It cannot have been fun to grow up bin Laden. With a dad whose idea of family holiday was to have his sons dig ditches in the near-freezing desert and invite moms and the rest of the kids to lie in them, overnight camping trips could lose their joy pretty fast. We already knew a good bit about family life with this dad, thanks to a book published last fall by first wife Najwa bin Laden and fourth son Omar, Growing Up bin Laden. Their insights into Osama were summed up in a review by Thomas W. Lippman of the Washington Post several months ago:
Osama bin Laden is a monster, a priapic zealot who was as cruel and arrogant in family life as he has been in his bloodstained public career. Not only is he a mass murderer, he is committed to inflicting death on as many people as possible. He lives to kill, the pursuit of violent jihad overpowering even the most basic human feelings and paternal concerns. He was a tyrannical and selfish father who deprived his many children of education, food and the comforts of modern life. From his wives he insisted on absolute subservience, sexual and otherwise. His only friends are the sycophantic thugs of his al-Qaeda entourage. At home he forbade laughter, not that there was much to laugh about.
Omar bin Laden is still not laughing, and you can’t blame him. But in some sense he may be getting even, by letting the world know a little more about a man who seems to have few redeeming qualities unless you really hate the U.S. yourself. Omar may also be helping build bridges to other sons and daughters who still look for alternative ways to live in the world other than annihilate everyone who disagrees with you. Estimates are that Osama has fathered 20 or so children by his five wives, and Omar seems to be helping those who don’t choose to be suicide bombers get away.
Two weeks ago, Omar bin Laden revealed that many of the children who had been with their father in Afghanistan escaped to Iran following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and were still together in a walled compound under Iranian guard.
Confirmation came with the news that a daughter, Eman bin Laden, had taken refuge in the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi officials are negotiating with the Iranians to allow Eman to return to Saudi Arabia, where she was born, and Omar bin Laden on Tuesday said he, as well as his wife and mother, had applied for visas to go to Tehran and help speed Eman’s case.
Omar and his wife, Zaina Alsabah, later reported in an e-mail message that another bin Laden son, 16-year-old Bakr, had been allowed to leave on Dec. 25. It said “He arrived with great joy at the destination of his choice,” and was with relatives. The e-mail did not disclose where Bakr was, but said he was not in Saudi Arabia.
The children’s reasons for taking up residence elsewhere are made pretty clear in Growing Up bin Laden:
The mother and son write that the kids grew up in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan without laughter or toys, were routinely beaten, and lost their pets to painful death from poison gas experiments by their father’s fighters.
When they became young adults, their father asked them to volunteer for suicide missions. When Omar protested, bin Laden was quoted as replying: “You hold no more a place in my heart than any man or boy in the entire country. This is true for all my sons.”
It was then, Omar recounted, that he “finally knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.”
Omar recalled visiting his father’s training camps in Afghanistan and being sent to the front lines of the civil war that tore Afghanistan in the 1990s.
“I nearly lost my life so many times,” he said. “People may ask why I left my father. I left because I did not want anyone to choose my destiny. … And I believe I chose correctly, for I chose life. I chose peace.”
Interestingly enough, we have just seen those tables reversed by a father, Umar Mutallab, who sought to prevent his own warrior son from choosing destruction. Maybe somehow there will be enough peace-loving fathers and sons to give us hope.