama’s mother, Allia, who, in her seventies, embraced all the French capital had to offer, rarely speaking of her son.

Despite Qatar’s generosity and Bakr’s largesse, or perhaps because of it, the sons exiled in Doha did not live as one big happy family. Regular bust-ups rocked the compound as they argued over money or family matters. Chairs got broken. Walls were thumped in frustration. Abdul Rahman, aged 38, who had suffered problems all his life caused by childhood hydrocephalus and was married to a cousin from Saudi Arabia, made frequent trips abroad and caused the Qatari authorities some consternation when he re-entered the country on one occasion with sex toys in his suitcase.

Othman, who with his two wives had been released from Iran in late May 2011, was at war with Zaina, whom he accused of being a British spy, even though Seham had informed the family that Osama had known about his son’s marriage and blessed the union.

More mild-mannered Mohammed bin Laden, who had also been held in Iran, stayed at home with his wife and children, relieved to have finally escaped the chaos of his father’s world. He had been too traumatised to fulfil his father’s last written request that he enrol in a degree course to study “strategic sciences, sociology and psychology.”

After so many years following their father around the world’s trouble spots, the long years of incarceration in Iran, their near misses in Pakistan and the unspoken fear that they as well as Khairiah had somehow led to their father’s entrapment in Abbottabad, they all worried about going out in public for fear of being recognised, followed or abducted by the CIA. Instead, they spent most days watching videos of their father’s hero, Sayyid Qutb, and browsing their social media accounts.

None of them had been tempted by the opportunities offered by Education City, a huge campus on the outskirts of Doha where top US universities, including Georgetown and Texas A&M, had opened up campuses. What was the point of education? Omar complained to Zaina. Who would give a son of Osama bin Laden a job?

Encouraged by Zaina, Omar had tried several times to earn a living. He teamed up with a Spanish firm bidding for lucrative projects linked to the 2022 World Cup. But his lack of experience and unrealistic expectations put people off. “I need to make a hundred million dollars,” he would say. “I need to make a billion.” When his business failed, Omar fell into a deep depression, while Bakr bailed him out to the tune of $1 million.

To bring him out of his funk, Zaina suggested they launch a high-fashion clothing line called B41. When his second business went down, Bakr banned him from working. Even Zaina, who loved him, described him as “a liability.” Stuck at home, Omar obsessed about his father, telling friends that if he had stayed with him he might have become as famous as Alexander the Great. “I would have wanted to rule the world,” he said. Instead, he had a “very small life.” People should be thankful he had chosen peace, he said. “If I chose war, I would be unbelievable at it. A lot of people should pray to their god to thank him that I did not do that.”

Only one son remained unaccounted for: Hamzah bin Laden. Osama had hoped Hamzah would live with him in Abbottabad. Instead, shortly before the raid, the boy had made his way to Qatar, where he adopted a new identity and returned to intense religious studies that had begun in Tehran. He refused to have any communication with the rest of the family.

In August 2015, aged 27, Hamzah re-emerged. Al Qaeda’s media wing, As Sahab, issued a statement in which he called for a renewal of holy war against the West and suggested that Al Qaeda lone-wolf supporters should prepare for new attacks on Washington, London, Tel Aviv and Paris.

Hamzah thanked Al Qaeda’s regional emirs for their loyalty, sounding like the dauphin of terror, singling out those who opposed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom Osama had loathed. More statements followed in 2016 and 2017 as he started a new rallying cry: “We are all Osama.”

Adapted from The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, recently published by Bloomsbury.

1 May 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad, Pakistan

After eating dinner and clearing away the plates, Osama bin Laden’s family prayed, before he and Amal—his fourth and youngest wife—went to bed. Amal carried two-year-old Hussein, their youngest son, while Osama cradled his Quran. By 11 pm, the emir of Al Qaeda was deep in sleep in his compound nestled in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Outside, the streets were plunged into darkness as the electricity went out all over the city.

Power shortages were so common that no one in the “Waziristan Palace” noticed. Locals had given Osama’s house the nickname, gossiping that the high-walled compound into which no one could see must have been erected by wealthy tribal merchants, living by a writ of purdah preferred in conservative tribal regions like Waziristan.

Just past midnight, Amal woke, her head buzzing with worries about their future. Something caught her ear: a thrumming up above. Chop, chop chop. It sounded like a storm and she thought she glimpsed a shadow passing across the curtained balcony window. The noise was too mechanical to be thunder, and she looked across to her husband for reassurance. Occasionally, Pakistan Air Force helicopters passed overhead—but never in the middle of the night. It became more powerful, swirling the air and the yellow flowered curtains at the windows.

Osama sat up in bed with a fearful look on his face. Whatever was out there was too slow to be a drone and too fast to be something innocuous. Amal clutched him. The object that had been hovering above swung violently to the right and then the sound panned to the left. They both jumped as a sickening screech tore through the compound. The walls of the house shuddered. To Amal, it sounded like “something extremely heavy and metallic crashing down.”

As the noise became a grinding sound, they crept through the darkness to the balcony door. “It was a moonless night and difficult to see,” Amal recalled. From the window the thing they could hear could not be seen.

Out of sight, 150 feet away to the west, a US military Black Hawk had ditched in the yard, its tail fin bent out of shape from slamming down onto the perimeter wall. Now, its rotors churned up soil and stones in a vegetable patch tended by Khalid, Osama’s ninth son, aged 22.

1 May 2011
Washington DC

In the conference suite across the corridor from the White House Situation Room, President Obama slipped in, announcing that he “should be watching this.” One chopper had dropped out of the sky and to those gathered in the room it looked like a carefully rehearsed mission had already gone catastrophically awry.

For several agonising moments, mission commander Admiral William McRaven, stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, who could see from the chat line that the president was now present, remained silent while he searched for a live update. McRaven had seen choppers go down many times and missions survive the blowout. But those in the room in Washington were panicking. Moments later, Obama saw the SEALs scrambling from both Black Hawks.

“We will now be amending the mission,” McRaven explained calmly.
Team, or “Chalk,” One’s bird was down but the unit was improvising, knowing that they had only 30 minutes to pull it off. Chalk Two’s chopper had deposited its load in a nearby field and was already back in the air. The Chalk Two operators were supposed to guard the perimeter. Now they would have to blast their way through the gate and lead the search for Osama from the ground up.

Just past midnight, 2 May 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

“We opened the doors, and I looked out,” said SEAL operator Robert O’Neill, who was in the chopper that landed in the field. “This is some serious Navy SEAL shit we’re going to do,” he murmured to himself. He liked to narrate his journey, his mind a camera. It was a great way to settle the nerves.

O’Neill’s team pounded across the muddy field toward the compound. There was no sign of the other chopper. “I looked to the left,” he said. “The mock-up had been dead-on. To actually be there and see the house with the three stories, the blacked-out windows, high walls, and barbed wire … just like the satellite photos. I was like, this is really cool I’m here.”

Sohaib Athar, a coffee-shop owner and IT consultant who lived a mile away from Bilal Town, was working late at his computer. He had heard the sound of the arriving Black Hawks, too. “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 AM (is a rare event),” he tweeted as his handle, @ReallyVirtual.

Chalk Two kept circling.

Athar tweeted again. “Go away helicopter—before I take out my giant swatter :-/”

*

Inside the Waziristan Palace, up on the third floor, Hussein, Amal’s two-year-old son, was crying. Amal went to turn on a light, unaware there was a power outage.

“No,” hissed Osama, paralysed by fear. This was not how Amal had imagined her hero behaving in a tight spot.

“Come up!” he called out hoarsely to his son Khalid, one floor down below.

From a second-floor window, Khalid and his mother, Seham, Osama’s third wife, had seen the SEALs sprinting across the field toward them.

Khalid pelted upstairs. “Americans are coming,” he panted, clutching a loaded AK-47 and dressed in his pajamas.

Amal recalled Osama telling her that the last time Khalid had fired a weapon was at the age of 13, about a decade earlier. If the Americans killed Osama’s official guardians, Ibrahim and Abrar Saeed, the so-called al-Kuwaiti brothers, untested Khalid would be his father’s last line of defence.

Amal and Seham went to comfort the younger children, who were crying in their bunk beds. Occasionally, their father had allowed them into his studio to play a bootlegged copy of Delta Force: Xtreme 2, a first-person-shooter video game, but now they were terrified. What should she say to them? Amal thought. They glanced fearfully towards the room belonging to Khairiah, Osama’s second wife. The door was firmly shut.

A blast shook the house as the gate to the annex courtyard was blown open.

Amal now felt certain of something. They had been betrayed by one of their own.

@ReallyVirtual heard it, too: “OMG: Bomb Blasts in Abbottabad. I hope everyone is fine :(.”

*

They should not have been in Abbottabad at all, Amal thought. Months before, Ibrahim and Abrar, who had become live-in caretakers to Osama in 2002 when there had been only one wife and one child to look after, had called a meeting with him to announce that they had had enough. Insensitive Osama had talked over them, revealing that his already oversize family caravan was about to grow even bigger with five new family members joining him: much loved son Hamzah, his wife and two children, and Hamzah’s mother, Khairiah. They had been held in Iran for eight years, taking an offer of sanctuary in late 2001 that by 2003 had turned into a prison sentence. But in August 2010, Tehran had finally agreed to allow them to leave and they had slowly and carefully made their way to Pakistan.

The al-Kuwaiti brothers despaired. Lives were in the balance, Ibrahim retorted. He had just come back from a doctor who had diagnosed him as suffering from terminal cancer. Abrar was suffering from chronic depression. Neither guardian wanted to spend his dying days caring for the Sheikh’s ever-expanding brood.

But Osama would not budge. Al Qaeda had rallied, it was solvent and busy plotting new attacks, and he was not going to be pushed around by his guardians. Did they not understand that he had sacrificed everything and never stolen even a moment for himself?

The al-Kuwaiti brothers looked at each other. “We quit,” Ibrahim finally said.

There had been one last indignity for Osama. Given how much time they had invested in building the Abbottabad villa, and the fact that Abrar’s name was on all the paperwork, the brothers regarded the compound as theirs, they said. They would not be moving out but Osama and his family would have to go. The Al Qaeda emir was being evicted.

On 4 December 2010, a shaken Osama had written to wife two, Khairiah, who was still enroute from Iran: “I have been living for years in the company of some of the brothers of the area and they are getting exhausted—security-wise—from me staying with them.” He had done everything he could to win Ibrahim’s continued support but to no avail. “They are down, and they asked us all to leave,” he revealed. “Our number is large and beyond what they can handle.” But he was in no rush. “It will take a few months to arrange another place.”

Osama was playing for time, hoping that strong-willed Khairiah would arrive quickly. She was the only one with the ability to talk the al-Kuwaiti brothers down, and he needed her vision and organisational skills to help him prepare for the coming tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Osama tried again to make peace with the al-Kuwaiti brothers several days later. “We have been friends on this great path for more than eight years,” he began, choosing a sombre tone. “You have given us a great gift that we will never forget as long as we live,” he tried. He needed a few more weeks. After that, he would move out with his family. They were ready to pack everything and leave. He was pained by their sicknesses. He wanted to reassure them that he was actively seeking a new companion and a new place to live. It might all happen very quickly. He pulled out his Quran: “Help ye one another in righteousness and piety.”

The glum brothers were unimpressed but an agreement was eventually hammered out.

The Sheikh, as they called him, signed a written promise to move out of Abbottabad—and he set the date: shortly after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in September 2011. The property could then be sold, enabling Ibrahim and Abrar to buy retirement homes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The Abbottabad epoch was, in everyone’s minds, almost over. To avoid any further misunderstandings, Osama wrote it all down. “We do appreciate the amount of pressure you have been under and the importance of lessening the pressure.”

Osama then harangued Khairiah to speed up and come quickly, writing to his son Hamzah, asking the same.

Osama penned a job description for the al-Kuwaiti brothers’ successors. Whoever would apply should know that: “We are in two separated houses, inside and out, and we are making our bread by ourselves, and we buy grain wholesale.” Medical needs were minimal as they kept stocks in-house. At most, the adults went out once a year. His son Khalid was the only one in the family who spoke to neighbours and he “knows Pashtu 70 percent and now would endeavour to speak Urdu.”

Early February 2011
Bilal Town, Abbottabad

News came that after six months in transit, wife two, Khairiah, had finally reached Peshawar. Osama was delighted but also now deeply suspicious, wondering why she and their son had been released by the Iranians, and forced to go on a route via Pakistan rather than the Gulf. He worried that his wife was being followed by Iranian intelligence, or that the Quds Force, an Iranian special-forces unit, was working with the CIA. Other family members in Abbottabad shared his fears.

“Please trust me that I am working very hard to live with you,” he wrote to her. But he added: “Did you hear anything that forced them to release you … to Waziristan? We need to know if they intended to send you in this direction so they can follow your movement.”

Even if she had not been co-opted into becoming a spy, they might use her as a dupe.

Had Khairiah had her teeth x-rayed? Had anything shown up in her medical examination, like a tracking chip that, according to son Khalid’s recent research, could be implanted under the skin and be “the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli”? Could she remember the date of her last dental treatment? Or the last time an Iranian doctor had seen her? Osama demanded “every detail to help me from the security point of view.”

Returning to Khairiah’s transportation to Abbottabad, Osama rounded off: “In the coming days the brother will come from our side [Ibrahim].” She should come “if you have finished your treatment and are sure about the security matters that worry you.”

Along with the letter, the Sheikh sent 25,000 Pakistani rupees and a box of Saudi dates to sustain Khairiah on her journey.

Finally, on 12 February 2011, after dark, Khairiah, wrapped up in several dupattas, entered Abbottabad and made it to the Waziristan Palace. As the huge metal gates of the compound opened and swallowed up the white Suzuki jeep carrying her, everyone inside the vehicle exhaled with relief. But inside the building, the other residents were on tenterhooks.

Osama had last seen his wife in September 2001. This was “the beginning of a new era,” Khairiah declared as she greeted family members who lined up to receive her. She kissed the foreheads of grandchildren she had never met. She tried to hug Seham but her sister-wife stiffened.

Seham was as fearful as Osama. Khairiah could be bait—or have been tracked. Was she a traitor? Amal watched in silence as the older woman began bossing everyone about as if she had never been away.

*

Now it was the turn of Hamzah, Khairiah and Osama’s son, to make his way towards Abbottabad. A low-level Al Qaeda brother, released by the Iranians, carried a letter from him, describing his pain at watching the jihad on Al Jazeera without being able to play a part.

“My beloved father, when you left me, my brother Khalid, and my brother [Ladin], at the foot of the mountain, near the olive farm, I could not imagine the length of this bitter separation,” Hamzah wrote. Eight years had passed, with Hamzah stuck in Iran. “My eyes still remember the last time they saw you, when you were under the olive tree and you gave every one of us a Muslim rosary.”

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Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy are award-winning investigative journalists. They are based in London, and have worked for the Sunday Times and The Guardian. Their books include The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel and The Meadow: Kashmir 1995—Where the Terror Began.

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