BOOK REVIEW Osama bin Laden, my father Growing Up bin Laden by Jean Sasson, Omar bin Laden
and Najwa bin Laden.
Reviewed by Simon Allison
Omar bin Laden - fourth son turned peace-loving refusenik of Osama - is reliant
on the good graces of a number of easily offended people. There's King
Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, who agreed to re-issue Omar's Saudi passport after
Osama bin Laden renounced Saudi citizenship on behalf of all his immediate
family (the king denied the same privilege to one of Osama's younger sons).
There's Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president who is not renowned for his
ability to accept criticism, who has allowed
Omar to live and work in Egypt with his British wife, Zaina.
There's also Bashir al-Assad, hereditary president of Syria, where most of the
other members of Omar bin Laden's family reside - excluding those still in
Afghanistan or possibly elsewhere.
His newly released biographical book, ghostwritten on behalf of Omar and his
mother Najwa, is therefore not the place to look for hard-hitting political
analysis. Light on dates and facts, its tone is almost sycophantic when it
comes to discussing anything that might impact his present situation.
A typical example is his discussion of the fierce division between Osama and
the Saudi government over whether to allow Americans to fight Saddam Hussein
from Saudi Arabian soil: "[The Saudi government] calmly and wisely attempted to
defuse the quarrel," Omar writes. Omar's mother, Osama's first wife, is even
more restrained; her chapters are a simple account of married life, and it is
clear that she is holding back. Still legally married to Osama, her
descriptions are superficially interesting, but add little to one's conception
of Osama bin Laden, the husband.
Omar's accounts are a different story. The person he can afford to offend,
doing so with intelligence and insight, is his father. Although at times prone
to overly explicit condemnations (one suspects he has an eye on future visa
applications; he was recently rejected from Britain despite his wife's
nationality), Omar's story is made all the more intriguing, and believable, by
the evident pain his father has caused him.
Growing up in Jeddah, where Osama was an Afghanistan war hero (the only private
citizen in Saudi allowed to carry a firearm, he never let his AK-47 leave his
side) and the leader of his own intensely loyal and reverent militia, the young
Omar looked up to him with love, respect and fear, although little affection;
Osama was not prone to showing emotions, and all the bin Laden children craved
Jokes and toys were forbidden in the household, as were modern conveniences as
Osama's conservatism became more pronounced. After the family's later move to a
compound in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, Osama banned fridges and
air-conditioning, and was even happy to make normally pampered guests from the
Gulf swelter in the midsummer heat.
Despite this, Omar is wistful in his recollections of life in Sudan. The family
was not isolated, living in a mainly expatriate compound, and the children were
occasionally able to play with other families, although never Christians.
Ignoring the odd assassination attempt - during which Omar and his brothers
cowered with their tutors in a closet while the killers looked for Osama -
everyday life was not hugely different from the life of any expatriate family
The recollections of these early years in Omar's life are largely informed by
his youth and his understandable ignorance of what was going on around him. His
innocence, however, was shattered by one incident that occurred near the end of
the bin Ladens' stay in Sudan.
A teenage friend of his, the son of one the leaders of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya
in Khartoum, was brutally gang-raped by a group of men. The motivation for the
rape was not clear to the young Omar. Damning photographs were taken and ended
up in the hands of Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed to be Osama bin Laden's number
two. Omar was not fond of Zawahiri. "I was not often in Dr Zawahiri's presence,
and for that I was glad. From the first moment I met the man, he left me
feeling unsettled despite the fact my father respected him ... I felt that
nothing good could come from the association [between Osama and Zawahiri]."
Zawahiri was incensed by the graphic pictures of the rape, believing that
somehow the teenager was at fault. Despite protestations from the boy's father,
Zawahiri quickly sentenced the boy to death for homosexual behavior. He was
dragged into a room where Zawahiri shot him in the head. Osama bin Laden,
despite being fully aware of the incident, refused to intervene. "For the first
time, I realized that some of the men surrounding my father might be dangerous,
even to the sons of Osama bin Laden," Omar writes. "One question kept troubling
me: why would my highly educated and soft-spoken father hang about with such
ruffians, even if they were faithful to his cause? I really could not
Omar's unusual but hitherto sheltered life (it's all relative) changed
dramatically when his father selected him alone of his brothers to go on a
scouting mission to Afghanistan. Sudan, under intense international pressure to
expel Osama bin Laden after an assassination attempt on Mubarak was thought to
involve him, told bin Laden he had to go. Sasson, who by way of context
provides brief notes on Osama's political and militant activities at key
stages, states that the Sudanese government first offered him to Saudi Arabia
and then to the US, who rejected him because, at the time, the US government
had no legal basis on which to arrest him.
Osama was not rejected by Afghanistan. In the midst of a civil war in 1996,
with the Taliban yet to consolidate power, bin Laden was welcomed by an old
friend from the war against the Soviets, Mullah Nourallah, a prominent leader
in Jalalabad, with gifts of land in Jalalabad and an entire mountain in the
subsequently infamous Tora Bora range. It was there that US forces are believed
to have come the closest to capturing Osama bin Laden. But, as Omar says: "He
would be hard to find there. No one knew those mountains like my father. I
remembered that he recognized all the big boulders, knowing exactly the
distance from one to the other."
Life was hard for the bin Ladens in Afghanistan. The rest of the family soon
arrived and settled into their stark new home halfway up Osama's mountain. All
supplies had to be brought by foot, and the boys spent their days gathering
firewood to provide a little warmth against the freezing winter temperatures
(the girls, as they had been everywhere, were not allowed out of the house; a
source of some frustration for the usually quiescent Najwa).
Osama was constantly shuttling between there and the training camp he was
setting up in an old Soviet base. Omar and the other elder brothers began to be
trained in the family business, and soon became just as attached to their
AK-47s as their father. As al-Qaeda became more established in Afghanistan, and
once the Taliban were firmly in control of the country, Osama felt safe enough
to move his family to old army quarters on the outskirts of his training camp,
and his children began to receive the same training as other militants.
This included lengthy and intensive religious training sessions, which Omar
generally found repetitive and boring, as apparently did most of the militants.
He soon grew discontented with his father and made plans to leave with whatever
family he could take; plans which were not hugely opposed by Osama, by then
disenchanted with his fourth-eldest son.
Although Growing up Bin Laden is largely a personal account, focusing
more on the character rather than the actions of Osama, there are insights that
shed interesting light on the political events of the time. Perhaps the most
revealing incident was the visit of a furious Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader,
to al-Qaeda's training camp in the aftermath of the US Embassy bombings in East
Mullah Omar ignored custom completely by refusing a meal with Osama and by
insisting that he be the only person to sit on a chair, a clear indication of
hierarchy. He also ignored Osama's greetings, refusing to exchange salaams, a
sign of great disrespect. Mullah Omar ordered al-Qaeda to leave Afghanistan
immediately, but Osama was able to negotiate to stay for another year and a
His point was a good one: "Where would I move my people to?" he said,
illustrating the tensions between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which belies the
idea that the two organizations are cozy bedfellows with similar ideals.
In another illustrative passage, Osama explains to Omar how he intends to
hasten the downfall of Israel and America. "That's what we did with the
Russians. We bled the blood from their body in Afghanistan. Those Russians
spent all of their wealth on the war in Afghanistan. When they could no longer
finance the war, they fled. After fleeing, their whole system collapsed. Holy
warriors defending Afghanistan are the ones responsible for bringing a huge
nation to its knees. We can do the same things with America and Israel. We only
have to be patient. Their defeat and collapse may not come in my lifetime. It
may not come in your lifetime, but it will come. One day Muslims will rule the
Eight years into the US invasion of Afghanistan, with more troops and billions
of dollars being poured into the conflict, Osama's game plan is perhaps looking
more feasible than that of United States President Barack Obama's.
Above all, Growing up Bin Laden is the story of a father and a son, both
of whom disappoint the expectations of the other. Given who his father is,
however, this reflects well on Omar, and we should be lauding his courage in
standing up to the world's most wanted terrorist rather than shunning him for
his family name.
The book, despite its propensity for strategic flattery and the
self-consciousness with which it is written, is necessary reading for anyone
looking to go beyond the hype of the bin Laden name, and it is a salient
example that Osama's brand of militant Islam holds no appeal even to his chosen
son. Perhaps Britain should give him that visa after all.
Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World.
Jean Sasson (author), Omar bin Laden (author), Najwa bin Laden (author). St
Martin's Press (October 27, 2009. SBN-10: 0312560168. Price US$25,99, 352
Simon Allison is a Master's graduate of the Lodon School of African and
Oriental Studies; he has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East.