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"Don't Let bin Laden Family Become Martyrs"

Pakistani police officers secure the area outside the house where Osama bin Laden's family is being detained in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 2, 2012.
AP Photo

"Don't Let bin Laden Family Become Martyrs"

Op-Ed, The Boston Globe

April 5, 2012

Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security


THIS WEEK, a Pakistani court sentenced the three widows of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to 45 days in prison for immigration offenses. It may seem mild, insulting, even shameful to his many victims worldwide. But the long-term benefits are immeasurable. The bin Laden clan should not be made into figures of sympathy, forced to serve endless prison sentences. They may carry his name, but they cannot be allowed to carry his legacy of martyrdom.

Simply, the family must be made irrelevant. The movement their patriarch led is in search of inspiration and influence. His widows and children are ideal magnets to help unify the tattered forces of Al Qaeda. The best attitude now toward this whole lot is one big yawn. It will take a large dose of magnanimity, but it is worth it.

In three steps, bin Laden's immediate family can be turned into a minor footnote in the history of terror.

Step one: Get them out of Pakistan, where their detention is already galvanizing supporters of bin Laden. A widow's brother even hailed the Pakistani verdict as a "victory for the oppressed after a tough time." Hard to swallow, but Pakistan can ill afford to house the symbolic magnets of Al Qaeda for much longer. Since the May 2, 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, the family has been held in detention and interrogated for information about how their patriarch managed to avoid detection for so long.

With time served, and a mere $110 fine, the family members who lived with bin Laden — the widows, eight children, and five grandchildren — could leave Pakistan by the end of the month.

Since the Pakistanis claim that they did not know the Al Qaeda leader was living in a large house in Abbottabad with 28 family members and staff, they are unreliable, or incompetent, allies. According to one of the widows, he managed to live in five different homes, maintain a large household, and father four additional children while on the run. The youngest child is now 3. Two of those children were born in Pakistani government hospitals.

Step two: Find a willing country to house them and keep them together. The bin Laden clan is not only large, it is also young. Yemeni Amal al-Sada was bin Laden's favorite wife. She is only 30 years old. Bin Laden's son Khaled was an adult, but he was killed in the raid; most of his children are in their teens or younger. They can't all just be wished away.

Two countries may have the hosting honor, though it is still not clear whether they are willing to keep the group united. Yemen is the home of al-Sada, who was shot in the leg during the raid. Yemen has agreed to have her and her children back.

Saudi Arabia is the ancestral home of the two other widows, as well as bin Laden. His family remains a powerful business influence there. Saudi Arabia has made no public statements about the returning bin Ladens.

The widows want to stay together. The United States should use its remaining influence over Saudi Arabia and Yemen to insist the countries cooperate and find the family a single home. The request is not unreasonable, and it will surely make the third and final step that much easier.

Step three: Watch them for a very long time. Give them freedom, but don't leave them alone. By their mere name, the family holds tremendous power. Their whereabouts and actions should be tracked by intelligence agencies. The future career ambitions of the children should be followed, in hopes that they veer toward the arts and literature — anything but politics. Their visitors and friends should be monitored. Strategic leaks should keep their supporters on edge. Hopefully, the CIA is already retrofitting any future home.

In a few years, these widows and children will be long forgotten by the public. They will be a manageable nuisance.

Closure comes in many forms, including insignificance. It is a fate that Osama bin Laden spent his life trying to avoid. It seems just to impose it on his family.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

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For Academic Citation:

Kayyem, Juliette. "Don't Let bin Laden Family Become Martyrs." The Boston Globe, April 5, 2012.

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