Married to the jihad: the lonely world of al-Qa'ida's wives

They may be rich, cultivated and beautiful; but when the West steps up its 'war on terror', their husbands and sons are in the firing line. Jan McGirk meets some remarkable women
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The Independent Online

In the narrow slits between headscarf and veil, the eyes of two women glitter with fury and grief. Maha el Samnah, a newly widowed 47-year-old, is swathed in white; her twice-divorced eldest daughter, Zaynab, 24, wears black. They are sitting, for now, in a quiet bedsit in Islamabad. It is not their home. For the past two and a half years - since September 2001 - they have been fugitives: not because of anything they have done themselves, but because of their menfolk, who are al-Qa'ida fighters.

Maha and Zaynab are Canadians, from Toronto, where Zaynab, her sister and her four brothers were born. They have not lived there for many years. Instead, like scores of other al-Qa'ida wives and daughters, they have drifted between Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, mixing with some of the movers and shakers of the global Islamic terror movement - or, more usually, with other wives and daughters. Their rarely glimpsed world is both exotic and bizarre, combining luxury with hardship, segregation with tragic involvement. Their stories give an unexpected insight into the world of the international terrorist classes.

Maha's late husband, Ahmed Said Khadr, the recently deceased Egyptian-Canadian patriarch of the family, ran orphanages and schools in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

He was also named on a United Nations list of wanted terrorists and was once jailed on suspicion of involvement in the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. (He was released after a personal appeal from Canada's then prime minister, Jean Chretien.) His Arab associates in Afghanistan included Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his Egyptian strategist and No 2. Zawahiri is the "high-value target" who was recently alleged to have been cornered in the mountains of Waziristan, in the tribal belt of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. His voice subsequently appeared on an audiotape urging Pakistanis to overthrow President Pervez Musharraf. Zaynab went to school with Zawahiri's daughter, and Bin Laden was guest of honour at her 1999 marriage to her now ex-husband, a sharpshooter from Yemen. The family also briefly shared a sprawling Arab compound in Jalalabad with Zawahiri's family. All four sons were taught to shoot at the now-demolished al-Qa'ida training camp at Khalden in eastern Afghanistan.

It is almost as if terrorism were the family business - although Maha vehemently denies this. "We believe in defending one's home, one's family, and one's faith," she says. "Like in that movie, Braveheart."

Even though divorce and death have now severed their direct marital ties with the terrorists, Maha and Zaynab remain linked to the men of al-Qa'ida by blood, by ideology and by shared experience.

When Allied bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan in October 2001, the Arab women in Kabul packed up in haste. Maha and Zaynab escaped from the capital in a convoy to Gardez, in south-eastern Afghanistan, along with Maha's other daughter, Miriam, her granddaughter, Safia, and her youngest son, Abdul Karim. They rode along with the wife and two children of Zawahiri, but lagged behind.

To their horror, their destination, a guesthouse of a Taliban commander, was demolished by American bombs and their friends were incinerated inside. Awed and shaken, the Khadr women and children cowered behind a petrol station. "We were supposed to be staying there, too," says Maha, her eyes filling with tears. Instead, they were told to head back to their orphanage in Jalalabad. On their journey, they kept their minds busy by listening to the radio, and, they say, by making notes of their more portentous dreams about Osama bin Laden - they interpreted soaring birds as signs that he had flown to safety.

Their menfolk, meanwhile, were fighting. Two of Ahmed Said Khadr's sons, Abdurahman and Omar, were captured by the Americans and imprisoned at Guantanamo. Abdurahman, who liked to posture around the bazaar, swigging from an imported bottle of tabasco sauce to impress his buddies, has blamed greedy Kabul acquaintances for "selling" him to the Americans for a bounty. Omar, who was only 15 at the time, hunkered down with some fleeing Arab fighters in Khost, eastern Afghanistan, until American troops attacked the hideout. Despite being described by his mother as the most sensitive of the brothers, he is reported to have killed an American medic during the gunfight before taking a bullet himself, in the eye.

He was soon whisked off to Guantanamo, where he was not allowed to speak with his incarcerated brother and where he remains under interrogation. Ahmed Said Khadr and his other two sons survived the initial Allied onslaught, helped, like so many others, by hospitable Pashtun tribes whose territory spans Afghanistan's frontier with Pakistan.

Then, last year, they regrouped in Waziristan. The Khadr women and girls initially stayed at a house in Birmal, in southern Waziristan. "We stayed for two days until American jets started circling overhead, and the family kicked us out." They then trekked to a mountain hut owned by a Pashtun family, just inside the Pakistan border. "There was nothing but mountains, sheep, and a few trees," Zaynab recalls. Unschooled Pashtuns would gawp with wonder at the imported jars in her pantry. "All they had was tea, sugar, salt and chilli. Our cocoa powder amazed them. But they always spat out my food in disgust, because it was unfamiliar. That got to me."

Her father tried to check on them once a month. But those sporadic visits stopped last October, soon after he and 14-year-old Abdul Karim were dispatched by their tribal hosts to a new safe-house - a remote farm, still in Waziristan but just five miles from a US military base at Shkin. Pakistani troops attacked this farmhouse, and, in a fierce firefight, Khadr, who already had an injury sustained from an exploding landmine, was killed, aged 54. His widow beams: "I am glad he died on a battlefield. Allah chose my handicapped husband to be a martyr."

Abdul Karim was also cornered and besieged that day. Described by his mother as a dreamy boy with a taste for Harry Potter and Matrix DVDs, he had been exploring the fields surrounding their new hide-out with a 16-year-old Arab friend, looking for hazards. They had left their weapons behind so as not to arouse the locals' suspicions, only to be ambushed by Pakistani soldiers lying in wait.

Abdul Karim was struck by a bullet that ripped through his spleen, liver and kidney and nicked his spinal cord. He later told his sister Zaynab that no water or first aid was offered to the bleeding boys for at least three hours, while Cobra helicopters attacked his father and comrades in the house. Pakistan army sources say the ensuing battle raged for 12 hours, and left nine foreign fighters dead. They showed Abdul Karim a photograph of his father's charred corpse while he lay recovering in a military cot. Now being held incognito in a basement somewhere near Islamabad, he is paralysed from the waist down.

For Maha and Zaynab, simply keeping track of all this bloodshed and conflict has proved a bruising and exhausting ordeal. It took them five months, for example, to locate Abdul Karim. After repeated appeals to the Canadian High Commission and government authorities in Islamabad, the women were finally allowed to see the wounded boy. Last month, Maha and Zaynab were driven in a circuitous route to an unnumbered residence where 10 Pakistani secret police stood guard. They were led down to a subterranean room where Abdul Karim lay on a mattress on the floor, jaundiced and thin.

He managed a wan grin. "I'm OK, I'm OK," he told his mother and sister. Mustering all of his warrior's stamina, he scooted on his forearms and boosted himself on to a low couch.

They all chatted away in English. "Usually, when I want to be ill-mannered, I speak English, because it has all the nastiest phrases," Zaynab says. "But we use English among the family, too. We are so proud of Abdul Karim," Zaynab continues. "He seemed cheerful and is coping well with his injuries."

Maha and Saynab now want to nurse Abdul Karim back to health. They also want to bury their patriarch, just as soon as officials release his body to them. But they have no idea how many more months of alternate hiding and pleading they may have to endure first.

The life of an al-Qa'ida wife is doubly lonely. She must live segregated from her menfolk, in line with the Bin Laden version of Islam; and she must live in hiding from the rest of the world, because of her husband's terrorist activities. Yet there is a certain community to be found among the spouses, who are united by their view that Bin Laden, or "Emir", as they call him, is the ultimate commander of his Islamic legions.

Maha, for example, has encountered two of Bin Laden's four wives in the course of her Afghan charity work. She came away impressed. "Osama has one wife who was very well-educated - a PhD in child education and psychology. She was the most practical Arab woman I ever met," Maha recalls.

At jumble sales supporting the orphanages run by the Khadr family, this wife would pay twice the asking price for second-hand garments. But Bin Laden's senior wife, one of his Saudi cousins, often seems distracted. Just four years younger than Osama, she had been a delicate 13-year-old beauty when the family married her off to the billionaire bridegroom.

Today, Maha says, she hankers after her palatial lifestyle, and resents her exiled existence in cramped quarters with no servants, no ice-cubes, and no way out. "She was bitter about Osama having all these other wives," recalls Maha.

While Bin Laden travelled and plotted in perpetual hiding, his veiled wives were left to enforce his strict rules on his family. Their children were forbidden such symbols of decadence as chilled water, computer games and American soft drinks. They weren't even allowed electricity. The boys were, however, allowed to play volleyball with their father at weekends, and to go hunting. And a child who memorised the Koran could expect to be rewarded with a pony.

Before the American onslaught on Afghanistan began, dozens of al-Qa'ida women and children used to live behind walls at a compound of 80 mud houses in Tarnak Farm, outside Kandahar. By 2001, many more were tucked away in Kabul, Jalalabad and Tora Bora. Today they are scattered, in more out-of-the-way places. In a sense, however, their lowly status makes them a low security risk. There is no question, for example, of their being used to relay secret messages for al-Qa'ida, because their movements are so restricted. "Even small boys have more privileged lives," says Zaynab.

The Khadr family were not considered part of al-Qa'ida's inner circle, Maha insists, but nor did they mingle with the local Afghan brides of middle-rank Arabs.

"We did not fit in anywhere," sighs Zaynab. "Ninety per cent of the Arabs in Afghanistan were fighters. Not us. We worked hard for an Islamic NGO."

Maha adds: "Most Arabs in al-Qa'ida are seriously rich. But we pay Canadian tax every year and know how to clean our own houses."

What all al-Qa'ida wives have in common, however, is the knowledge that their menfolk live in the ever-present shadow of violence and sudden death. For Maha, responding to such events is an essential part of a wife's duty. When news of Abdul Karim's grisly fate reached her, she emerged from hiding with her girls, hoping to comfort her youngest son. "We were not on the run any more," Zaynab says. "We were just sitting and waiting."

Meanwhile, the Khadr family saga seems to grow more complex by the week. A fourth son, Abdullah, is still on the run. (When media reports linked him to the 2002 suicide bombing of a Canadian patrol in Kabul, he rang up the Canadian broadcasters to deny it.) And then there is the eldest, Abdurahman, who was supposedly languishing in Cuba, only to pitch up suddenly in Bosnia in December, from where he was given passage back to Canada.

To Maha and Zaynab's horror, he now seems to be wearying with the family business of jihad. Earlier this month, he appeared on a television documentary after passing a polygraph test. He claimed that the CIA had coaxed him to spy on al-Qa'ida members in Bosnia in exchange for his release from Guantanamo Bay. On camera, he denounced his family as al-Qa'ida members and confessed that his father had groomed him to be a "loser", a suicide-bomber.

Maha and Zaynab claim to be baffled by Abdurahman's "ugly lies". He has, says Zaynab scornfully: "... always kept bad company. He lies, he cheats, and lies some more. Now he is wacko. He is addicted to things that thrill the brain. He told us the 9/11 planes were like some stunt out of a Jackie Chan video. He is no longer part of this family, because we do not work for our enemies."

This makes it fairly clear where the majority of the family stands ideologically. It is, however, hard to judge the extent of their commitment to the mass slaughter of civilians. Although Zaynab surfs the internet for e-mails and any news of her family, when I meet her she still has not heard about the train bombs that had devastated Spain.

When I tell her about them, she shrugs off these details from the other side of the world and searches instead for an old e-mail from her brother. It reads: "When I was in detention, I talked. I can't lie about it any more. I needed to tell someone so I'm telling you. They wouldn't let me go if I didn't. That's how I got out, by the way. I never went [back] to Afghanistan. I was sent to Bosnia to work for them there. When I got there, that's when I had a chance to run, and I did. Don't let Mom know. It'll break her heart."

Maha still has tender feelings towards her first-born son. "Abdurahman is confused, but he has a good heart. I am afraid that if he is completely cut off, he might harm himself. Allah forgives anything, but not a suicide to ease one's pain. Well, suicide bombing has its own rules; but I don't want him to face hellfires."

Would the family consider going back to Canada, where the maternal grandparents live? Not likely. "I cannot imagine myself in Toronto," Zaynab says, "when my life here is like the nightly news. I would like a little safety. But I will not bow down and say sorry for what I believe in. I won't veil the truth."

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