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    Middle East
     Dec 24, 2009
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 his attention.

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 in Khartoum.

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 understand."

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 Africa.

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 half.

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 world."

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 pages.

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.

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