The Future Of Bin Laden's Daughter

Illustration for article titled The Future Of Bin Laden's Daughter

Reports of Osama Bin Laden's death consistently mentioned a daughter, aged 12 or 13, who may have watched him die. What do we know about this girl, her life, and her future?


A number of children were captured in the raid on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, but one stands out: his 12-year-old daughter (some reports say she's 13), who witnessed his death. The Telegraph even says she helped US forces identify her father's body. The Guardian reports that her name is "Safina, Safia or Ayesha," that she may have been wounded by a grenade fragment during the raid, and that she and her mother were taken to a military hospital.

It's hard to find out much about Safina/Safia/Ayesha's life, perhaps because she wasn't allowed out much. According to Reuters, Bin Laden's children had to stay inside their compound most of the time, and "weren't allowed to go to nearby schools to avoid being traced." Instead, they were educated at home by two educated Saudi Arabian women, one of whom held an advanced degree in Islamic law. Given this, it's likely that they learned at least some of their father's politics. And Time quotes Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower:

Unlike his own father, Osama was attentive and playful with his children - he loved to take his quickly expanding family to the beach - but he was also demanding. He had unyielding ideas about the need to prepare them for the tough life ahead. On the weekends, he brought both his sons and his daughters with him to the farm to live with camels and horses. They would sleep under the stars, and if it was cold, they would dig and cover themselves with sand. Bin Laden refused to let them attend school, instead bringing tutors into the house, so he could supervise every detail of their education. "He wanted to make them tough, not like other children," said Jamal Khalifa [a close friend]. "He thought other kids were spoiled."

They also quote Bin Laden himself:

I became a father of a girl after September 11. I named her after Safiyah who killed a Jewish spy at the time of the Prophet. [My daughter] will kill enemies of Islam like Safiyah.

This seems to be the same daughter who eventually witnessed his death, although the math doesn't quite work out — she may be younger than the other reports suggest. Whatever the case, his statement is chilling — and indeed, his daughter's entire situation is pretty disturbing. It's not clear what the US will do with her and the other children now in its custody, but a lot of the options look pretty bad. According to The Star, the kids could be sent to an orphanage, but conditions in government-run Pakistani orphanages are grim. Some in Pakistan want them sent to a madrassa, but an Pakistani ex-diplomat says, "It'd be a huge mistake. The children would have a cult following and almost certainly become jihadis."

Clearly this is a real concern, and perhaps especially in the case of the daughter who witnessed her father's death, and whose very name may have been chosen for its relationship to jihad. By weird coincidence, her life in some ways parallels a trope in recent cinema: that of the fighting girl. As Manohla Dargis points out, in today's movies "it's no longer enough to be a mean girl, to destroy the enemy with sneers and gossip: you now have to be a murderous one." And while Safiyah hasn't murdered anyone, her upbringing is a little like that of the titular teen in Hanna — she was raised in isolation, and if we take Bin Laden's words at face value, she was raised to kill. If this were a movie, she'd spend a few years training, and then wreak her revenge on her father's killers. The job of the US now is to make sure things don't turn out like that.


Osama Bin Laden's Daughter Witnessed His Death, Says Pakistani Official [Guardian]
'In Front Of Her Eyes': Osama Bin Laden's Teen Daughter Witnessed Death [ABC]
Bin Laden's Young Daughter Watched Him Die. Does She Share His Beliefs? [Time]
Osama Bin Laden's Daughter Watched Special Forces Shoot Him Dead [Telegraph]
Children In bin Laden Hideout Home-Schooled To Guard Secret [Reuters, via MSNBC]
Hands Bound In Takedown, What Will Happen To Bin Laden's Children? [The Star]
Gosh, Sweetie, That's A Big Gun [NYT]


recovering blurker

This is the kind of ignorant shit that perpetuates racism and Islamophobia.

As some commenters below have said, madrassa is a school, jihad is 'struggle' (first and foremost a struggle against the weakness of the self on the road to spiritual purity), and the etymological meaning of Safia is 'pure,' that of Safiyyah 'pure' and 'dear/best friend.'

Writers like Anna North might be taking for granted that readers will be aware of the ways in which these terms and names have been misappropriated by extremists and terrorists. I feel incredible disappointment when I hear people use words like mujahid(een) and jihad in the same sentence as terrorism without mentioning that these terms have been bastardised.

The facts here are that we know very little about the form or content of the education bin Laden's children received. We're largely in the realm of speculation and there's no indication when, if ever, more compelling narratives will emerge. If we're convinced that bin Laden educated and trained this daughter and other children to be America-hating killing machines, then that's a substantial concern for many folks and states around the world. In the meantime, can we just agree (even a little bit) that names are rarely deterministic? There's a longstanding Islamic tradition of naming kids that translate to some culturally established/recognised virtue (piety, friendship, chastity, etc.). Yet few Fatimas, Aishas, Rabiyas Iffats, and Safiyyahs live out their etymological meanings, much less turn into exotic-eyed, jihadi killahs.