Family Matters

Bin Laden’s Young Daughter Watched Him Die. Does She Share His Beliefs?

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Associated Press

Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, in an April 1998 file photo

(Updated) It’s a definite downside of being America’s most-wanted terrorist: your days are numbered. Yet if Osama bin Laden could have chosen who would witness his death, one would figure his young daughter would almost certainly not have made the list.

On Wednesday, various news agencies reported that his daughter, reportedly born shortly after 9/11, saw him being shot and killed, then watched as his bloodied body was hoisted onto one of the U.S. Navy Seals’ helicopters.

That daughter appears to be Safiyah, who was born to bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, Amal al-Sadah. According to CNN, bin Laden described to Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir his aspirations for his infant daughter.

(More on Time.comA Celebration of Death: Parents Parse the bin Laden Fall-Out)

“I became a father of a girl after September 11,” he said. “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.”

Those sentiments are worlds apart from what most people wish for their daughters. But Safiyah didn’t choose which family to be born into. As a mother, I can’t help but cringe at the image of her watching her father die.

(More on Who Is bin Laden? Kids Born After 9/11 Want to Know)

What did Safiyah, one of bin Laden’s 20-some children from five wives, know and understand of her father’s political zealotry? It’s anyone’s guess how old bin Laden’s children were when he began sharing his philosophy with them. But judging from his comment to Hamid Mir, the cradle was a fine place to start. At the time of his death, Safiyah probably had a pretty good idea of his beliefs. Cloistered at the compound, surrounded by people who thought as her father did, she probably shares those views.

But enough about terror and holy war; Safiyah likely spent most of her time relating to bin Laden as plain ole Dad. Due to security concerns, he wasn’t out gallivanting around Abbottabad, making him the ultimate stay-at-home father. According to The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, bin Laden took his role as a father seriously:

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.”

News accounts have reported the number of children found at the compound where bin Laden was killed as ranging from six to 23. It’s not clear how many of them were bin Laden’s.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a kid in that walled-off Pakistani enclave. None of the villa’s neighbors in Abbottabad have reported seeing children come and go. Where did they play? Did they have any semblance of schooling? What did they use for toys?

(More on Time.comIt’s a Match: How Officials Used DNA to Identify bin Laden)

In grisly photos released by Reuters on Wednesday of the three men killed in the Navy Seals’ attack in addition to bin Laden, what appears to be a child’s green-and-orange plastic water gun lies near one of the victims. Were the children being taught how to shoot with the toy pistol or was it just being used for the kind of hot-weather mischief kids engage in the world over?

Update [2:30 p.m.]: Inaccurate media reports about the exact age of bin Laden’s daughter have been eliminated from this story. Various news sources cited the girl as being 12, but it is unclear whether these accounts referred to the same daughter who reportedly witnessed her father’s death.