Welcome to the home life of OBL, mass murderer and shameless polygynist

Independent on Sunday, 6 May 2012

You know that moment when you’re with your current partner and one of your exes turns up? Imagine what it’s like when the ex turns out not to be an ex at all, and wants to move in with you. That’s what happened to Osama bin Laden last year when a wife he hadn’t seen for years, Khairiah,turned up at his compound in Pakistan.

Bin Laden, who was 54, had enough problems in Abbottabad even before Khairiah showed up. According to documents seized during the raid on his compound last year, he spent his final years struggling to control various international terrorist groups which desperately wanted to be associated with the al-Qa’ida franchise, but kept tarnishing the brand by blowing up other Muslims. Bin Laden liked to regard himself as being involved in “general jihadi work” – it sounds so much more routine than planning mass murder – and he got increasingly irritated by the unruly behaviour of AQ’s affiliates.

One of his closest associates complains in the documents, which have just been analysed by the Combating Terrorism Centre in the US, about jihadi websites distorting the image of al-Qa’ida”. They weren’t selling ice cream, for god’s sake, but bin Laden was keen to centralise the business of sending out jihadi press releases. At one point he even remonstrates with one of AQ’s Pakistani affiliates, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, complaining about “vile mistakes” and warning that he might be forced to take “firm legal steps from our side”.

What he had in mind is hard to fathom, given that he was in hiding, but after years on the run it’s perhaps not surprising that his threats sound empty. In what may be another sign of his uncertain status, bin Laden politely declines a request from Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, leader of the Somali terrorist organisation Al Shabab, to be allowed to join AQ. Al Shabab is a notoriously dreadful organisation but analysts who’ve read the originals say bin Laden’s letter ‘has echoes of the “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse’.

One of Bin Laden’s thorniest problems was Iran, which held several members of his family hostage after they fled Afghanistan in 2001. The Iranians hung on to his adult daughter, Fatima, and her husband for years, and in 2010 Bin Laden insists that the couple must be released together. “It is not fair to separate women from their husbands,” he writes, adding that he also wants the release – you’ll need to pay attention to this bit – of his daughter’s husband’s second wife.

Bin Laden though of himself as a family man and by the time 62-year-old Khairiah turned up at the compound from Iran, he had an awful lot of it with him. Khairiah didn’t get on with bin Laden’s youngest wife, Amal, who was less than half her age, and I can’t help feeling sorry for a third wife, Siham, who had to sleep in the computer room. I don’t normally use phrases like “hen-pecked”, but these shameless polygynists set women against each other and they richly deserve the bad atmosphere it causes. I just hope that trying to placate all of them – three wives, eight children, five grandchildren, not to mention the leader of Al Shabab - was as much a nightmare as it sounds.

I’m not even surprised that the world’s most wanted man resorted to using Just for Men hair dye and a vegetable-based aphrodisiac. This jihadi business is a slog, especially when the missuses keep giving you grief.

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