ISLAMABAD Osama bin Laden's three wives were fiercely loyal to him and gave little away when they were interrogated after the al Qaeda chief was killed in a U.S. raid over a year ago, a Pakistani intelligence agent who questioned them said.
The three women were arrested by Pakistani security forces after the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's safe house in the town of Abbottabad, about 35 km (60 miles) from the capital Islamabad.
Slowly puffing on a cigarette in a rundown Islamabad villa as he described months of questioning the women, the agent said he struggled to glean any worthwhile information.
Yemeni-born Amal Al-Sadeh, the youngest of the three, was headstrong and showed fury when asked questions, while the others, Saudi citizens, expressed displeasure by mostly keeping silent behind their veils, the agent said.
All appeared to strongly support bin Laden, despite the militant's long and bloody record of orchestrating violence across the world.
"They were all nostalgic whenever they talked about him," said the intelligence agent, a slim man in a dark suit.
"I could sense Amal was always angry whenever I spoke with her," he added. "She objected to being questioned and rarely gave away anything."
But at times Amal was somewhat flexible.
"Amal once told me that she and bin Laden liked Che Guevara. She seemed like a rebel so I questioned her about Latin American leftists. I found her very interesting," said the agent.
It was not possible to independently confirm his account.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara was an Argentine Marxist who was a major figure in the Cuban revolution. He was executed in Bolivia in 1967.
Amal, who was wounded in the raid that killed bin Laden, traveled to Afghanistan to marry bin Laden when she was 18 years old and he was in his early 40s, her father told Reuters in an interview in Yemen in 2011.
"The other wives didn't say much. They were boring," said the agent.
Pakistan deported bin Laden's three widows and 11 children to Saudi Arabia last month. A Pakistani court had sentenced them to prison for entering Pakistan illegally and ordered their deportation after the end of their prison term.
The agent did not say whether other Pakistani or U.S. officials questioned the women. He also did not give details on whether his questioning included anything about the night of the raid.
Based on his conversations, the agent said he concluded the al Qaeda leader lived in the country for about six or seven years, in two towns.
Pakistani officials describe bin Laden's long presence in the garrison town of Abbottabad as a security lapse and reject suggestions that members of the military or intelligence services were complicit in hiding him there.
Pakistan dismisses Western criticism of its performance against militancy, saying it has sacrificed more lives than any other country which joined the U.S. war on militancy after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Pakistan also stresses that it captured several high-profile al Qaeda figures on its soil such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The intelligence agent, who said he questioned the widows once a week, sometimes twice, recalls seeking information on whereabouts of other senior al Qaeda leaders, and coming up empty handed.
"I wanted to know if any others are in Pakistan," he said. "I wanted to know about Zawahri," he said, adding that he didn't believe the former Egyptian doctor and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was in the country.
Turning to information he said he had come across on al Qaeda over the years, the agent said he was convinced that Zawahri was running al Qaeda's show in the region.
"Bin Laden was an inspirational figure for militants. It was Zawahri who was the main man. He was much more violent than bin Laden," he said. "These are my conclusions".
The intelligence agent said Pakistani authorities had retrieved some computers and cellphones from bin Laden's Abbottabad home, but trying to make sense of coded Arabic language proved frustrating -- with only a few clues on al Qaeda activities in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas.
The agent was non-committal about Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was sentenced to 33 years imprisonment by a court this week for running a fake vaccination campaign that helped the CIA pinpoint bin Laden's location in Abbottabad.
"Discovering that Afridi was helping the CIA and arresting him was not a problem," he said without elaborating.
But the agent, who was once stationed in Abbottabad while bin Laden was said to live there, only shrugged when asked how it was possible that the al Qaeda chief evaded capture in Pakistan for so long despite a global manhunt.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)