The U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden and removed a bonanza of documents and flash drives may have left behind a vital source of intelligence: bin Laden's wife Amal Ahmed al-Sadah. The story of how she found her way back to bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan from Yemen could well have revealed crucial clues as to whether Pakistani authorities had been aware of the al-Qaeda leader's presence in their country. And if U.S. officials had been tracking her at the time, they might have found bin Laden sooner.
The White House says that al-Sadah, 24, was shot in the calf when she charged at the SEALs who burst into bin Laden's bedroom, presumably to protect her husband. Bin Laden's body was taken away for burial in the Arabian Sea. But al-Sadah was left behind, along with her young daughter Safiyah, who Pakistani officials say witnessed her father's killing. It is not clear how many of the dozen other children in the compound were bin Laden's. Pakistani officials say bin Laden's wife and daughter are now recovering in a military hospital in Rawalpindi, and they have released al-Sadah's passport photograph.
The photo shows a pale young woman with generous lips. In accordance with Islamic convention, her face is framed by a headscarf and she is wearing no lipstick or makeup. Later Pakistani press reports suggested that bin Laden may have had several other wives staying with him, but his original spouses are believed to be in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, possibly under house arrest.
In 2002, al-Sadah reportedly gave an interview to a Saudi woman's magazine, Al Majalla, in which she explained how, after the 9/11 attacks, she made her way out of Afghanistan back to Yemen with assistance from Pakistani officials.
Bin Laden's widow told her Saudi interviewer at the time, "When the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan started, we moved to a mountainous area with some children and lived in one of the caves for two months until one of his sons came with a group of tribesmen and took us with them. I did not know that we were going to Pakistan until they handed us over to the Pakistani government."
Parts of that account were confirmed to TIME in a telephone interview with an Arab woman who prefers not to be identified but who knew bin Laden personally in Afghanistan and whose family formed part of al-Qaeda's inner circle. After 9/11, al-Qaeda's leadership decided to evacuate their families. "All the families had to leave Afghanistan swiftly," the Arab woman said. "They didn't want their women and children captured." However, one of bin Laden's former aides in Yemen insists that al-Sadah never reached home.
After bin Laden's young bride al-Sadah was then 19 was turned over to the Pakistani authorities, she and Safiyah were released and allowed to fly home to Ibb, a town not far from Sana'a, Yemen's capital, where her father worked as a minor civil servant.
But bin Laden somehow arranged for al-Sadah to rejoin him and his kids in Pakistan. In her magazine interview, she was asked if she would return to her fugitive husband. Her enigmatic reply: "Let us see what happens." Pakistani press quoted officials as saying that al-Sadah claimed to have been living with bin Laden in the Abbottabad safe house for five years.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that U.S. counterterrorism experts spent years trying to decipher the name and the whereabouts of bin Laden's elusive courier, when keeping tabs on his comely young wife might have led them to him sooner.
Then there's the question of whether Pakistani authorities had been aware that bin Laden's wife had returned to their country. Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and a security expert, says it's not impossible to imagine that the Pakistanis could have let al-Sadah leave the country and failed to detect her return. "The Pakistanis would want to get her back home," Grenier tells TIME. "There are cultural taboos that come up with women. They certainly wouldn't facilitate her interrogation by foreigners."
So far, Pakistan is refusing to let U.S. officials anywhere near al-Sadah, who is under guard at a hospital. Chances are that won't change cultural taboos aside, she may know too many uncomfortable truths. Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, said on May 5 that Pakistan is ordering all but the "minimum essential" U.S. personnel to leave the country, a sign that the tense relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have worsened as a result of the Abbottabad raid.
Pakistan's security establishment has long been accused of playing a double game: taking billions in U.S. aid while secretly backing select jihadi militants in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's tribal region. Even al-Qaeda types were expected to play ball. Says the Arab woman formerly connected to al-Qaeda: "There was an understanding with the Pakistani army. We would get a tip-off that the army planned to raid one of our houses in the tribal area. We would flee but leave some 'evidence' behind so that the army could show to the Americans that we'd been there."
CIA Director Leon Panetta said this week that "either [the Pakistanis] were involved or incompetent. Neither is a good place to be." But Grenier suggests a more complex scenario: "I'm not giving an alibi for the Pakistanis, but it's virtually inconceivable that Osama and those close to him would have voluntarily allowed their presence to be known by Pakistani officials, especially given the large number of his followers captured by Pakistan. We don't trust the Pakistanis. Why should he?" On the other hand, he adds, "If his whereabouts were discovered by the Pakistani officials, I can envision them saying, 'He's keeping a low profile, and if we turn him over to the Americans, it will create a real firestorm for us.' "
Al-Sadah may be said to have leaped to her husband's defense during the SEAL raid, but her acquaintance interviewed by TIME remembers her as being shy and meek when she was first brought to Kandahar in 2000 and was staying with one of bin Laden's other wives. "She was new. She was out of place. The sheik's other wives were much older than she was. So were many of his sons," the source claims.
Al-Sadah became bin Laden's fifth wife. His first never got over the fact that the billionaire's son she married preferred a simple hut in Afghanistan to a palace back home. In 2000, bin Laden sent a trusted Yemeni aide, Abual Fida, on the hunt for a new bride. As Fida later told an interviewer, bin Laden wanted his new wife to be "religious, generous, well brought up, quiet, calm and young enough not to feel jealous of the sheik's other wives."
Despite the huge age gap between al-Sadah and bin Laden, her family considered it an honor to marry off their daughter to him. The al-Qaeda chief reportedly paid $5,000 in jewelry and clothes for his teenage bride, who was then brought to Afghanistan to marry the grizzled warrior already on the U.S. most-wanted list for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "To me, it's astonishing that she came back to join him [in Pakistan]," says the source with former ties to al-Qaeda. "None of the other fighters brought back their wives." But did the Pakistani authorities know that she had returned from Yemen? With bin Laden's wife now in Pakistani custody, the White House won't find out anytime soon.
Tim McGirk, a former TIME bureau chief, is a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's investigative reporting program.