Book review: Family values
A new memoir of Osama bin Laden by his wife and son presents the most intimate portrait yet of the al Qa'eda leader, but its revelations do little to illuminate its subject, Thomas Hegghammer writes. Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World Jean Sasson, Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden Oneworld Dh98 "I remember staring into his kindly eyes, tartly thinking to myself that my cousin was shyer than a virgin under the veil." Thus Najwa Ghanem recalls a meeting with 16-year old Osama bin Laden shortly before she became his first wife: "My life progressed from childhood into adulthood by the end of that evening. I was a married woman in every way." It's anyone's guess how much money has gone into the quest for information about Osama bin Laden since he rose to prominence in the mid-1990s. Now, for less than Dh100, we can get details on his personal life that are more reliable than all previous works combined. The publication of Growing up bin Laden is astonishing, not because of its tame bedroom confessions, but because nobody in the bin Laden family has ever spoken publicly about Osama before. The development is so unlikely that one inevitably wonders: is this for real?
The sheer number of bin Laden biographies published in the past decade leaves room for doubt. A few of these books have been serious, such as Jonathan Randal's Osama and Peter Bergen's The Osama bin Laden I Know. However, the majority are filled with inaccuracies and in some cases sensationalist fabrications. In one dubious book, Adam Robinson wrote that bin Laden was an avid Arsenal FC supporter who regularly attended matches at Highbury stadium in the 1990s. In another, a woman named Kola Boof claimed - falsely, by most accounts - to have been raped by bin Laden in Morocco in 1996. And the fake rumour that bin Laden was a playboy in 1970s Beirut has proved remarkably persistent.
A book that is ghostwritten by the queen of orientalist chick lit, Jean Sasson, and whose title promises to "take us inside their secret world" does not, on the surface, signal credibility. But Growing up bin Laden is neither sensationalist nor particularly biased. The broad lines of the account are corroborated by other sources, and the previously unknown anecdotes are credible and serve no obvious political purpose. If anything, the book is slightly on the boring side, because it contains too many banal observations by Najwa bin Laden on a domestic life from which Osama himself was mostly absent.
But why is the book being published now? Nothing in it suggests we are dealing with state-sponsored propaganda. Osama is indeed cast in an unflattering light, but the picture that emerges is arguably more nuanced than the one already in the public mind. The timing is most likely linked to Omar bin Laden's personal trajectory. In late 1999, the then 20-year old Omar allegedly broke with his father and fled Afghanistan.
Omar was initially in denial about his father's responsibility for September 11, but he gradually came to terms with it and began distancing himself publicly from the elder bin Laden. In 2007 he married a British woman 24 years his senior, left Saudi Arabia for Qatar and began seeking political asylum in various European countries. According to Jean Sasson, Omar himself contacted the publisher with the book proposal in 2008. One suspects that the book is partly an attempt by Omar to convince the outside world of his peaceful intentions and to increase his prospects of moving to the West. Omar's bitterness toward his father shines through in the text, but not to the point of undermining his own credibility.
It is much less clear what motivated Najwa bin Laden, who was still married to Osama when she wrote the book (and still is, as far as we know). Najwa, who has lived in her native Syria since 2001, seems to have been a reluctant participant of this book project. It was allegedly Jean Sasson who suggested she be a co-author, and she only agreed after being persuaded by Omar. Perhaps she is hoping that the book will help dissociate her children from their father's legacy and make their lives easier.
At any rate, Najwa is considerably less critical than Omar toward Osama; she neither condemns nor supports her husband's activities. She comes across as a naive, subservient figure with few political opinions of her own. She prefers to talk about family matters and wants to appear as a loyal wife while showing empathy with the victims of her husband's attacks. Her position is understandable, but annoyingly spineless. Still, her description of events seems sincere. On the whole, the book must be taken seriously as a historical document.
In Growing up bin Laden, Najwa and Omar tell their respective life stories in alternating chapters organised chronologically. Najwa and her husband knew each other as young children, so the book effectively covers Osama's life from the early 1960s until 2001. On its face, it is hard to imagine a better source on Osama's personal history save an autobiography by the man himself. It is surprising, then, that the book contains so few new revelations about bin Laden's life. The major phases described in the book were already known: a childhood in Jeddah on the periphery of the bin Laden clan, his politicisation in high school, his involvement in the 1980s Afghanistan war, his fallout with the Saudi regime and move to Sudan in the early 1990s, his return to Afghanistan and building of al Qa'eda training camps in the late 1990s.
Some pieces of information are new and worth noting. For example, Najwa says she accompanied her husband on a trip to an Islamic conference in the US state of Indiana in 1979, where he met the Palestinian Islamist Abdallah Azzam. Bin Laden is generally believed never to have visited the United States, and his encounter with Azzam (with whom he later founded the precursor of the al Qa'eda organisation), is widely thought to have happened later. It is hard to see why Najwa would have made this up, but it is also hard to see why there is no evidence of it in other sources (neither Osama, Abdallah Azzam or US authorities have ever mentioned it).
Another interesting new detail is that in 1990, in anticipation of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden turned his family farm south of Jeddah into a veritable military base, stockpiling food and weapons and hosting some hundred non-Saudi Arabs who had fought with him in Afghanistan. This prompted the Saudi security services to raid the farm in late 1990, arresting the foreigners and confiscating the supplies. A furious Osama contacted Crown Prince Abdallah directly and obtained the release of his comrades. We knew that bin Laden had proposed a deployment of Arab Afghans instead of Americans to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq, but we did not know he had taken concrete steps for such a mobilisation.
The paucity of substantial new insights in the book is testimony to the quality of the meticulous research undertaken by Peter Bergen, Lawrence Wright, and other al Qa'eda historians over the years. It probably also underscores the fact that Najwa and Omar themselves were not particularly well informed about Osama's political activities. Najwa was not interested in politics; she led a very secluded life and she shared her busy husband's time with several other wives. And Omar is too young to be a reliable source on his father's activities before the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, the book is packed with small details on Osama bin Laden's medical history, habits and tastes. These make for good anecdotes, though none is particularly significant. The al Qa'eda leader takes two spoons of sugar in his tea, and his favourite dish is courgette stuffed with marrow. He loves fancy cars and once owned a golden Mercedes. He has always listened to BBC Arabic. He has a scar on his arm from a bite by an angry Syrian man whose apples Osama tried to steal as a boy. He once got a piece of metal in his eye and was flown to London for medical treatment - his only European visit mentioned in the book. The incident left him almost blind in the right eye, which is why he fires guns from his left shoulder. Somewhat more important is the claim that Osama was in excellent health when he fled Afghanistan in 2001. Reports that he has kidney problems are inaccurate: he was never on dialysis (but he does occasionally have kidney stones).
Much more interesting are the insights into his personality. The Osama in Growing up bin Laden cuts against both his supporter's view of him as an idealistic fatherly figure and the western image of him as a bloodthirsty monster. Instead he emerges as a grave, proud and emotionally distant figure. He is, and always was, a deeply religious, extremely serious man who imposed strict social conservatism on himself and his family, reprimanding his children for being overly joyful. Ascetic self-discipline was one of his highest virtues; he forbade his family from using modern appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners, and he brought his children on long hikes without water and made them sleep in ditches in the desert. He was an emotionally remote father with a short temper and a cane which he regularly used on his children. Omar says he and his brothers were sorry the first war in Afghanistan ended because it meant their father would spend more time at home. Osama generally seems to have felt a strong need to control his surroundings (he told his sons "your limbs should react to my thinking as though my brain was in your head").
Of course, many people share these personality traits without becoming terrorists. What do we learn about bin Laden's radicalisation? Unfortunately, not very much beyond what we already knew. His involvement in Afghanistan stemmed from a genuine interest in international politics and a concern for the welfare of other Muslims ("his mind was like an antenna for regional news, especially about Muslims"). In 1990, he was personally humiliated by the Saudi government's rejection of his Arab Afghan defence proposal, and he saw the state's recourse to the US military - with its female soldiers - as a deep collective humiliation of Muslims. His eviction from Sudan in 1996, which he blamed on US pressure, was the final straw. Judging by Omar's account, Osama was a strong leader who chose his own ideological path and was not manipulated by cunning ideologues like Ayman al Zawahiri (who appears here as a deeply unsympathetic figure).
One cannot help wonder what Osama himself will think when he gets hold of a copy of the book. My only wish is that he feels inspired to write an honest autobiography. It might be our only hope of ever knowing what happened to that virgin under the veil.
Thomas Hegghammer is a senior fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and the author of the forthcoming Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979.