Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Son Speaks

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Step by step, Omar found himself stuck on the violent path of his father's choosing. Forced by American pressure to leave Sudan for Afghanistan, Osama settled his family in stone huts high on a mountain in Tora Bora, despite the fact that Najwa was pregnant with her 10th child. Osama sent his sons to al-Qaeda training camps, to the front lines of the Afghan civil war and to attend hours of mind-numbing jihadist indoctrination. Omar and his father narrowly survived a U.S. cruise-missile strike that was launched in retaliation for the al-Qaeda bomb attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa. All the while Osama expected Omar to become his second-in-command. The young man had somehow managed to develop into a serious, capable young adult even as many of his siblings appeared to have suffered from one kind or another of personality disorder related to their extreme upbringing. One day while sitting together on the bin Laden mountain, Osama revealed to Omar his plan to destroy the U.S. from within by making it bleed through constant war until Muslims ruled the world. But Omar wasn't interested. "I sat mute, feeling not one jolt of passion for my father's life," he writes. "I only wanted him to be like other fathers, concerned with his work and his family."

Still, ever the dutiful Saudi son, Omar couldn't bring himself to break with his family until the day that his father asked his sons to volunteer for suicide missions. When Omar protested, Osama replied, "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." Omar writes, "I finally knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons." With rumors of a massive attack on bin Laden's enemies on the way, Omar finally managed to leave Afghanistan, with his father's permission.

After the carnage of 9/11, there was no going back. Many of Omar's siblings who stayed behind are probably dead, and his father is the most famous mass murderer alive today. "During these years of loss and sorrow, I have had to reconcile myself to the truth about my father," writes Omar. "I know now that since the first day of the first battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, my father has been killing other humans. I often wonder if my father has killed so many times that the act of killing no longer brings him pleasure or pain. I am nothing like my father. While he prays for war, I pray for peace."

In an interview with TIME, Omar said that as a private citizen working for the construction company owned by his father's estranged family, he had little insight on how the U.S. should fight al-Qaeda. He turned down a U.S. government offer of asylum for cooperation in finding his father. "I said you — the CIA and the FBI — you should know where he is, but I can't help you because I don't," Omar said by phone from a Middle Eastern country he refused to name either for fear of his safety or residency status. He has technically been reinstated as a Saudi subject.

Intelligence agencies and scholars of extremist movements might do well to pay attention to Omar's al-Qaeda childhood for clues about how to inoculate young people against radicalism. His remarkable achievement — to have maintained humane beliefs despite being pulled from school at the age of 12 and exposed to a near constant deluge of hateful propaganda, isolation and family pressure — seems to have been helped by a love of animals. A constant collector of pets — against his father's wishes — and an avid horseman, Omar's awareness of the madness of al-Qaeda was fueled in part by several acts of animal cruelty by his father's men. When they lived in Sudan, one of the family guards killed Omar's pet monkey by running it over with a truck, explaining that the creature was in fact a Jew turned into a monkey by the hand of God. Later, Omar learned that it was his father who taught the guard that monkeys were Jews.

Now an adult and free from his father, Omar talks about starting a worldwide peace movement. But having spent much of his life in the wilds of Afghanistan, his ideas about how the world works are hazy. The U.S. government is unlikely to start a dialogue with Osama bin Laden, as he suggests. Another idea, a horse race across North Africa, seems more appropriate. Perhaps a world where people are kinder to animals will be one where they are kinder to one another.

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