Watching daddy die

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[Melodramatic, but not something you'll readily hear details about in the course of things. "When it came, the end for Osama bin Laden was swift — trapped and shot in his lair by US special forces. His wives and children saw it all and have given Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy their first account of that bloody night." *RON*]

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Sunday Times, 14 May 2017

From left: Fatima, Abdullah and Hamza, three of Osama bin Laden’s grandchildren; and Hussein, Zainab and Ibrahim, three of the five children he had while on the run with Amal, his fourth and youngest wife. Hussein was in the room when his father, inset, was shot dead and his mother wounded by US special forces at the family’s safe house in Pakistan in 2011
After eating dinner and clearing away the plates, Osama bin Laden’s family prayed, before he and Amal — his fourth and youngest wife — went upstairs to bed. By 11pm on May 1, 2011, the emir of al-Qaeda was deep in sleep. Outside his secret compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad the streets were plunged into darkness as the electricity went out. Power shortages were so common in this Pakistani garrison town that no one noticed in the “Waziristan Palace”, as locals called bin Laden’s house.

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 balcony window. The noise was too mechanical to be thunder. It became more powerful, swirling the air and the yellow flowered curtains at the windows.

Bin Laden sat up in bed with a fearful look on his face. Amal clutched him. The thing hovering above swung violently to the right. They both jumped as a sickening screech tore through the compound. The walls of the house shuddered.

They crept through the darkness to the balcony door. “It was a moonless night and difficult to see,” Amal recalled.

Out of sight, 150ft away, a US military Black Hawk helicopter had ditched in the yard, its tail fin slamming down onto the perimeter wall. The rotors churned up soil and stones in a vegetable patch.

Another Black Hawk had landed in a field. Seal special forces teams scrambled from both. America’s avengers were closing in. Up in the second-floor bedroom, Amal felt certain: the family had been betrayed by one of their own.

This is the first account of the last minutes of bin Laden given by surviving members of his family who were there that night. But the story begins months earlier — years even.

What the attackers did not know was that the compound was riven by tensions — among bin Laden’s wives and between “the Sheikh” and his bodyguards, who were trying to evict him.

Over the years bin Laden’s family, cooped up in the compound, had grown. He had four wives. The first, Najwa, a cousin, had married him at 16 and bore 11 children. She had left him two days before 9/11 but he considered them still married.

The second, Khairiah, a child psychologist who had treated Najwa’s children for developmental problems before marrying into the family, had lived in exile in Iran after 9/11. The third, Seham, a teacher, also fled after 9/11 but was reunited with bin Laden in 2004. The fourth, Amal, married him as a teenager — to the disgust of the older wives — and had been with him in Pakistan the longest, since 2002, and by 2010 had five children.

Strong-willed Khairiah and their son, Hamzah, finally set out to join them after being held in Iran for eight years. Bin Laden was delighted but also deeply suspicious, wondering why the Iranians had released them. He worried that Khairiah was being monitored or followed by Iranian intelligence.

“We need to know if they intended to send you in this direction so they can follow your movement,” he wrote to her. Had Khairiah had her teeth x-rayed? Had anything shown up in her medical examination, like a tracking chip that could be implanted under the skin or in her teeth?

Could she remember the date of her last dental treatment? Or the last time an Iranian doctor had seen her? He demanded “every detail to help me from the security point of view”. Along with the letter, he sent money and a box of Saudi dates to sustain her on her journey back to him. Finally on February 12, 2011, after dark, the huge metal gates of the Abbottabad compound opened to admit a white Suzuki jeep carrying Khairiah. Inside, everyone was on tenterhooks.

It was “the beginning of a new era”, Khairiah told family members who lined up to greet her. Khairiah tried to hug Seham, who stiffened. Amal watched in silence as Khairiah began bossing everyone about as if she had never been away. Bin Laden’s oldest wife could be bait — or have been tracked. Was she a dupe or a traitor?

Upstairs, Khairiah took in the mess. The women’s quarters were filled with dirty bolsters, broken kitchen appliances and old clothes — filthy compared with her husband’s pristine domain. How far standards had slipped since the old days in Jeddah when they had been surrounded by servants.

President Obama ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 ALAMY
On April 29, her son Hamzah arrived — but without his wife and children, and he stayed for only one night. At dawn on April 30 he left. Ninety minutes’ flying time away in Afghanistan, 24 Seals were standing by. That morning in Washington, President Barack Obama gave the order to go ahead. At 11pm local time they took off for Abbottabad.

From a second-floor window, Seham and her son, Khalid, 22, could see the Seals sprinting across the field towards them. “Come up!” They heard bin Laden call out hoarsely to his son.

Khalid pelted upstairs in his pyjamas, clutching an AK-47. “Americans are coming,” he panted. Amal recalled her husband telling her that the last time Khalid had fired a weapon was at the age of 13. Now he would be his father’s last line of defence.

Amal and Seham went to comfort the younger children, who were crying, terrified, in their bunk beds. They glanced fearfully towards Khairiah’s room. Her door was firmly shut.

A blast shook the house as a gate was blown open. The Seals fanned out.

On the top floor of the main house, the bin Laden family gathered to pray, all eyes on the Sheikh. “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, Miriam and Sumaiya, hid 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 shouted: “They’ll see you and shoot.”

Upstairs, Amal, bin Laden and their son Hussein were alone, listening to the pings of rounds and pops of charges. Americans were swarming into their home. The Sheikh muttered prayers. After six years of isolation, Amal realised with cold dread that there was no emergency procedure aside from some 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.

The Seals in the hallway downstairs found that the stairwell to the upper floors was blocked by a locked metal door. It took two blasts to breach it.

As they crept upwards, a face popped up over the balcony before pulling back. The point-man whispered, in Arabic, then in Pashto, “Khalid . . . come here . . .” It was an old bushman’s trick. Khalid leant out just far enough for someone to take the shot. He fell back dead.

Climbing over his body, the advancing Seals reached the top floor. The point-man flicked aside a door curtain and caught sight of a ghostly face peeking out from a doorway 10ft ahead. He fired and the head jerked back.

As the point-man and his No 2 strode across the top landing, two screaming young women charged at them out of the darkness. It was Sumaiya and Miriam, bin Laden’s daughters.

The point-man grabbed one under each arm and propelled them backwards against a wall, trying to shield the rest of the team from the suicide vests he feared they were wearing. It was the first time the girls had ever been touched by a man outside the family and they became hysterical.

A Seal called Robert O’Neill would later claim that he rolled past and into the bedroom, where he came face-to-face with a very tall and skinny Arab in a white prayer cap looking blindly through the darkness. O’Neill noticed there was someone in front of bin Laden — a woman. For a split second, he wavered. Who posed the greater threat?
Seals thumped up the stairs. A volley of shots rang out as vengeful rounds were fired into the body

Before her marriage Amal had said she wanted to go down in history, but she had never expected it to end like this. She saw the American raise his weapon and she instinctively rushed him. He shouted: “No! No!” and, zing. Amal felt a 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 recalled raising his weapon — with its red laser beam — extra high to meet the target’s head. “He’s going down,” he thought as he loosed off a round. “The tall man crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again. Bap! Same place.”

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

Amal, still motionless, listened horrified as the Seals held Sumaiya and Miriam over their dead father, demanding they confirm the dead man’s identity. The room was filled with the noise of women sobbing. The sisters wanted to turn their father’s body towards Mecca, as was traditional after death, but the Americans pressed on.

“What’s his name?” asked a Seal in Arabic.

“The Sheikh.”

“The Sheikh who?”

Miriam whispered: “Abdullah bin Muhammed.”

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

Miriam could not speak. 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, who was hiding on 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 f****** 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 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 her son Khalid, whispered a prayer and knelt to kiss his forehead but the Seals pulled her away.

Five minutes later the body of bin Laden was loaded onto the still-functioning Black Hawk and the Seals were ready to go. Before departing, they tried to corral the surviving women and children in the garden.

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 to 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.

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? Amal clutched Hussein, pulling him closer.

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