Hiding in plain sight

MARYAM was 14 when her father arranged for her to marry Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, the man who would become the al Qaeda courier of Zero Dark Thirty fame and unwittingly lead the Americans to Osama bin Laden.

Hiding in plain sight

“At the time, she had no idea her husband, Ibrahim, was a mujahid,” says the final report of a Pakistani commission that found her to be its most informative witness in its investigation into the 2011 raid at Abbottabad.

She was only 15 when a car she was in was pulled over by a Pakistani cop who apparently did not imagine any more than she did that the tall, clean-shaven man riding with her and her husband was bin Laden.

She was no more than 16 when she saw a TV news item about the 2003 arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and realised he and his family had just been her house guests for two weeks.

She still did not know the identity of the tall, clean-shaven man until she confronted her husband after a decade of deception and demanded to know the truth about him and his friends.

That was shortly before the fateful raid, in which her husband was killed along with bin Laden. Maryam was shot in the face, but she survived, now 24 and with four children. She had been in the custody of the Pakistani intelligence for five months when she was questioned by the commission.

Her account, which a commission report leaked this week to Al Jazeera terms “generally credible”, began with her arranged marriage in 2001 to the son of a longtime friend of her father.

The couple travelled from their native Shangla district to Karachi, where they enjoyed a Walima dinner, or wedding banquet.

Not long afterwards came the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

She went back to Shangla for a brief time and then returned to Karachi, where she was joined by Ibrahim. He introduced her to a young woman named Amal, who had a baby girl.

Ibrahim told Maryam that Amal was the wife of a friend and was having “some problems with her passport”. He explained that they would all be flying from Karachi to Peshawar, where he hoped to rectify the passport troubles. They travelled to Swat, where they were joined by three men, including “a clean-shaven Arab”.

“All she noticed was that the clean-shaven man was very tall,” the commission reports.

In Swat, they all settled into what she would describe as a beautiful house. Maryam was greatly surprised when Amal became pregnant after they had been in Swat for six months.

“Only then did Maryam realise that Amal was the wife of the tall clean-shaven Arab,” the commission says. “Her husband had discouraged her from being inquisitive.”

The report adds, “Maryam of course had no occasion to speak to the tall Arab”.

They were all heading to a bizarre when a policeman stopped them for speeding. The clean-shaven man sat silent as Maryam’s husband hopped out. “Her husband very quickly sorted out the matter with the policeman and they drove on,” the report says.

The group in the house came to include Ibrahim’s brother, Abrar, who married a woman named Bushra. There were no other visitors save for a man who came for a fortnight with his wife and seven children. Maryam was introduced to him as “Hafeez”.

A month after “Hafeez” and his family departed, Maryam saw his face in an Al Jazeera news report about the arrest in Karachi of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

“She asked her husband about him and he told her he was a great mujahid whose name was actually Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the commission reports. “Ibrahim was extremely upset about his arrest.”

Three days later, Ibrahim and the tall Arab left Swat. Ibrahim returned after two days.

“[Maryam] began to realise that her husband was a mujahid of al Qaeda, though apparently she did not guess the identity of the husband of Amal,” the report says. “She tried to probe Ibrahim, but he firmly told her not to press him for details and not to be too curious.”

They were joined by the tall Arab, along with other women and a young man. The group resided there for two years in a large house in Haripur.

“Amal twice gave birth,” the report notes.

On both occasions, Abrar and Bushra took Amal to a private clinic as an outpatient. The obstetrician, a woman, was told that Amal was deaf and mute.

There were no visitors. Ibrahim and Abrar seldom spent a night away from the tall Arab. They abstained from using their mobile phones. One of the two brothers would travel as far as Peshawar or even Rawalpindi (both about 200km away) to use a pay phone.

In 2005, they all moved to Abbottabad and settled into a walled compound for the next six years. The tall Arab and Amal, along with several other women and a young man, took the upper floors of the main house. Abrar and Bushra took the first floor. Maryam and Ibrahim occupied an annex building along with their four children, the oldest of whom in early 2011 was 9-year-old Rahma.

“One day, [Rahma] asked her father why ‘the uncle who lives upstairs’ in the main house never went to the bazaar,” the report says. “Ibrahim invented a story that he was too poor to go out and buy anything.”

From then, Rahma referred to the man as “Miskin Kaka,” or “Poor Uncle”. She was visiting the main house for school lessons taught by one of the women when she happened to encounter the tall man in a staircase. She and her siblings and their mother were immediately banned from the main house.

Females were allowed to watch TV as long as even those as young as three covered their faces whenever a male appeared on screen. The fateful raid was five months away.

“A picture of Osama bin Laden came on the screen and Rahma immediately recognised him as her Miskin Kaka, who lived upstairs in the main house,” the report says. “Ibrahim in a state of panic stopped his family from watching TV.

“Maryam demanded an explanation as well as the real identity of the so-called Miskin Kaka who was always referred to as the Sheikh.

“Ibrahim at last confessed to Maryam that their daughter was right. Miskin Kaka was none other than Osama bin Laden.”

“Maryam asked Ibrahim how had he taken upon himself such a large responsibility to serve and protect such a wanted man,” the report says. “Ibrahim said it was the will of Allah that he should have this mission.

“Ibrahim apparently said he would be soon be relieved of his responsibilities and get some property in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere to compensate him for his services.”

Maryam now came to understand that the two older women where with Amal were bin Laden’s older wives. The two younger women were his daughters. There were also two of his sons, one an adult, the other a toddler.

Maryam learned that her husband had practically grown up with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Kuwait and that the two were as close as brothers.

What Maryam did not know was that the CIA was zeroing in on her husband as bin Laden’s link to the outside world. The agents at first only identified him by his jihad name, Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti. They learned his real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed and managed to pinpoint him as he made one of his pay phone calls. They then tracked him to the compound.

The CIA wanted to confirm bin Laden was there before risking a strike so deep inside Pakistan and so near its military academy. Bin Laden did not make it easier by never venturing beyond a walled-in area adjacent to the house and even then wearing a cowboy hat to thwart surveillance.

On May 1, Maryam went to bed at 10pm. She was awakened around midnight by what the report describes as “a noise of a magnitude she had never heard before”.

The eldest child, Rahma, was terrified and Ibrahim went to calm her and the other children. The mobile phone he never used rang. He answered and asked if it was his brother calling, but he got no response.

“Abrar, I cannot hear you, I am coming,” he said, by his wife’s account.

A knock came at the door.

“Abrar, is that you?” Ibrahim asked.

Ibrahim was opening the door when he was shot with a silencer-equipped weapon. He fell mortally wounded, his feet happening to close the door he had just opened.

Maryam felt a bullet graze her cheek and teeth. She was also hit in the right shoulder and went down. One of the younger children ran up to her. “Mother, don’t die. If you die, what shall we do?” the child reportedly said.

A voice commanded her in Arabic to open the door.

“You have killed my husband and now only my children and I are in the room,” she responded, by her account.

The order came again, in Arabic and Urdu, along with a warning that otherwise access would be achieved with explosives. Maryam dragged herself over and complied.

The Navy Seals entered and searched her, in her version slapping her when she resisted. She says that she cursed them, telling them in Arabic, “God is great against you”.

Maryam was ordered to sit outside with her children. The surviving women in the main house would tell the commission of bin Laden’s last moments, saying he was reaching for his weapon. Maryam’s brother-in-law, Abrar, and sister-in-law, Bushra, also were killed along with bin Laden’s older son Khalid. None of the dozen children were hurt, and the Seals made sure to move them to a far corner of the compound before destroying their crashed helicopter with a blast whose concussion shattered the buildings’ windows.

The surviving helicopter carried away the Seals along with bin Laden’s body, computer hard drives, and a purse containing his will. His oldest wife, Khairiyyah, would say she had read it but would refuse to divulge its contents.

“Other reports suggested that the will said his children should not seek the leadership of al Qaeda,” the commission says.

Pakistani police and military arrived. An ambulance came to take Maryam to a hospital. She first went back into the annex where Ibrahim lay dead. She kissed the forehead of the man she had married a decade before, when she was just 14.

The CIA, including the agent who is made a hero in Zero Dark Thirty, wanted to just “push the easy button” and bomb the compound, even though that would have meant killing the kids who were clearly visible in the drone surveillance video.

The Seals prevailed and at great risk to themselves saved us from also killing a bunch of youngsters when we finally brought justice to bin Laden.

We now learn from Maryam’s account that he should have been caught years before in the way of so many other common criminals, in a routine traffic stop.

* Michael Daly is a special correspondent with Newsweek and The Daily Beast

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