The Mauritanian, certain the pact was holding, now called for bin Laden’s family. One of the wives and many of the children, Hamza included, arrived in Iran in mid-2002, initially settling in a fortified farmhouse, east of Zabol, an Iranian border town mainly inhabited by Arab nationals, where Arabic was the lingua franca. Hamza, unable to get used to his new life, wrote to bin Laden. “Oh father! Where is the escape and when will we have a home? Oh father! I see spheres of danger everywhere I look,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter we saw. By mid-2003, the Quds Force had gathered Hamza, his half brothers and sisters, their mothers, and the al-Qaeda military and religious councils in Iran and escorted them to a heavily guarded training center in one of the former Shah’s palaces in northern Tehran. Only Zarqawi and the fighters from Zarqar, his hometown, did not come. The Quds Force had offered them funding and weapons, transporting them, via Kurdistan, to Baghdad, where they began targeting U.S. troops.
But even at that point, the future was not at all certain for al-Qaeda’s clerical and military leaders in Iran, nor for bin Laden’s family. The Quds Force continued offering to hand over all of them to the U.S at discreet meetings in Switzerland that took place up until April 2003. The White House continued to decline.
By 2006, the outfit had rebounded, and bin Laden’s family decided to try to reach him, wherever he was hiding in Pakistan, against the wishes of the Iranians. Hamza suggested he go first but was vetoed as too fragile, and emotional. At 19, he “would never survive on his own,” his mother told him, according to Mahfouz and half siblings of Hamza we interviewed. Hamza’s wife, Asma, had just given birth to a daughter. Instead, Hamza’s half-brother Saad, who was autistic, made a disastrous attempt, becoming marooned in Waziristan, Pakistan, where he was killed in a drone strike in 2009. Next to try was Iman, the daughter of Osama bin Laden and Najwa, his first wife. Iman, we learned, was tired of listening to the men debate. While she was on an escorted visit to a Tehran supermarket, she slipped her Quds Force guard, grabbed Iranian clothes and a plastic children’s doll and, disguising herself as a nursing mother, ran. Having decided that finding her father was too dangerous, she eventually fled to Syria, where her mother was living.
Finally, in 2010, the Quds Force, which had come under pressure from al-Qaeda to allow all of bin Laden’s family to leave Tehran, permitted Hamza and his mother to quit the base in Tehran. It had not been a straightforward negotiation—al-Qaeda in Pakistan resorted to kidnapping an Iranian diplomat there to force Tehran to make up its mind in the outfit’s favor. Hamza and his mother had requested that the Quds Force guide them to Qatar, where Hamza intended to study. Instead the Quds Force insisted they cross into Pakistan. Hamza’s mother eventually arrived at Abbottabad in February 2011, while Hamza hid in the Pakistani tribal areas, from where he wrote to his father again. He and his “pious wife” Maryam now had two children, the second “a son who I gave your name,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter we saw. Finally, in April 2011, after many weeks of deliberations, Hamza was cleared by al-Qaeda’s military chief in Waziristan to begin a journey to Abbottabad, just days before the SEAL team raided. He wrote to his mother first, worrying: “Dear Mother, explain what I can take. … You know how important books are to me. Can I take them or not?” A few days later came her curt reply: “It is preferable to travel light.”