My Father, the Terrorist : Omer Bin Laden
A son of Osama bin Laden paints an intimate portrait of the man who would become the world’s most infamous terrorist.
By – Omar bin Laden
Excerpted from Growing Up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson, published this month by St. Martin’s Press; © 2009 by the author.
Since the time I could observe and reason, I have mainly known my father to be composed, no matter what might be happening. That’s because he believes that everything of earthly life is in the hands of God. It is difficult, therefore, for me to imagine that he became so excited when my mother told him I was about to be born that he momentarily misplaced his keys.
After a frantic search, I’m told he settled my mother hastily in the car before spinning off at a reckless speed. Luckily he had recently purchased a new automobile, the latest Mercedes, because on that day he tested all its working parts. I’ve been told it was golden in color, something so beautiful that I imagine the vehicle as a golden carriage tearing through the wide palm-tree-lined boulevards of Jeddah, Saudia Arabia.
Within a short while after that chaotic journey, I made my appearance, becoming the fourth child born to my parents.
Iwas only one of many in a chain of strong personalities in our bin Laden family. My father, although quiet-natured in many ways, has always been a man that no other man can control. My paternal grandfather, Mohammed Awad bin Laden, was also quite famous for his strength of character. After the premature death of his father, who left behind a grieving widow and four young children, Grandfather bin Laden sought his fortune without a clue as to where he would end up. He was the eldest at 11 years.
Since Yemen offered few possibilities in those days, my grandfather bravely turned his back on the only land and the only people he had ever known, taking his younger brother, Abdullah, with him to join one of the many camel caravans trekking through the area.
After traveling through the dusty villages and towns of Yemen, they arrived at the port of Aden. From there they sailed a short distance across the Gulf of Aden to Somalia. In Somalia, the two bin Laden boys were employed by a cruel taskmaster, known for his furious outbursts. One day he became so annoyed at my grandfather that he hit him on the head with a heavy stick.
The injury resulted in the loss of sight in one eye. My grandfather and uncle were forced to return to their village until his recovery. The following year they set out once again, this time traveling in the opposite direction, north to Saudi Arabia. I’m sure they were eager to stop at many outposts, but nothing seemed to have the magic they were seeking. The two boys, young and unlettered, lingered only long enough to earn sufficient money to stave off hunger and to continue what must have seemed an endless journey. Something about Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, appealed to my grandfather, because that walled city on the Red Sea marked the end of their arduous voyage.
Grandfather bin Laden was poor yet he was full of energy and determination. He felt no shame in tackling any honest labor. Jeddah was the ideal place for such a character, for the city and the country were at an economic turning point. In the early 1930s, my grandfather’s vigor, strength of mind, and attention to detail caught the attention of an assistant to King Abdul Aziz, the first king of Saudi Arabia, who had recently won many tribal wars and formed a new country.
No one knew it at the time, but Saudi Arabia was set to become one of the richest and most influential countries in the world. After the formation of the kingdom, in 1932, and the discovery of oil, in 1938, the kingdom entered a building boom never before witnessed. When the King wanted a new building or new roadway constructed, he turned to my grandfather. My grandfather’s diligence and honesty so pleased the King that he was put in charge of the most coveted job for a believer, the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Everyone in our family knows that our Grandfather bin Laden had two main passions: work and women. He was extremely successful in both arenas. His ethic for hard work and total sincerity won him the complete trust of the King. With hard work came financial rewards, which enabled my grandfather to satisfy his second passion: women.
In my culture, it is not uncommon for men, particularly the very wealthy and the very poor, to have four wives simultaneously. My grandfather was soon so rich that he not only married four women but continually emptied several of the four marriage positions so that he could fill the vacated slots with new wives.
With so many wives and ex-wives, my grandfather had so many children that it was difficult for him to maintain a relationship with each child. As was the custom, he did give extra attention to the eldest sons, but most of his children were seen only on important occasions. This did not mean he did not follow the progress of his children; he would take time out of his busy schedule to make cursory checks to ensure that his sons were advancing in school or that his daughters married well.
Since my father was not one of the eldest sons, he was not in a position to see his father regularly. In addition, my grandfather’s marriage to my father’s Syrian mother, Grandmother Allia, was brief. After my father’s birth, his mother became pregnant by Grandfather bin Laden for a second time, but when she lost that baby to a miscarriage, she asked her husband for a divorce. For some reason, the divorce was easily given and my Grandmother Allia was free, soon remarried to Muhammad al-Attas and becoming the mother of four more children.
Despite the fact that his stepfather was one of the finest men in Saudi Arabia, my father’s life did not evolve as he wished. Like most children of divorced parents, he felt a loss, for he was no longer as intimately involved with his father’s family. Although my father was never one to complain, it is believed that he keenly felt his lack of status, genuinely suffering from his father’s lack of personal love and care.
I know how my father felt. After all, I’m one of 20 children. I’ve often felt that same lack of attention from my father.
My father was known to everyone in and out of the family as the somber bin Laden boy who became increasingly occupied with religious teachings. As his son, I can attest to the fact that he never changed. He was unfailingly pious, always taking his religion more seriously than most. He never missed prayers. He devoted many hours to the study of the Koran, and to other religious sayings and teachings.
Although most men, regardless of their culture, are tempted by the sight of a different female from the ones in their life, my father was not. In fact, he was known to avert his eyes whenever a woman not of his family came into his view. To keep away from sexual temptation, he believed in early marriages. That’s the reason he made the decision to marry when he was only 17 years old.
I’m pleased that my mother, Najwa Ghanem, who was my father’s first cousin, was his first wife. The position of the first wife is prestigious in my culture, and that prestige is tripled when the first wife is a first cousin and mother of a first son. Rarely does a Muslim man divorce a wife who is a cousin and the mother of the firstborn son. My parents were bound by blood, marriage, and parenthood.
Never did I hear my father raise his voice in anger to my mother. He always seemed very satisfied with her. In fact, when I was very small, there were times that he and my mother secluded themselves in their bedroom, not to be seen by the family for several days, so I know that my father enjoyed my mother’s company.