Bin Laden Wives and Children to be Deported

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Osama Bin Laden also had a US bounty on his head but the 25 million dollars were not paid out after US Navy Seals tracked down and killed the al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan last year. His three wives and two adult daughters who were in the Abbottabad compound with Bin Laden ended up in Pakistani custody after the raid. They've been under house arrest since then. Yesterday, a Pakistani court ordered that they be deported to their home countries, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, by April 15. Declan Walsh is the New York Times Pakistan correspondent. He joins us from Islamabad. How surprising is it, Declan, that Pakistani authorities say that they will deport these women rather than continue to hold on to them?

Declan Walsh: You know, the whole thing is quite puzzling. Just a month ago, we had indications in the Pakistani authorities that they were going to deport these women immediately to their countries. Then all of a sudden, there was this effort to prosecute them. Under the laws here, they would have potentially faced up to five years in prison. Instead, in the end, the court was quite lenient. And it really just raises questions that have caught to their testimony about, you know, how they managed to stay with Bin Laden, on the run all those years. And secondly, it raises questions about what further they might have to add about the movements of Osama Bin Laden, about the workings of al-Qaeda here in Pakistan before the Americans caught up with them last May.

Werman: Right. 'Cause you'd think that Osama Bin Laden's three wives and two adult daughters, they'd be considered associates of Bin Laden at the highest level and therefore, an important source of intelligence.

Walsh: Well, it's not clear whether they would be considered as terrorist associates as such. We really don't know whether they played any active role in the workings of al-Qaeda. But what we do know is that these are people who would be intimately aware of his movements, pretty much over the entire 10-year period when Bin Laden was on the run, very much a fugitive from pretty much all of the major intelligence agency of the Western world at the very least. And they would have the answers to a lot of these questions that, you know, we in West have been puzzling over all of this time about how did Bin Laden manage to evade the CIA and other authorities, you know, where was he hiding? And most particularly here in Pakistan, the question of course is, who was hiding him?

Werman: Hmm.

Walsh: So they certainly have some very sensitive information in their possession. I have a lot of speculation about why they are being prosecuted, centered on that idea that maybe people wanted to, you know, keep control of them in order to control what information they'd be able to give the outside world.

Werman: What's been the reaction in Pakistan to this outcome? This deportation?

Walsh: It's been very low key to be honest, and Pakistanis are concentrated on other things at the moment. There is a parliamentary debate that's ongoing, which is about the broader relationship with the US. So, the Bin Laden wives have been in the background but it still raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, particularly for Pakistani intelligence, about how they managed to stay at large in Pakistan for so many years. And it raises questions about just who exactly was helping them.

Werman: Yeah, good question. I mean, after the US raid on the Bin Laden compound, just one question that stands out, whose jurisdiction have these people been under and who has been behind the decisions about what to charge them with?

Walsh: Well, in the very beginning, this was all extremely cloudy and these women just disappeared into the custody of Pakistani intelligence. They have been debriefed and interrogated for a large part of the last nine months or so. As we understand it, the youngest wife, Amal, she's the lady who's from Yemen, has been most cooperative in the sense that she's spoken to the authorities, that she's outlined certainly a version of what happened over the last decade. But the other two wives, both of whom are from Saudi Arabia, have apparently been much less cooperative. They've told the investigators next to nothing as far as we know. And all three wives have, I think, briefly, certainly being, interrogation or spoken with American investigators. But I think because relations with Pakistan have been so poor for most of that time, the Americans have to some degree relied on secondhand accounts that they have gotten through Pakistani intelligence.

Werman: Now Declan, some of our listeners may recall that there was a second helicopter in last year's raid on the Bin Laden compound. That helicopter crashed. Is it known whether the US was hoping to use that chopper to transport the Bin Laden family somewhere?

Walsh: It's really not clear. In fact, there were at least three helicopters involved in the operation on Pakistani soil. You had two helicopters at the Bin Laden site. You had a third helicopter that was waiting at a mountain location as a backup in case something went wrong with one of the first two, which of course is what happened. And, we just don't have enough information at the moment to know exactly what the intentions were toward the wives. After Bin Laden was killed, the US Forces left with his body but they left behind notably his wives. One of his wives, the youngest one Amal, was wounded but the Americans notably did not choose to take her with them. In fact, obviously, they didn't take anybody with them. They only took Bin Laden's body and they left her behind. And they were discovered some hours later by the Pakistani intelligence when they came up on the scene.

Werman: What about the underage children of these women who are also in custody? Osama Bin Laden's Yemeni wife, you mentioned, Amal Fatah had two sons with Osama Bin Laden who are now about eight and six years old. You'd think that al-Qaeda followers might rally behind Bin Laden's sons at some point in the future. Will anyone be keeping track of them or will they just disappear now?

Walsh: Well, one of the sons who is present in the house, his name was Khalid and he was 20 years old. He was killed by the advancing American forces. His older children, his older surviving children from that raid are both women. Both of those have been charged under these recent charges and will be deported in the next couple of weeks. So, most of the other children, it seems, are minors. One of the very interesting things that came out of Amal Fatah's account to Pakistani officials which surfaced last week, well, that she said that she had actually in fact given birth to four children. Two, while they were hiding in a place called Haripur, and two while they were living in that house in Abbottabad. For the first two children, she said that she delivered those babies while she was at a government hospital in Haripur. By her account, she only stayed in the hospital for two to three hours on each occasion presumably so that she wouldn't attract attention. But it kind of raises these very uncomfortable questions for the Pakistani authorities about how these people who obviously were not from Pakistan, how they managed to avoid even arousing the suspicions of local officials and the authorities in these towns where they were living.

Werman: And what about Saudi Arabia and Yemen? Do they want these people back?

Walsh: Well, the government of Yemen has been very clear that it does want Amal Fatah back. And the Saudis have been a little bit more ambiguous but there have been some suggestions that the Saudi authorities have, at the very least, they're prepared to issue travel documents that would enable these other two wives to travel back to their home country. But what would happen to them subsequent to that is really just not clear right now.

Werman: What sense do you have of the reaction among the US intelligence community to the news that Pakistan plans to deport these people, Declan? Didn't the US want access to Bin Laden's wives?

Walsh: Well, the US does want access to Bin Laden's wives. But, I think there are two issues. One is the deportation of these women wouldn't necessarily hurt. In fact, it may enhance the Americans' chance of speaking with them because of course, the governments of both Yemen and Saudi Arabia have quite close relations to the US. In fact, arguably to some degree, closer relations than they do with Pakistan at the moment. And then secondly, there is an issue of whether these women themselves would be willing to speak to Americans in this country or indeed in any other one.

Werman: Declan Walsh, the New York Times Pakistan correspondent, speaking with us from Islamabad. Thank you very much Declan.

Walsh: My pleasure.