Bin Laden, Mutallab: fathers & sons

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.

Bin Laden a cruel father, book says.

Terrorist sons, anguished parents

I can’t get my mind off of Mr., and presumably Mrs., Mutallab, whose son is accused of trying to blow up a plane full of innocent people, or the parents of the five American Muslim students who allegedly planned to join forces with anti-American jihadists. In both cases, family concerns about their sons’ radical leanings led them to alert authorities.

We are indebted to the older generations. Umar Abdulmutallab, of course, managed to buy a ticket to Detroit and travel a long way to get there despite his father’s rather courageous action; but no one knows how much damage might have been done by the five aspiring jihadists had they not been apprehended.

We will also probably never know what emotional struggles went on before those family decisions were made. But these young men didn’t grow up unattended on the streets. They were presumably loved and nurtured and cared for, given opportunities to pursue the American dream before they opted to try invoking an American nightmare. Making the decision to take action which would, in all probability, have those sons wind up in jail had to have been a nightmare itself close to the top of the worst a parent can imagine.

Decades ago my young daughter came to me one afternoon in tears, literally shaking with fear and remorse. She had been to a department store with a fifth-grade friend who professed skill and experience in shoplifting and urged my daughter to give it a try. The friend was right, she knew how to pull this off. My daughter dropped a piece of costume jewelry she had taken into my hand, recoiling as if it were molten lava.

We got in the car, drove to the store and sat for what seemed an interminable length of time outside the store manager’s office. My daughter repeated her story and we handed over the loot. The manager was, I thought, unduly harsh. No acceptance of apology or points for repentance and return of the necklace, no pat on the back for my good parenting. He told my daughter about crime and punishment and citizenship. He did call me later, explaining that it was necessary to deal harshly with teenage (she was not yet a teen) crime, “because it only takes one persuasive bad person to sway dozens of others.” I thought I detected a suggestion of Bad Parent in there too — but I was such a wreck by that time the suggestion could have come from within.

My daughter, I hasten to say, grew up to be an extraordinarily good person, the mother of two of my flawless grandchildren. She may remember little of this adventure. But it is seared into my own memory. Partly because of the reflexive hesitancy I felt, the reflexive wish to protect her from retribution — a black-mark communication from store to school, ostracism by her popular friend (I wonder what happened to that child; her parents didn’t seem overly concerned by my call to them), potential trauma from store security people. My stomach can still churn over it all.

Every parent has a collection of those stories. Most of us, though, are looking at things like potential pre-teen shoplifting; the Mutallabs were looking at potential jihad. Did their son never have doubts? Were the people who persuaded him to try blowing himself and a plane load of others to smithereens so convincing he never looked back? When did he turn from being his parent’s son to a jihadist tool? What amount of wrenching debate preceded his father’s call to American security people?

I don’t have any answers, only those heartbreaking questions.