05.03.11

The Bin Ladens' Family Struggle

The co-author of a memoir by Osama bin Laden’s son and one of his wives shares the reaction of the family and her thoughts on the news—and what he means to them.

I spoke with Omar bin Laden [the fourth child of Najwa and Osama bin Laden] and his wife over the telephone Sunday evening after the news was broadcast about his father Osama bin Laden. I can relate only that Omar's wife felt a great need to protect her husband, while Omar was his usual self, very quiet and melancholy.

Omar has a lot of responsibility, helping to take care for his mother (who married her first cousin, Osama bin Laden, in 1974) and his siblings who left Iran last fall. That time had been nerve-wracking, yet extremely happy for the family. The family had not been together since Najwa left Afghanistan in 2001. But soon they were reunited with Osman and Mohammed, along with their wives and children. Most thrilling was the reunion with Ladin and Iman, the youngest of the siblings left behind. Fatima, the mother of a daughter named after her mother, remained behind in Iran. It's a miracle that the children survived to be reunited with their family. After 9/11, Osama fled into the mountains and left the children at the compound in Kandahar, to fend for themselves. Without their mother or father, the frightened children joined with other al Qaeda families and made their way out of Afghanistan and eventually into Iran, where they were housed by the Iranian government, remaining there for years. Only Sa'ad remained unaccounted for, and it was reported that he had been with the family in Iran, but one day when in the souk, ran away. There is no further information about Sa'ad.

The only reason Omar sought me out, as his collaborator for his life story, was so that he could be the person to tell about his own life, and so that he could speak out for peace, a subject dear to his heart. Despite the fact that he has always been a favorite of the media, Omar has never been one to put himself in the spotlight, and it would be especially inappropriate for him to put himself in that spotlight now.

Today there have been numerous requests for media interviews. The requests were from journalists who rightfully feel a journalistic need to ask family members how they feel about the news that Osama was killed in Pakistan. It's their job, so I understand.

Najwa never spoke a negative word to me about her husband. Certainly Omar had issues with certain aspects of his father's daily life.

Quite simply, I know that Omar, his wife, or his mother, would not want me to speak further about their lives. But there is plenty to discover in their life stories, in the book, Growing Up bin Laden. Everything I wrote in the book came from their memories of their time living with Osama, as his wife, and as his son.

Today I've been catching news stories when I had a chance. It's been interesting to watch and listen as a number of reporters tell stories directly from the book. Their confident recital of Omar and Najwa's stories alerts me that those reporters and broadcasters are aware that Omar and his mother were completely honest in all the stories told to me. I never had a single moment of doubt regarding their sincere honesty, but then again, these were people I was communicating with on a daily basis. I learned early on that one can say positively that Osama bin Laden chose women of enormous integrity as his wives and that his first wife, Najwa, raised her son Omar to be a man of integrity. Neither Omar or other family members are in a place where they want to respond to questions about Osama. They may change their minds later, and if so, I'm sure we'll hear from them.

Najwa never spoke a negative word to me about her husband. Certainly Omar had issues with certain aspects of his father's daily life. And, he was painfully honest about those issues, giving a number of independent interviews where he made it clear he did not agree with his father's violent path. Yet, at the same time, Omar was brave enough to voice his feelings of affection for the man who was his father. Who can blame him for that? Like a parent loves a wayward child, a child loves a wayward parent.

Now that justice has been served for all the people across the world lost to al Qaeda's violent attacks, I hope the world remembers one extraordinary fact: Ten years ago, Osama bin Laden's son Omar rescued his mother and his two youngest siblings from Kandahar. Omar, a man of great compassion, then decided to reach out from his world to ours and share his experiences as the son of a father who had oftentimes terrified him and who later committed violence that forever changed ordinary life on our earth. That in itself is a small miracle which I know was brought about in part by his mother Najwa, a shy, kind, but always strong woman who supported her son's brave decision to break away from a life that promised violence, to one of peace.

Jean Sasson's writing career began in 1991 with her bestseller, The Rape of Kuwait. She is the author of nine bestselling nonfiction books on the Middle East, including Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia; Princess Sultana's Daughters; Princess Sultana's Circle; Mayada, Daughter of Iraq; Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan, Growing Up Bin Laden, and For the Love of a Son.