Three widows of Osama bin Laden and some of his daughters have been interviewed by American intelligence officials in Pakistan, U.S. officials have told the Guardian.
The three women, a Yemeni and two Saudis, were found by local security forces at the compound in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad where bin Laden was shot dead on May 2.
Members of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency were reported to be present at the interview, which took place on Tuesday or Wednesday. The eldest of the three women — believed to be Khariraih Sabar, bin Laden's third wife — is understood to have spoken for them all.
A U.S. official in Islamabad said some of bin Laden's daughters were also interviewed. The women displayed a hostile attitude towards the U.S. officials, he said, which was “not overly surprising considering that we had killed their husband or father”.
One of bin Laden's sons, 22-year-old Khaled, was killed and bin Laden's youngest wife, 29-year-old Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, was wounded in the calf in the raid.
The ISI made no official comment on the meeting, but an American official said U.S. investigators were allowed to meet the women “fairly briefly”.
Pakistani intelligence services had been slow to grant access to the three, in part to show displeasure at not being warned about the operation to kill or capture bin Laden.
The survivors of the attack on the compound are seen as potentially key sources of intelligence by American investigators. Around a dozen children, aged from two to 12, were also found at the site of the raid. These include Bin Laden's children — a 12-year-old daughter witnessed her father's death — and several grandchildren.
One particular area of interest for US intelligence is bin Laden's finances. American intelligence specialists searching the computer data and documents seized in the raid are hoping to find evidence identifying major donors.
Rather than rely on his personal fortune, which intelligence analysts believe to have been dissipated by the early 1990s, bin Laden is thought to have maintained a personal network of private donors based primarily in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf who supplied millions of dollars over the years.
Revelations about the sources of al-Qaeda's funding could embarrass some American allies in the region.
“Clearly there could be some diplomatic fallout if — for example some high profile figure in one of those states is cited somewhere,” said a recently retired U.S. official with knowledge of the operation to analyse the data retrieved from bin Laden's safe house.
“But the feeling is we'll cross that bridge when we come to it and someone else can make a decision about releasing any names.”
An inspiration for the team working on the documents and computer hard disks, reported to be based in a special centre set up near the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is the discovery of documents in 2002 which related to the financing of an Islamic charity working in the Balkans in the early 1990s with links to radical Islam. Though their authenticity was challenged, these exposed a series of channels through which money flowed into militant hands and also contained minutes of the meetings in 1988 in Pakistan at which al-Qaeda had been founded. The documents named a number of Saudis as key financiers of bin Laden's operations.
The American investigators are also scouring an extensive archive of e-mails apparently sent by the al-Qaeda leader. His walled compound in Abbottabad was without telephone or internet connections, so bin Laden sent messages by typing them on a computer and saving them on a flash drive. A trusted courier would send the messages from an internet cafe far from the safe house.
The Navy SEAL special forces who carried out the raid seized about 100 flash memory drives from the compound which officials said comprised an archive of exchanges between bin Laden and associates around the world. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011