The six wives (and many children) of Osama bin Laden

What will become of the large and complicated family left behind by the world's most wanted man?

There is a picture of Osama bin Laden as a 14-year-old teenager sitting on the boot of a car alongside more than 20 of his half-brothers and sisters. The photo was taken during a family holiday to Sweden in 1971 and shows how the man who went on to found al-Qa'ida spent at least some of his teens as a lanky, awkward-looking adolescent in brown flares surrounded by an enormous extended family.

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As the West's public enemy No 1 for nearly a decade, the Osama bin Laden most of us have come to know was an uncompromising, merciless blood-letter. A man whose hatred of the kuffar (unbelievers) was so intense that he could justify killing thousands of non-combatants and many more adherents of his own faith in pursuit of his political goals.

But Bin Laden was also a family man. To those who knew him he was the Saudi millionaire turned warrior ascetic, who loved poetry and bracing walks in the mountains; who rarely ate meat and was staunchly committed to his kith and kin – even when they publicly denounced him or abandoned his jihad.

Analysts have expressed little surprise that the compound where Bin Laden was eventually tracked down was also home to his youngest wife and six children. Despite waging his own war for the best part of 30 years – 15 of them spent largely on the run in Afghanistan – Bin Laden had always managed to keep his loved ones nearby. "That's what the mujahedin do," Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former head of the Bin Laden unit, told The Independent. "They have no problems taking their families to the front lines."

In the summer of 2000, weeks after his fifth marriage to 15-year-old Yemeni Amal al-Sadah, Bin Laden gave an interview to a jihadist publication in which he talked about the importance of keeping his family close despite the risks to them. "It is my desire that my children grow up in an atmosphere of jihad and absorb Islam in its true spirit," he said. "Believe me, when your children and your life become part of your struggle, life becomes very enjoyable."

As US Navy Seals rappelled on to the roof of the al-Qa'ida founder's compound in the early hours of Monday, at least two family members were still very much part of that struggle. Far from being used as an involuntary human shield, as initial reports suggested, Amal al-Sadah appears to have tried to protect her husband by rushing the Seal team as they stormed into his room. She was shot in the leg and remains under guard in a Pakistani military hospital as the US fights to try to access her. Bin Laden's son Hamza, 20, was thought to be one of the four other people killed in the raid.

Press reports swiftly labelled Amal al-Sadah as Bin Laden's "youngest and favourite" wife, but the truth is that by the time of his death the al- Qa'ida leader had no other wives left.

Much of what we know about Osama Bin Laden as a father and husband comes from his first wife, Syrian-born Najwa Ghanem, and his fourth eldest son Omar. Both spent years trailing the al-Qa'ida leader as he returned a hero from the anti-Soviet jihad, resettled in Saudi Arabia, fell out with the kingdom's regime and moved to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan to wage his war on what he saw as apostate rulers in the Muslim world and their Crusader backers. Life was harsh and eventually the pair decided to return to Saudi Arabia, just days before the 9/11 attacks took place.

As Lawrence Wright described in his book The Looming Tower: "The man [Najwa] had married was not a mujahid [warrior] or an international terrorist; he was a rich Saudi teenager. The life she might have expected as bin Laden's wife was one of wealth... Instead, she had lived a life on the run, deprived, often in squalor. She had sacrificed so much, but now she was free."

Three more wives stayed in Afghanistan after al-Qa'ida's strikes on America but eventually fled to Iran. They were placed under house arrest until a deal was reached to send them to Syria, where they remain.

Tracked down in march 2002 by a London-based Arab journalist, one of those wives, speaking anonymously, described Bin Laden as a contemplative man who angered quickly if she asked too many questions but provided individual homes for each of his spouses. "There were two wives in Kandahar, each with her own house. The third wife had a house in Kabul, and the fourth in the Tora Bora mountains," she said. It is likely that Amal al-Sadah was the wife at Tora Bora, the cave complex where – until his death this week – was the last known location of Bin Laden.

Little is known about how involved Bin Laden's offspring are in his organisation. Saad bin Laden, the third eldest son who was thought to have been killed by a drone strike in 2009, was generally regarded as the most militant. His two eldest and Omar are known to be in Saudi Arabia and not thought to be involved in militancy. There are a further four sons between the ages of 27 and 20 who could be anywhere – which partly explains why US officials are so determined to get access to Amal al-Sadah. The Pakistani military is also thought to be holding all the surviving members of Monday's raid and they too could be a trove of further information if American investigators can get to them.

Bin Laden's wider family have kept a discreet silence about the slaying of their kinsmen. In the years proceeding 9/11 they publicly denounced the black sheep of the family as Saudi Arabia tried to deflect attention away from the fact that the world's most-wanted terrorist – and 15 of the hijackers – were of Saudi origin.

But even though they castigated him, Bin Laden never returned fire with his own condemnations, even when Najwa and Omar abandoned him. "My family members are praying for me and no doubt have gone through a lot of difficulties," he once told a reporter. "But God gave them the courage to face all that."

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