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.
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.
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.