(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark a series of coordinated terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda against the US on 11 September 2001, which led to the collapse of the World Trade Centre.)
(The article features excerpts from Jean Sasson’s book ‘Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World’.)
“People are not born terrorists. Nor do they become terrorists in a single stroke. But step by step, like a farmer preparing a field for planting, their lives unfold in pattern that leaves them prepared to receive the seed of terrorism.
And so it was with Osama bin Laden. And the man, men, and events that planted that seed faded away. But the seed grew and the terrorist walked. And the man before, became the terrorist thereafter.
Najwa Ghanem bin Laden knows only the man. The West knows only the terrorist.”
These words end Jean Sasson’s introduction to the book Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World. Najwa Ghanem bin Laden is Osama bin Laden’s first wife. She was his first cousin and a year younger to him. She grew up in Syria where Osama’s family would visit them and she witnessed the making of the man who would spearhead a terror attack so bloody that history would be split between events before 9/11 and after.
Six years after his death, we take a look at al Qaeda’s most dreaded leader Osama bin Laden’s roles of being a husband and father.
Sasson says the West knows only the terrorist but that’s probably true of the rest of the world as well. The book, published in 2009, shares rare insight into moments of bin Laden’s childhood through the eyes of one who loved him as deeply as the world reviled him.
In describing the young boy Osama that we all knew, I would say that he was proud, but not arrogant. He was delicate, but not weak. He was grave, but not severe. Certainly he was vastly different from my very boisterous brothers, who were always teasing me about one thing or another.Najwa bin Laden
Najwa bin Laden speaks of moments in the life of young Osama that sound similar to any other curious, mischievous child, albeit one who lived in a militarised zone.
“When they were young, my brother Naji and Osama sometimes got themselves into trouble. Once, they were camping and on a whim decided to go for a long walk, hiking to Kasab, a town in out Latakia Province, close to the Turkish border – and managed to walk right across the border into Turkey. In our part of the world, straying into another country can result in serious consequences, with careless travellers disappearing forever.”
“A Turkish army officer spotted the strangers on his territory. As he yelled threats and pointed his weapon, Naji and Osama exchanged a single glance, then turned and ran faster than horses until they reached a garden. Thankfully, the Turkish guard did not follow them clear into another country.”
The one sign of who bin Laden would become in the future reflects only in the constant reiteration of his unwavering devout belief in Islam.
My father’s piety made him strict… Although we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is one of the hottest and most humid cities in a country that is known for its hot climate, my father would not allow my mother to turn on the air-conditioning that the contractor had built into the apartment building. Neither would he allow her to use the refrigerator that was standing in the kitchen… My siblings and I hated such impractical directives.Omar bin Laden
Omar bin Laden, Osama’s fourth child, also speaks candidly to Sasson about his own memories of his father. Osama bin Laden was a child of divorce and after his mother remarried, she had four more children. Of these circumstances, Omar says:
“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 twenty children. I’ve often felt that same lack of attention from my father.”
While Najwa constantly emphasises her belief that Osama was a good husband, Omar’s story differs when he talks about him as a father.
You might have guessed by now that my father was not an affectionate man. He never cuddled me or my brothers. I tried to force him to show affection and was told that I made a pest of myself. When he was home, I remained near, pulling attention-gaining pranks as frequently as I dared.
But Osama bin Laden will never truly be seen as a son or a husband. He will be hated by those who lost sons, husbands and other family and friends to his terrorism or his ideology. He has firmly established himself in public memory and in history books as the mind behind one of the worst terrorist strikes in the history of mankind.
My father was not always a man who hated. My father was not always a man hated by others. There was a time when many people spoke of my father with the highest accolades. History shows that he was once loved by many people.
But forever more, history will show Osama bin Laden as America’s longest running Public Enemy Number 1.