THE family of Osama bin Laden is at the centre of a diplomatic row between Pakistan and the US, which wants to question his three wives about al-Qa’ida and his Pakistani sympathisers.
The White House is also worried that more stories will emerge from the family members that could undermine the official version of the raid in which US forces killed bin Laden, and further strain relations between the two countries.
The US has already had to revise several details of the assault.
US officials also suspect that bin Laden’s family could tell them who supported him in Pakistan, not information that Islamabad would be happy to release.
Bin Laden’s death has caused a political crisis in Pakistan, and the survivors have become pawns in an escalating row between Washington and Islamabad over what was known about bin Laden’s hideout.
The wives were among a group of 20 women and children left behind after the raid, in which three other men and a woman were killed.
American officials believe that bin Laden’s three wives, two Saudis and a 29-year-old Yemeni, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, may also hold key information about the al-Qa’ida leader’s support network within Pakistan.
“Our guess is that the wives knew just who was keeping bin Laden alive for all these years,” an American official told The New York Times.
Sixteen children and four women were found by Pakistani security forces in the compound in Abbottabad after the raid. As many as eight or nine of the children are believed to be the offspring of bin Laden.
Ms al-Sadah has reportedly told Pakistani investigators that she never left the third floor of the compound, a strict form of purdah not uncommon in Wahabbism, which bin Laden followed.
But she is believed to have the greatest intelligence value. She was shot in the leg during the raid, reportedly after launching herself at the assault team, and is being treated at a military facility in Rawalpindi.
In a 2002 interview with a Saudi women’s magazine, Al Majalla, Ms al-Sadah explined how she had left Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and gone home to Yemen with help from Pakistani officials.
American investigators will be interested in how she got back to Pakistan, rejoining her husband first in a small village outside Abbottabad, and later in the garrison city itself.
Pakistani intelligence officers say the women and children are in “protective custody” and will be deported to their home countries after Pakistani investigations are over.
But their prospects of repatriation are clouded by the American demands for access and issues over their current nationality.
Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 and it is unclear if Riyadh will accept his wives’ return. Yemen is in turmoil, with three months of protest against President Saleh.
The CIA “categorically denies” reports emanating from Pakistan that one of bin Laden’s sons was taken from the compound by helicopter along with his father’s dead body.