The last word: Growing up bin Laden
In a new book, Osama bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar, describes a father who always put jihad above family
MY FATHER WAS not always a man who hated. My father was not always a man hated by others. History shows that he was once loved by many people. Despite our differences today, I am not ashamed to admit that, as a young boy growing up in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, I worshipped my father, whom I believed to be not only the most brilliant but also the tallest man in the world. I would have to go to Afghanistan as a teenager to meet a man taller than my father. In truth, I would have to go to Afghanistan to truly come to know my father.Photo: Corbis
My father was accustomed to being No. 1 in everything he did. He was the most skilled horseman, the fastest runner, the best driver, the top marksman. Many people found my father to be a genius, particularly when it came to mathematical skills. He was so well known for the skill that men would come to our home and ask him to match wits against a calculator. He never failed.
His phenomenal memory fascinated many who knew him. On occasion, he would entertain those who would ask by reciting the Koran word for word. He once confessed that he had mastered the feat during a time of great mental turmoil when he was 10 years old, after his biological father had been killed in an airplane accident.
My father’s piety made him strict about the way we lived. In the early 1980s, when we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, one of the hottest cities in a country known for its hot climate, he would not allow my mother to turn on the air conditioning. Nor would he allow her to use the refrigerator. He announced: “Islamic beliefs are corrupted by modernization.” He appeared to relish seeing his young sons suffer, reminding us that it was good for us to know what it felt like to be hungry or thirsty, to do without while others had plenty. Why? Those with plenty would grow up weak men, he said, unable to defend themselves.
Osama bin Laden, pictured here in 1998.
You might have guessed that my father was not an affectionate man. Nothing sparked his fatherly warmth. He never cuddled with me or my brothers. I tried to force him to show affection and was told that I made a pest of myself. In fact, my annoying behavior encouraged him to start carrying his signature cane. As time passed, he began caning me and my brothers for the slightest infraction.
Thankfully, my father had a different attitude when it came to the females in our family. I never heard him raise his voice in anger to my mother or shout at my sisters. He reserved all the harsh treatment for his sons.
I remember one particular time, during the period he became a leader in resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when he had been away for longer than usual. I was desperate for his attention. He was
sitting on the floor quietly studying intricate military maps when I suddenly ran past him, laughing loudly, skipping. He waved me away, saying in a stern voice, “Omar, go out of the room.” I darted out the door and stared at him for a few moments; then, unable to hold back my excitement, I burst back into the room, laughing, skipping, performing a few more tricks. Finally, after the fourth or fifth repetition of my bouncing appearance, my exasperated father looked at me and ordered me in his quiet voice, “Omar, go and gather all your brothers. Bring them to me.”
I leapt with glee, believing that I had tempted my father away from his military work. I gathered up each of my brothers, speaking rapidly: “Come! Father wants to see us all! Come!”
My father ordered us to stand in a line. He stood calmly, watching as we gathered, one hand clutching his wooden cane. I was grinning happily, certain that something very special was about to happen. He sometimes played a game with us in which each son’s goal was to pick up a hat from the ground and return to the starting line before my father could catch him. On this day, I stood in restless anticipation, wondering what sort of new game he was about to teach us.
There would be no game. Shame, anguish, and terror surged throughout my body as he raised his cane and began to walk the human line, beating each of his sons in turn.
My father never raised his soft voice as he reprimanded my brothers, striking them with the cane as his words kept cadence, “You are older than your brother Omar. You are responsible for his bad behavior. I am unable to complete my work because of his badness.” I was in the greatest anguish when he paused before me. I was very small at the time. He appeared taller than the trees. Despite the fact that I had witnessed him beating my brothers, I could not believe that my father was going to strike me with that heavy cane. But he did.
YEARS LATER, WHEN the government of Sudan in 1996 forced my father to leave the home we had made in Khartoum, he selected me, his fourth son, as the only member of the family to accompany him as he traveled to Afghanistan seeking a place to relocate. On Tora Bora mountain, at the primitive compound he chose as our new home, I served as his personal tea boy for three or four months. Believe me, I was happy to have responsibilities, for the boredom of life on Tora Bora eludes description. Being by his side for nearly every moment of the day and night gave me a good insight into my father’s true character. For all of my childhood, he had remained a distant figure, but in Afghanistan I was often one of only three or four people he felt he could trust completely. His trust was not misplaced, for though I hated what he did, hated the militant operations that he and his Egyptian allies endorsed, he was still my father, and I would never betray him. I learned more about my father’s life during those few months than during all the years of my early life combined.
My father kept two items with him at all times, his walking cane and his Kalashnikov. He demanded that other favored items be in easy reach: his prayer beads; a small copy of the holy Koran; a radio that picked up stations from Europe, including his preferred station, the BBC; and lastly, a small Dictaphone. While I was keeping him company, he would often spend hours speaking into the Dictaphone, recording his thoughts. When frustrated, he would thunder over past grievances or pose new ideas that he believed would alter the course of the world. He seethed over the disrespect shown to our Islamic faith.
Although my father was so serious that he rarely spoke of personal events, there were times in Afghanistan when he relaxed, pulling me with him into his early life.
“Omar, come, I want to tell you a story,” he would say, patting the cotton mat beside him. He especially enjoyed evoking memories of his mother, my Grandmother Allia. Anytime he spoke of her, a sort of glow came to his expression. But the stories I liked best of all had to do with his father, Mohammed bin Laden. My father kept the long-dead Grandfather bin Laden on a pedestal. “Omar,” he’d say, “your grandfather was a genius, who helped build the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, bringing the country out of the sand.”
My father did not know my grandfather well. In our culture, it is not uncommon for men, particularly the wealthy, to have four wives simultaneously. Since my father was not one of my grandfather’s eldest sons, he was not in a position to see his father regularly but instead saw him only when all of the sons were summoned at once. In addition, my grandfather’s marriage to Grandmother Allia was brief. At her request, Grandfather bin Laden granted her a divorce when my father was a toddler. She soon remarried.
Once, my father told me a story about his strict father striking him, almost knocking him down, because he had failed to line up in correct height order alongside his many brothers. “I never forgot the pain of that blow, both physically and mentally,” he said.
He told me that he spoke privately with his father only once. My father was 9 at the time and had decided that he wanted his own automobile. “I had an early love for cars,” he said to me. “I talked incessantly about automobiles, goading my dear mother and stepfather, Muhammad Attas, to desperation.”
“As you know,” he said, “Muhammad was never a man of wealth, and he could not afford to indulge me. But after months of my pestering my dear mother, Muhammad announced that he was going to ask for an audience with my biological father, so that I could express my wish to the only man who had the power to make it happen.”
My father said he was “devastated” when his father announced that he would buy him a bicycle instead. He said he rode the red bicycle only a few times before giving it to a younger brother.
Several weeks later, though, my father received what he called the biggest shock of his life. “A shiny new car was delivered to our home in Jeddah! For me!” he said. “That was the happiest day of my young life.”
THREE YEARS AFTER those unusual days we had together on Tora Bora mountain, my father called a meeting of all his fighters. By then, he had moved his operation to an old Russian military compound outside Kandahar. I was planning my permanent departure at this point, but when he called the meeting, my brothers and I tagged along, wondering what the urgency might be.
My father’s talk that day was about the joy of martyrdom, how it was the greatest honor for a Muslim to give his life to the cause of Islam. As he spoke, I looked around the room, studying the faces of the fighters. The older fighters looked a bit bored, but the men newest to al Qaida had a kind of glow on their faces.
When the meeting ended, my father called for all his sons to gather, even the youngest. He was in a rare good mood. In an excited voice, he told us, “My sons. Sit, sit, gather in a circle. I have something to tell you.”
Once we were at his feet, my father said, “There is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who are good Muslims, men who volunteer to be suicide bombers.”
He looked at us with anticipation shining in his eyes. No one spoke or moved a muscle. So my father repeated what he had said. “My sons, there is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who volunteer to be suicide bombers. Those who want to give their lives for Islam must add their names to the list.”
That’s when one of my youngest brothers, one too young to comprehend the concept of life and death, got to his feet, nodded reverently in my father’s direction, and took off running for the mosque. That small boy was going to volunteer to be a suicide bomber.
I was furious, finally finding my voice. “My father, how can you ask this of your sons?”
Over the past few months, my father had become increasingly unhappy with me. I was turning out to be a disappointment, a son who did not want the mantle of power, who wanted peace, not war. He stared at me with evident hostility. “Omar, this is what you need to know, my son. You hold no more a place in my heart than any other man or boy in the entire country.” He glanced at my brothers. “This is true for all of my sons.”
My father’s proclamation had been given: His love for his sons did not sink further than the outer layer of his flesh. At last I knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.
From the book Growing Up bin Laden by Naiwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson. ©2009 by The Sasson Corporation. Used with permission.
He swapped their luxury home for a cave, killed his puppies to test his poison gas and tried to make him a suicide bomber. Here, one of Osama bin Laden's sons tells of his bizarre and terrifying childhood.Asleep in the guest room at his grandmother's home in Jeddah, a 20-year-old man is woken from a deep sleep by a wailing from another room.
Seconds later, his door is thrown open and his uncle comes rushing in. 'Come quickly!' he cries.
'See what your father has done! He has ruined all our lives! He has destroyed us!'
Omar bin Laden, aged 15, pictured with his father Osama bid Laden
Sins of the father: Omar bin Laden in Saudi Arabia in 1997. Omar had no idea his father was planning the September 11 attacks
Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. But for Omar bin Laden, the shock of what he saw was magnified by conflicting emotions.
The fourth son of Osama bin Laden, he had recently fled his father's side in Afghanistan and insists he had no idea his father had been planning the biggest terrorist atrocity the world has known. Indeed, it was only after months of torment that Omar finally accepted that the man who raised him was behind the attack.
'The words and images were too horrific to comprehend,' he says. 'Although my uncle had expressed his worst fears, none of us could truly believe that someone we knew, someone we had loved, had anything to do with the catastrophic events we were watching.
'It seemed impossible for my father to be the one responsible for the chaos and death going on in America. The attack I was seeing was far too vast, something that only another superpower could organise.'
Osama bin Laden's son described him as a harsh disciplinarian who regularly beat them
That was the moment to set aside the dream I had indulged in, feverishly hoping the world was wrong and it was not my father who brought about that horrible event.
'After hearing an audiotape of my father's own words taking credit for the attacks, I faced the reality that he was the perpetrator behind the events of September 11, 2001.'
Much has been written in the eight years that have passed since 9/11 - but never before has the story been told from the unique perspective of the bin Laden family.
Now Omar and his mother, bin Laden's first wife Najwa, have collaborated on an intriguing new book - Growing Up Bin Laden - which lifts the lid on the secretive life of the world's most wanted man.
While some may question their motives for speaking out, it is certainly fascinating, if deeply unnerving, to read such vivid first-hand accounts about life within Osama bin Laden's family.
Their version of events sheds light on how the son of Saudi millionaires turned his back on a life of fast cars and affluence to become a terrorist mastermind, obsessed with the idea of waging a religious war, Jihad, against the West.
Not only did he amass followers, but bin Laden also purposely sired a vast family by five wives in the hope his sons would join his sick cause.
A harsh disciplinarian, he toughened his boys up with regular beatings and gruelling desert survival trips from a young age, before kitting them out with Kalashnikovs and urging them to sign up as suicide bombers in their teens.
Also revealed for the first time are personal details about bin Laden, which had remained a secret. His son insists, for example, that his father is blind in his right eye as the result of a metal work accident at school and that he suffers from recurring bouts of malaria.
Najwa bin Laden provides a fascinating insight into the control her husband exerted over his family and his followers. She also reveals what it was like raising her 11 children in exile in Sudan, and later in the inhospitable surrounds of the notorious Tora Bora mountain hideout in Afghanistan.
Now 51 and living in Syria with her second eldest son and two youngest daughters, Najwa fled Afghanistan just days before September 11 and has no idea whether the children she was forced to leave behind are alive or dead.
Yet still she refuses to criticise her husband, saying only this: 'For all the horrible events that have occurred since I left Afghanistan, I can only think and feel with my mother's heart. A mother's heart feels the pain of every loss, weeping not only for my children, but for the lost children of every mother.'
Najwa Ghanem was just 15 when she married her 17-year-old first cousin, Osama. Although the union was arranged between the two families, she insists it was a love match and describes the young Osama as a 'soft-spoken, serious boy' whose brown eyes 'lit up with pleasure anytime I walked into a room'.
Even so, for a Muslim girl used to a life of relative freedom in the port city of Latakia, Syria, her new role as the veiled wife of a devout Saudi took some adjusting to. Home was a two-storey house in Jeddah, where she was expected to live in seclusion while her young husband finished his studies at a prestigious, boys-only school.
'See what your father has done! He has ruined all our lives! He has destroyed us!'
Fluent in English, the young bin Laden juggled his studies with his work for the family's construction empire, the huge Saudi Bin Laden Group. And apart from a penchant for 'new cars with big engines', Najwa remembers him as a man of simple tastes who liked to eat stuffed courgette and drive to the desert for long walks.
The couple's first child, a son, was born in 1976 and another boy soon followed. Confined to the domestic world, a teenage mother with two toddlers and another baby soon on the way, Najwa appears not to have noticed a crucial shift in her husband's world view during those early years of marriage.
Indeed, even when her husband announced they were off on a two-week trip to the U.S. in early 1979, she had no idea of the significance. 'My husband's business was not my business, I did not ask questions,' she says.
In fact, while there, the 22-year-old bin Laden had arranged to meet with Palestinian extremist Abdullah Azzam, widely regarded to be his first ideological mentor, who was recruiting young Muslims to join a new Jihad.
And by the time the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan later that year, bin Laden was heavily involved, at first raising funds and delivering supplies to the Afghan resistance fighters, known as the Mujahideen, and then ultimately joining the fighting himself.
Najwa admits she stood by helplessly for the next decade as the war in Afghanistan took over her husband's life. On the domestic front, she had to accept his decision to take other wives.
In 1991, bin Laden and his growing family were expelled from Saudi Arabia after he criticised the royal family for allowing U.S. troops on to Saudi soil.
With wives and children in tow, bin Laden first lived in exile in Khartoum, Sudan, where Najwa says her husband's greatest delight was growing sunflowers on the many farms he owned.
But while she appears ignorant of her husband's terrorist activities during those years and the growth of his global terror network Al-Qaeda, meaning 'the base' or 'foundation', she does reveal that the family were regularly challenged to survive in the desert with little food or water.
The routine was always the same. Osama would drive his wives and children to a remote place and leave them there with little food and water, expecting even the babes-in-arms to sleep in dirt holes dug out of the sand by the older children.
Omar bin Laden with his British wife Jane Felix-Brown, who he married in 2007
waiting for a long night to pass.' Her husband's obsession with waging Jihad ultimately took the bin Ladens to Pakistan and, finally, Afghanistan and the notorious Tora Bora caves, where his wives raised his children surrounded by fighters with only the most basic of facilities.
And yet at no point did Najwa question her husband about the path he was intent on taking her, even when her sons narrowly escaped death in an assassination attempt on bin Laden in Khartoum.
While many will question such devotion to a man whose way of life carried such risks, Omar's relationship was less blinkered.
As a father, bin Laden was brutally strict. Toys were forbidden, along with all things American - from fizzy drinks to air conditioning and fridges.
There were regular beatings, and Omar and his brothers, who all suffered from asthma, were forbidden from using inhalers. Indeed, during one particularly bad asthma attack, Omar says his father ordered his men to find a piece of honeycomb for his son to breathe through - but his home remedies never worked.
What glimpses of normality there were - such as his father's surprise fondness for football and his love of horses - were fleeting.
Starved of love and affection, Omar was initially proud to be chosen, at the age of 15, to accompany his father to Afghanistan. But when he realised the new family home was a series of shacks built into the rocks of the Tora Bora mountains, a gift to bin Laden from a Taliban leader, that pride began to evaporate.
In his new book, Omar bin Laden recalls the moment he realised his father was behind 9/11
Here I was, living in a lawless land, wheezing for air in a small Toyota truck, surrounded by Afghan warriors carrying powerful weapons, on my way to help my father claim a mountain hut for our family home.'
Wary of capture, bin Laden sporadically woke his son at night, so they could practise escape routes on foot to neighbouring Pakistan. 'No one knew those mountains like my father. He recognised all the big boulders, knowing the distance from one to the other,' says Omar.
The rest of the bin Laden entourage soon followed and for several months they lived a life of hardship with no running water, a limited diet and fierce winter storms.
It was an experience that Najwa endured with extraordinary stoicism.
'Even though I missed the life I had known before, there was nothing to do but to adapt,' she says. 'My life was for my family and so I did what I had to do. This did not mean that I blamed my husband, for I did not. He had to live where he could and that was Afghanistan.'
But Omar was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his father's obsession with Jihad. Those views were compounded by the discovery, aged 17, that bin Laden's soldiers were using his pet puppies to test out chemical and biological weapons at the Kandahar training camps.
He recalls: 'Several of the new soldiers, young men who had been born without sensitivity, enjoyed describing the death throes of those cute little animals. They insisted on telling me of their trembling terror, sitting tied in a cage, suffering throughout the ordeal.
'The gas was not as fast as one might have imagined. After I learned about the puppies, I turned even further away from my father, recognising that his path led to nothing but pain, disappointment and death.'
'I am nothing like my father. While he prays for war, I pray for peace. And now we go our separate ways, each believing that we are right.
Despite the fact he was trained to use a Kalashnikov and was no stranger at the terrorist training camps, Omar says he was horrified when the violence started to escalate.
His father's role in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, killing more than 210 people, left him deeply troubled.
But it wasn't until a friend confided that something even bigger was 'in the works' that he made plans to leave, the final straw coming when an impassioned bin Laden urged his sons to sign up as suicide bombers.
'We were at his feet, and my father said: "My Sons, there is a paper [a list of potential martyrs] on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who volunteer to be suicide bombers. Those who want to give their lives for Islam must add their names to the list."
'He looked at us with anticipation in his eyes. Certainly, he had the power to inspire young men to give up their lives,' admits Omar. 'But I was furious. I finally knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons. That's the moment I felt I would be a fool to waste another moment of my life.'
And so it was that Omar left Afghanistan in April 2001. His mother also sought permission from her husband to return to her family in Syria.
Just days before September 11, bin Laden finally agreed, but only allowed her to take the two youngest children with her. She was escorted by her second eldest son, who chose not to return to his father.
'My heart broke into little pieces watching the figures of my little children fade into the distance,' she says of the day she left. 'But I did save Abdul Rahman (then 23), four-year-old Rukhaiya and two-year-old Nour.
'For that entire journey across Afghanistan, I never stopped praying that all lives might return to normal.'
Najwa remains in Syria and claims to have had no contact from her husband or the children she left behind.
Omar's life, meanwhile, has been in stark contrast to what went before. While still married to his first wife, with whom he has a son, he met a British grandmother, Jane Felix-Browne, from Cheshire, while travelling in Egypt - and they fell in love.
The story hit the headlines after they married in 2007 and Omar was refused entry to the UK. The couple moved to Qatar, but, according to the book, Omar is back in Saudi Arabia, where he campaigns for peace.
Omar also claims to have had no contact from relatives he left behind in Afghanistan and says he has no idea whether they are dead or alive.
He says: 'I know now that since the first day of the first battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, my father has been killing other human beings.
I often wonder if my father has killed so many times that the act of killing no longer brings him pleasure or pain.
'I am nothing like my father. While he prays for war, I pray for peace. And now we go our separate ways, each believing that we are right. My father has made his choice, and I have made mine. I am, at last, my own man.'
• Growing Up Bin Laden by Jean Sasson with Najwa and Omar bin Laden is published by Oneworld on November 12 at £16.99. To order a copy at £15.30 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.