With a book written by one of Osama bin Laden's sons, and with news of a daughter sheltering in the Saudi Embassy in Iran, some of the blanks are being filled in on the life of the 9/11 mastermind's large family, including lurid details of his parenting style.
Two weeks ago, the son, Omar bin Laden, revealed that many of the children who had been with their father in Afghanistan escaped to Iran following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and were still together in a walled compound under Iranian guard.
Confirmation came with the news that a daughter, Eman bin Laden, had taken refuge in the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi officials are negotiating with the Iranians to allow Eman to return to Saudi Arabia, where she was born. On Tuesday Omar bin Laden told The Associated Press that he, as well as his wife and mother, had applied for visas to go to Tehran and help speed Eman's case.
Omar and his wife, Zaina Alsabah, later e-mailed the AP to report that another bin Laden son, 16-year-old Bakr, had been allowed to leave on Dec. 25. It said, "He arrived with great joy at the destination of his choice" and was with relatives. The e-mail did not disclose where Bakr was, but said he was not in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden's family was already under the spotlight in "Growing Up Bin Laden," written by Omar and his mother, Najwa bin Laden, and published in late October.
The book describes a brood of children — up to 20 from different wives — who were raised from an early age by an authoritarian father who shunned the luxury his inherited wealth could buy.
No laughter, or toys
The mother and son write that the kids grew up in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan without laughter or toys, were routinely beaten, and lost their pets to painful death from poison gas experiments by their father's fighters.
When they became young adults, their father asked them to volunteer for suicide missions. When Omar protested, bin Laden was quoted as replying: "You hold no more a place in my heart than any man or boy in the entire country. This is true for all my sons."
It was then, Omar recounted, that he "finally knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons."
Speaking to AP, Omar recalled visiting his father's training camps in Afghanistan and being sent to the front lines of the civil war that tore Afghanistan in the 1990s.
"I nearly lost my life so many times," he said. "People may ask why I left my father. I left because I did not want anyone to choose my destiny. ... And I believe I chose correctly, for I chose life. I chose peace."
Osama bin Laden was 17 when he married his Syrian first cousin, Najwa, then 15. The couple lived in the western port city of Jiddah, where bin Laden took three more wives.
In Jiddah's suffocating heat, the family was denied the use of refrigerators and air conditioners. When Omar's asthma got bad, his father ordered him to treat it with honeycombs and onions.
In the early 1990s, bin Laden fell out with the Saudi royal family over the presence of U.S.-led troops on Saudi soil and moved his wives and children to Sudan. There he owned farms, grew sunflowers and set up several businesses.
On a nighttime camping trip outside Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, bin Laden told his oldest sons to dig ditches in the desert and then ordered his wives and children to each lie in one of them, according to the book. When someone complained of the desert cold, bin Laden said they should cover themselves with dirt or grass.
"Do not think about foxes or snakes," the book quoted him as saying. "Challenging trials are coming to us."
In 1994, the Saudi government stripped bin Laden of his citizenship.
The next year five Americans were killed by a car bomb outside a U.S. military training center in Riyadh. It was the first attack on Saudi soil that the government blamed on bin Laden followers.
Bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan in 1996. He moved his family — minus his second wife and her children, who had left him — to stone huts without electricity or running water high on a mountain in Tora Bora in Afghanistan.
There he took a fifth wife, believed to be a Yemeni. He sent his children to the front lines of the Afghan civil war and made them attend hours of jihadist indoctrination.
In the book, Omar described how one day, while sitting with his father on the mountain, bin Laden told him about his plan is to destroy the U.S. from within.
"I sat mute, feeling not one jolt of passion for my father's life," Omar wrote. "I only wanted him to be like other fathers, concerned with his work and his family."
On Sept. 9, 2001, Najwa left her husband and returned to her native Syria, taking with her a son and her two youngest daughters. Eman, Omar's sister, was left behind with her father and siblings. Omar, who by then was 20, had left the family and Afghanistan earlier that year.
Fled to Iran
In a Dec. 23 interview with Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Omar said the bin Laden children were told to flee after the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan began, and they ended up in neighboring Iran.
He told the paper that the family had been unsure of their fate until Eman's escape.
It has long been believed that Iran has in custody a number of bin Laden's children who fled Afghanistan, most notably Saad and Hamza, who are thought to have held positions in al-Qaida.
But Iran never confirmed it and claimed to have been surprised to discover Eman was in the Saudi embassy.
Besides 17-year-old Eman, the siblings in Iran include Othman, 25, Fatima, 22, Hamza, 20, and Bakr, 15 along with 25 other relatives, among them bin Laden's daughters-in-law and 11 grandchildren, according to Omar.
Five other children are in Saudi Arabia and three in Syria, he said.
Son Saad left the compound less than a year ago and his whereabouts are unknown, Omar told the AP in an e-mail last month. This year, U.S. officials said Saad, who would have been 30, may have died in a U.S. drone airstrike in Pakistan.
Refuge in Saudi Embassy
Omar told the paper that after eluding her Iranian guards, Eman managed to contact her brother Abdullah, bin Laden's first-born. He had left the bin Laden household in the 1990s when they all lived in Sudan, and is now in Saudi Arabia.
He advised her to seek immediate refuge in the Saudi Embassy, the paper said.
Omar and his wife, Alsabah, both spoke to the AP. Alsabah said the compound occupied by bin Laden's family is on the outskirts of Tehran and has several houses, gardens and a swimming pool.
"They are well-treated," she said.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are strategic rivals in the Middle East, and the sensitivities surrounding the bin Laden family's case are such that she asked that her and her husband's present whereabouts not be revealed.
Omar said getting his sister out of Tehran was "a family issue" and "It has nothing to do with politics."