The U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin-Laden and removed a bonanza of documents and flash drives may have left behind another vital source of intelligence bin-Laden’s wife, Amal Ahmed Abdul Fatah. The story of how she found her way back to bin-Laden’s hideout in Pakistan from Yemen could well have revealed crucial clues as to whether or not Pakistani authorities had been aware of the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in their country. And if U.S. officials had been tracking her at the time, they may have found bin-Laden sooner.
The White House says that Amal, 24, was shot in the calf when she charged at the SEALs who burst into bin-Laden’s bedroom, presumably trying to protected her husband. Bin-Laden’s body and that of his son Hamza were taken away for burial in the Arabian Sea. But Amal was left behind along with her young daughter, Safiyah, who Pakistani officials say witnessed her father’s killing. It is not clear how many of the dozen other children in the compound were bin-Laden’s. Pakistani officials say bin-Laden’s wife and daughter are now recovering in a military hospital in Rawalpindi, and they have released Amal’s passport photograph.
The photograph shows a pale young woman with generous lips. In accordance with Islamic convention, her face is framed by a head scarf and she is wearing no lipstick or make-up. Later Pakistani press reports suggested that bin-Laden may have had several other wives staying with him, but his original spouses are believed to be in Syria, Saudi Arabia and in Iran, possibly under house arrest.
In 2002, Amal reportedly gave an interview to a Saudi woman’s magazine, al-Majalla, in which she explained how, after the 9/11 attacks, she had made her way out of Afghanistan back to Yemen with assistance from Pakistani officials.
As bin-Laden’s widow told her Saudi interviewer at the time, “When the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan started, we moved to a mountainous area with some children and lived in one of the caves for two months until one of his sons came with a group of tribesmen and took us with them. I did not know that we were going to Pakistan until they handed us over to the Pakistani government.”
Parts of that account were confirmed to TIME in a telephone interview with an Arab woman who prefers not to be identified, but who knew bin-Laden personally in Afghanistan and whose family formed part of al-Qaeda’s inner circle. After 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership had decided to evacuate their families. She says: “All the families had to leave Afghanistan swiftly. They didn’t want their women and children captured.” However, one of bin-Laden’s former aides in Yemen insists Amal never reached home.