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       Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, p.1

           Jean Sasson
Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World

  Growing Up bin Laden



  The Rape of Kuwait

  Princess: A True Story of Life Behind

  the Veil in Saudi Arabia

  Daughters of Arabia

  Desert Royal

  Mayada, Daughter of Iraq

  Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan


  Ester’s Child

  For more information on Jean Sasson and

  her books, see her Web site at

  Growing Up bin Laden




  as told to her by

  Najwa bin Laden and Omar bin Laden

  A Oneworld Book

  First published in Great Britain and the Commonwealth by

  Oneworld Publications 2009

  This ebook edition published by Oneworld Publications in 2010

  Copyright © The Sasson Corporation 2009

  All rights reserved

  Copyright under Berne Convention

  A CIP record for this title is available

  from the British Library

  ISBN 978-1-85168-765-7

  Maps and other illustrations by Evan T. White

  Cover design by

  Oneworld Publications

  UK: 185 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 7AR, England

  USA: 38 Greene Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10013, USA

  Learn more about Oneworld. Join our mailing list to find out about our latest titles and special offers at:

  We dedicate this book to every innocent person who has suffered pain or lost their life in terror attacks throughout the world, and the families who continue to suffer and mourn them.

  We pray for peace all over the world.



  A Note to the Reader


  1. NAJWA: My Youth

  2. NAJWA: Married Life

  JEAN: A Note Regarding Osama bin Laden’s Political Activities

  3. NAJWA: Mother of Many Sons

  4. OMAR: Born the Son of Osama bin Laden 38

  5. NAJWA: Marriage Surprises

  6. OMAR: Growing Up bin Laden

  7. OMAR: Moving to Medina

  8. NAJWA: Many Children for Osama

  JEAN: A Note Regarding Osama bin Laden’s Political Activities

  9. OMAR: The Nightmare Begins


  10. NAJWA: To Africa

  11. NAJWA: Family Affairs

  12. OMAR: Golden Times in Khartoum

  13. OMAR: The Scent of Death

  14. OMAR: Journey into the Unknown

  JEAN: A Note Regarding Osama bin Laden’s Political and Militant Activities


  15. OMAR: Retreat to Afghanistan

  16. OMAR: Tora Bora Mountain

  17. NAJWA: A Far, Far Country

  18. OMAR: My Father’s Army

  19. NAJWA: Mountain Life

  20. OMAR: The Violence Escalates

  21. OMAR: Real War

  22. OMAR: Jihad Vacation

  23. OMAR: True Terror

  24. OMAR: The Tightening Noose

  25. NAJWA: Young Marriage

  26. OMAR: The Beginning of the End

  27. NAJWA: To Syria

  28. OMAR: Return to Saudi Arabia

  29. NAJWA: Leaving Afghanistan Forever

  30. OMAR: September 11, 2001

  Final Comments by Jean Sasson

  Appendix A: Osama bin Laden’s Family: Who Were They? What Happened to Them?

  Appendix B: Osama bin Laden Chronology

  Appendix C: Al- Qaeda Chronology: 1988–2008



  Thank you, Omar, for your sincerity and integrity. Thank you, dear Najwa, for your sweet ways and your oh-so-careful responses to my endlessly intrusive questions at all hours of the day and night. Thank you, Zaina, for your devotion to Omar, and for your encouragement that Omar continue helping to make this book happen.

  Thank you, Liza, my indefatigable literary agent, for believing in this project when others who should have believed did not. I am a most fortunate author to have you represent me. And Frank, my literary attorney, I thank you for being a rock throughout my literary career, for sixteen years now. Havis, I thank you for your generous nature and unfailing help. To Chandler, foreign rights connoisseur, I thank you for falling in love with this story and for presenting it to publishers worldwide with that love in your heart.

  A special thanks to my editor, Hope. Liza had told me you are one of the great editors, and working with you has proven that to me. Laura, you never let me down and were always there to answer my questions with a friendly word. I thank you and the many people at St. Martin’s, who, like me, were drawn into this unique story and enjoyed exercising their skills to bring this important project to fruition.

  Thank you, my dear Hikmat, for your diligence in translating a seemingly endless stream of pages from English to Arabic and Arabic to English for my critical research. And to you too, Amina, for pitching in when it seemed the translation stream threatened to crest and overflow. Evan, you were a pro from the first moment, and your illustrations add so much value to this work. You have my sincere thanks for never complaining despite the many tweaks on the road to perfection.

  Thanks to those who care deeply about this book, and to those who care about the other books I have written or planned projects yet to be written. This includes relatives Aunt Margaret and cousins Bill and Alice. My nephew Greg and his son Alec express sincere care by calling to check on my progress and well-being during the difficult days and nights of writing. Dear friends who graciously support me at every turn cannot go unnamed. I thank Alece, Anita, Danny and Jo, Joanne, Judy and her mom, Eleanor, Lisa, Maria and Bill, Mayada, Peter and Julie, and Vicki and her mom, Jo.

  And, of course, once again, to my darling Jack, who gives me unconditional love while securing the perimeters of my life.


  A Note to the Reader

  From the moment he came to the world’s attention, Osama bin Laden has meticulously guarded even the most impersonal details about himself and his wives and children. This lack of private information about Osama bin Laden and his immediate family has fed the world’s imagination ever since September 11, 2001.

  While there have been many books published about Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, this is the first book written from inside Osama bin Laden’s family life, with personal accounts directly from his first wife, Najwa, and their fourth-born son, Omar. I want readers to know that nothing in Growing Up bin Laden has been filtered through the opinions of this writer. Memories of events, stories, and personal thoughts have come straight from Najwa and Omar to me. Although I was startled by certain revelations, I let the truth of the bin Laden family life unfold naturally. Like other members of the vast bin Laden family, Najwa and Omar are not terrorists. Neither has ever harmed anyone, but are in fact two of the kindest individuals it has been my pleasure to know.

  It is important to remember that this book is about the private life of Osama bin Laden and his family. Please keep in mind that his son Omar bin Laden was a young boy until he moved to Afghanistan, and that Omar’s mother,
Najwa, lived in isolation during her marriage according to her husband’s wishes. This is strictly a personal account of family life because much of Osama bin Laden’s political, militant, and Islamic life was hidden from his wife and son, although it permeated their own lives in ways they did not always understand at the time.

  During the turbulent years they were living with Osama bin Laden, Omar and Najwa were often occupied with survival rather than with keeping notes or diaries. They acknowledge that the timing and dates of family events may not always be exact, and ask that readers treat the information in this book as essentially an oral history, and therefore subject to the fallibility of memory.

  Finally, although this book is the story of Najwa and Omar, and their recollections and views as they recounted them to me, the reader should understand that those clearly identified materials I have added to the narrative—this and other author’s notes in the text and the Appendices at the end of the book—reflect solely my views and opinions and not those of Omar or Najwa bin Laden.

  When seeking to deepen our knowledge of those who bring great harm to the world, perhaps we should be guided by the words of Sir Winston Churchill at the end of World War II:

  Now that it is over we look back, and with minute and searching care, seek to find its criminals and its heroes. Where are they? Where are the villains who made the war? . . . We ought to know; we mean to know. Smarting under our wounds, enraged by our injuries, amazed by our wonderful exertions and achievements, conscious of our authority, we demand to know the truth, and to fix the responsibilities.

  People are not born terrorists. Nor do they become terrorists in a single stroke. But step by step, like a farmer preparing a field for planting, their lives unfold in a pattern that leaves them prepared to receive the seed of terrorism.

  And so it was with Osama bin Laden. And the man, men, and events that planted that seed faded away. But the seed grew and the terrorist walked. And the man before, became the terrorist thereafter.

  Najwa Ghanem bin Laden knows only the man. The West knows only the terrorist.



  Early Days in Saudi Arabia

  Chapter 1

  My Youth


  I was not always the wife of Osama bin Laden. Once I was an innocent child dreaming little girl dreams. These days my thoughts often drift back in time and I remember the little girl that I was and the safe and happy childhood I enjoyed.

  Often I’ve heard adults speak of their childhood with regret and even anger, glad that they have escaped the younger years. Such talk is baffling to me, for if I could, I would go back in time to the first part of my life and I would remain a little girl forever.

  My parents and siblings and I lived in a modest villa in the port city of Latakia, Syria. The coastal region of Syria is lovely, with sea breezes and fertile land where lucky farmers grow fruit and vegetables. Our backyard was abundant with green trees bursting with delicious fruit. Behind our narrow seaside plain one could see the picturesque coastal mountains, with terraced hills of fruit orchards and olive groves.

  There were seven people living in the Ghanem household, so our home was undeniably hectic. I was the second child born to my mother and father and enjoyed good relations with my older brother, Naji, and my younger siblings, Leila, Nabeel, and Ahmed. There was also a half-brother, Ali, a few years older than the children of my mother. My father had been married several times before he married my mother, fathering Ali with an earlier wife.

  My closest sibling was Naji, who was one year older. Although I loved my brother dearly, he, like most boys, possessed a mischievous streak that caused me many moments of terror.

  For example, I was born with a fear of snakes. One day, Naji used his pocket money to slip into the local bazaar to purchase a plastic snake, then knocked very politely at my bedroom door. When I answered, my brother gave me a roguish grin and suddenly thrust what I thought was a live snake into my hand. My piercing screams stirred the entire household as I dropped the snake to run so fast one would have thought I was riding on air.

  My father happened to be home and rushed to deal with the crisis, almost certainly believing that armed bandits had come to murder us. When he finally realized that my hysterics were caused by Naji, who was proudly brandishing the fake snake, he stared long and hard at my brother before he began to scold him.

  Naji remained unrepentant, crying out over Father’s yells, “Najwa is a coward! I am teaching her to be brave.”

  Had we been able to see into the future, when snakes would become routine visitors to my mountain home in Afghanistan, perhaps I would have thanked my brother.

  My favorite spot in the villa was the upstairs balcony, a perfect place for a young girl to escape to dreamland. I spent many enchanting hours lounging there with a favorite book. Generally, after reading a few chapters I would use my finger to hold the page and gaze outward to the street below me.

  The houses in our neighborhood were nestled closely together, with small commercial establishments all around. I loved to observe the busy traffic of human beings rushing throughout the neighborhood, completing their daily tasks so that they might retire to their homes for an agreeable evening of dining and relaxing with their families.

  Many of the families in our neighborhood had originated from other lands. Mine came from Yemen, a faraway country that was reported to be spectacularly beautiful. I was never told specifics as to why our ancestors had left, but so many Yemeni families have emigrated to nearby countries that it is said Yemeni blood flows throughout the entire Arab world. Most likely it was simple poverty that drove our Yemeni ancestors to sell their livestock, close their homes, abandon inhospitable fields, and leave behind forever old friends in familiar towns.

  I can imagine my ancestors sitting in their home, the men, dashing with their curved daggers, possibly chewing the leaf of the qat tree, while the women, with black eyes intensified by kohl, listened quietly as their men discussed the challenge of parched land or missed opportunities. The old incense trade had died out, and the rains were too uncertain to grow reliable crops. With hunger pangs stabbing the small bellies of their children, my ancestors were likely persuaded to mount tall camels and trek through the green valleys rimmed by those high brown hills.

  Upon their arrival in Syria, my ancestors established their home on the Mediterranean, in the large port city of my own birth and childhood. Latakia was noted in texts over two thousand years ago, described as having “admirable buildings and an excellent harbor.” Framed by the sea on one side, and fertile land on the other, it has been coveted by many, and in the process was occupied by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Ottomans. Like all ancient cities, Latakia has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times.

  Up until the time I married and traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, my life experiences were limited to my family home, my school, my hometown of Latakia, and my country of Syria.

  I was a daughter proud of her parents. When I was old enough to understand the things people said around me, I became aware of friendly talk regarding both the inner and outer beauty of my family. I was glad, of course, that we were respected for our good character, but my girlish pride was particularly pleased by talk of our handsome appearance.

  My father worked in trading, which is a common way for Arab men in the region to make their living. I never knew much about my father’s daily life, for daughters in my culture do not accompany their fathers to work. I do know that he was diligent, leaving our home early in the morning and not returning until the evening hours. His hard work ensured a comfortable living for his family. Looking back, I believe that my father had a soft touch for his daughters. He was firmer with my brothers, whose naughty ways sometimes made it necessary for him to be alert.

  Mother remained at home caring for our personal needs. She was a gifted cook and fastidious housekeeper. With a husband, three sons, and two daughters, her work was never f
inished. Much of her day was spent in the kitchen. I’ll never forget the wonderful meals she prepared for her family, beginning with a delicious breakfast of eggs, cheese, butter, sweet honey with feta cheese, bread, and jam. Our lunches might be hummus, made of chickpeas and spices, various vegetables fresh from the garden, newly picked tomatoes and cucumbers, mint-pickled eggplants stuffed with garlic, and pecan nuts. Our nighttime meal would be served between seven and eight. Our big eyes were often greeted by plates of mother’s delectable rice with peas, stuffed vine leaves, okra and kibbe, a dish particularly popular with Arabs, which is basically ground lamb with bulgur wheat mixed with salt, pepper, onions, and other spices.

  Of course my sister and I helped with the housework, although our duties were light compared to Mother’s tasks. I kept my bed neat, washed dishes, and when I was not in school, was my mother’s kitchen helper.

  Mother was the chief disciplinarian for all the children. In truth, when I was a young girl, I was frightened of her strict rules regarding the social conduct of her two daughters. This is not unusual in my culture, for girls are the shining light of the family, expected to be perfect in every way, while it is anticipated that sons will sow wild oats. Should a female child behave badly, the entire family suffers enormous disgrace in the eyes of the community. Had I seriously misbehaved, it might have been difficult for my parents to find a family who would allow their sons or daughters to marry into our family. A girl’s careless actions might deprive brothers and sisters of worthy marriage partners.

  When I was a teenager, my mother did not agree with how I dressed. While she was a conservative Muslim woman, covering her hair with a scarf and wearing dresses that cloaked her from neck to ankles, I rebelled against such traditional dress. I resisted her pleas to dress modestly, even refusing to cover my hair. I wore pretty, colorful dresses that were not so old-fashioned. In the summer I rejected blouses that covered my arms, or skirts that hung to my ankles. I would argue with my mother if she criticized my modern fashion. Now I am ashamed that I caused her such grief.

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