Bin Laden’s wives: The terrorist leader endured squabbling spouses and a power struggle his last months, says one account

Laura Rozen

Osama bin Laden's final months don't sound all that happy or stress-free. Before he was killed by a U.S. Navy Seal team this past May, the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks endured nasty squabbling between two of his wives as well as a power grab, where his deputy in al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, effectively sidelined him. The details come from an unpublished investigation by a retired Pakistani general reported on by the New York Times Thursday.

Retired Pakistani Army brigadier general Shaukat Qadir set out in the wake of the U.S. raid last year "to truth-check the competing accounts of bin Laden's last years in Pakistan," the New York Times' Declan Walsh reports. The result of Qadir's investigation is a "novella-length report, still officially unpublished [that] offers tantalizing possibilities about bin Laden's circumstances and the suspicions that drove relations between Pakistan and the United States to the brink."

Because of his senior Pakistani military connections, Qadir was given rare access to bin Laden's former compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad where he conducted his investigation. (The compound was razed by the Pakistani government last month.) Those same ties, however, have also generated some doubts about the veracity of his findings, given Pakistani officials' vehement denials that anyone from the Pakistani security establishment knew the fugitive al-Qaida leader was holed up in the country.

Among the more tantalizing of Qadir's findings: the claim that bin Laden had a kidney transplant in 2002, according to what bin Laden's youngest wife, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, told Pakistani interrogators. The allegation, if verified, "could help explain how the ailing Saudi militant was able to survive with a known kidney ailment," Walsh writes, "but raises questions about who was helping him."  (Recall that American officials for years wondered aloud how an over 6-foot-tall Saudi with a dialysis machine could survive in the Hindu Kush mountains without attracting attention from locals.)

Qadir's account also delves into bin Laden's home life, describing it as vexed by "poisonous mistrust" between two of his five wives: Sadah, the terrorist leader's fifth and youngest wife (who naturally described herself as his favorite to her Pakistani interrogator), and his older first wife, Khairiah Saber, who lived with her family on another floor of the compound. "In the cramped Abbottabad house, [Qadir] was told, tensions erupted" between the two women, Walsh reports.

Indeed, the rivalry was so bitter, according to Qadir's account, that Sadah accused her older rival wife of ratting out their fugitive husband to U.S. spies.

American officials were puzzling over the claims, having had a totally different impression of bin Laden's marital life, and of the two women, when officials conducted their own shorter interrogations.

"Previous American intelligence reports had indicated that the first wife, Ms. Saber, was the closest to bin Laden," Walsh wrote. "The C.I.A. has since interrogated both women in Pakistan; Ms. Saber proved to be 'defiant, difficult and refused to engage,'" according to a former American official.

However, others of Qadir's findings resonated with the former American official. In particular, the contention that bin Laden was essentially pushed aside in his later years by his Qaida number two, the Egyptian-born Zawahiri.

"This divide grew with time, and remained a source of tension until the day bin Laden died," the former Obama administration official, speaking anonymously, told Walsh. "His role had been diminished."

In a further development, Pakistan said Thursday it has charged three of Bin Laden's widows with illegally entering the country.

Pakistan's Interior Minister "said the three had been charged in court, but he did not say when," the Associated Press reported.

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