Thursday, October 20, 2016
Growing Up Bin Laden by Najwa and Omar bin Laden (Book Review #53 of 2016)
Growing Up Bin Laden
(I read this book as part of a lot of several in order to learn more about the history of Al Qaeda and ISIS. A list of books in the order I recommend reading them is located at the bottom of this post.)
I noticed that there were zero one-star reviews for this book, and I'd say that's about right. It is a clear portrait of life in the austere Islamic jihad from people who saw it from the inside and got out. You might have to take some of the things in this book with a grain of salt, but much of it rings true. I finished Steve Coll's book on the Bin Ladens before beginning this one, and I recommend them in that order. Coll gives greater background into the life of Osama bin Laden's (OBL) father and where the details are fuzzy in Coll's account, this book makes more clear. Coll lacked access to the information in this book, he was unaware that OBL had taken his family on a trip to America, for example. The most glaring difference between the account of Najwa and Omar Bin Laden would be Omar's insistence that his father averted his eyes at women, and largely treated them respectfully, in contrast to other men who were abusive. But soldiers testify that when OBL was killed, there was a large porn stash recovered from the site, similar to what was found at other Al Qaeda sites. Omar wrote of an OBL who shunned much of technology and television; perhaps OBL's habits changed when he was sequestered away in his secret compound. But there are plenty of examples in the book of the many sins of OBL that were unknown to his family until long after the fact. Osama bin Laden's family was kept largely in the dark about all of his activities, but were not completely shielded from the aftermath.
Osama's own stories to his family and other relatives give the authors a glimpse into Osama's childhood. His wife leaves his father, Mohammed, at an early age; Osama is just one of 54 children. He has an understanding stepfather. There are a couple of occassions where he meets with his father, which makes things awkward for his stepfather. Osama is a young boy when Mohammed dies.
Omar is Osama Bin Laden's fourth son and simply wants his father's approval and love, competing for it with his other siblings. He relishes even just having a photo taken with him, or being held by him-- these things rarely happen, less so as OBL becomes more engrossed in his operations in Afghanistan. Najwa, OBL's first wife, was born and grew up in Latakia, Syria and was a cousin to OBL. Just as OBL's father Mohammed had married a Syrian, so would Osama. She liked to play sports and music and eventually the two become infatuated with each other that OBL arranges to ask for permission to marry; he was 17, she was 14.
OBL and Najwa move to Saudi Arabia where Najwa needs to engage in a much more conservative lifestyle. Women do not even pray in the neighborhood mosques in Saudi Arabia. Najwa paints a rosy picture of OBL-- a construction worker, a nature lover, an economics and management major, the father of young children who is respectful and listens to her. They lived in Jeddah, Najwa loved going to Mecca. She writes that they went to Indianapolis for two weeks in 1979, Osama traveled to Los Angeles, ostensibly for his father's construction business but much is left to speculation.
Osama never graduated and after 1979 became more interested in Islamic studies and lifestyle, more involved in politics and concerned about the world. The Seige of Mecca in 1979 (I highly recommend Trofimov's book) is not mentioned, but it is clear that 1979 is a turning point-- perhaps beyond the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December. When they are in America, they encounter the odd stares from strangers at the airport, looking at her hijab. Osama is highly interested in the Islamic reforms of the 1970s, the Palestinian jihadi Abdullah Azzam is his mentor and convinces him to join the war in Afghanistan. OBL comes home and regales his sons with war stories, hosting other jihadi fighters and recruiting more resources.
Omar apologizes to the reader and public for his father, but he also loves him as any son loves a father. He wants to earn his father's affection. Osama is a champion memorizer and recitor of the Koran. Omar never writes much about his own religious devotion. He injures hifa father accidentally when they are playing outside, and OBL has to go to the hospital. Osama becomes increasingly harsh and angry with the boys, caning them for little reason, except he is nice to his wives. Osama wanted to discipline the boys and prepare them for hardship. To lessen their dependence on material things and increase their devotion to Islam.
Because of OBL's desire for "many children for Islam," he marries his second wife after Najwa bears him five children. He only did it if Najwa approved, they talked it over. He would add two more wives and the family moved to Medina. The house becomes filled with children and luxuries are moved out. Osama was against modern medicine, against refrigeration, but allowed the family to use electricity. One odd aspect of the austerity was the minimum hydration, even in the heat of summer. For Najwa this is difficult because she new him before his austerity. Osama even opposes asthma medication for a child striken with the ailment, putting him at risk. Again, it is hard to square this with the man and his creature comforts at his Pakistani compound when he was killed.
Abdullah Azzam was assassinated in 1989 and Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. Saddam has a farm with his network of former Afghan jihadi warriors and believes that Saudi Arabia will call on them to defend the holy soil from Saddam's imminent invasion. Rather than seek Osama's guidance, the Saudi government raids his farm suspecting him of terrorist activities. OBL's family writes that the last straw was when international troops took up the defense of Saudi Arabia, female troops in the American ranks being the largest insult to Islam. It was here that Osama decided the Saudi regime must go, and the Western crusaders be removed from anywhere close to Mecca. OBL moves his family to Khartoum where they again establish a somewhat happy/stable life of austerity. Farming sunflowers gives bin Laden pleasure. Only contracting malaria causes OBL to finally cave to receiving medical treatment.
In Sudan, the family has Christian neighbors and interacts with another religion for the first time. While the kids played with each other, Osama disliked the Christian families-- he also disliked the pet pigeons of his children. The man comes across as truly cruel here, and surrounding himself with increasingly creepy and cruel individuals. There are men threatening rape as punishment, a friend who was raped and killed as being guilty. A servant taht kills a pet monkey becauses he believes it to be a Jew. These men are not impressive and jive with the descriptions given by FBI interrogator Ali Soufan in his book (below), where he writes that many of Al Qaeda were not very knowledgeable about the Koran or Islam and rather easily duped if they felt there was something in it for them monetarily or in terms of prestige.
The co-author, Jean Sasson, takes the time to explain to the reader OBL's activities in Sudan that the family was apparently kept in the dark about in the 1992 period. OBL's brothers arrive to plead for bin Laden to return, perhaps promising amnesty, which OBL rebuffs and then they fear the worse. Assassins visit their house at one point. It's clear bin Laden's refusal to return to Saudi has angered powerful people.
OBL takes Omar on a trip to Afghanistan to begin the preparation to bring the rest of the family when it is safe and possible. Omar misses his mom, and the destination is kept secret until Omar arrives in country.
One piece that was unknown to me was OBL's tense courtship of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He needed Omar's blessing to live and operate in the area, but it was a long time before he finally received the greeting of welcome. The Taliban's religious philosphy was even more strict than the Wahhabism of Al Qaeda. Yet, the Taliban listened to dreams and tolerated ancestor worship. Expressing sorrow over death is seen by all as the same as criticizing Allah, since it is his will that someone died. Bin Laden can finally relax when Mullah Omar welcomes him and invites him into an alliance. They see Israel and America as part of the same force, and Israel as the stronger of the two. Hence, attacking the weaker America seems to be the smarter idea.
Omar is relieved when his mother and the rest of his family arrives. There are more births, and Najwa encourages OBL to spend more fatherly time with his sons. Omar develops a rebellious streak and loses favor to his brother Mohammed. He writes that he doesn't believe any of his brothers could be OBL's lieutenants, they were not raised as soldiers, and he is skeptical of media or intelligence reports otherwise. Among other sad things the boys withness is their puppies being used as experiments of nerve gas. "My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons." With many wives and 20 children, their paths will of course be diverse.
Omar takes a trip to Sudan and has an adventure ostensibly trying to find a bride. He returns to Afghanistan in time to learn of the Tazania and Kenya bombings and to see Al Qaeda's elation. He witnesses President Clinton's cruise missile strike that actually did kill many Al Qaeda fighters, though not as many as it could have. Omar begins mulling an escape plan at this point. He leaves to start a new life in Jeddah but returns after his grandmother tells him he has been summoned back. He learns from OBL's men that there is a giant plot underway, and Omar begins to dread the future. His father has lowered his expectations for what he will become, and he uses his mothers next pregnancy as a way to plead for her to leave the country before giving birth. Eventually, OBL relents. Omar witnesses 9/11 from his uncle's home in Saudi Arabia, his mother had left with three children to her home in Syria just days before; she was likely warned of what was about to happen. Omar begins an awkward new life, marrying, divorcing, and marrying a much older British woman. Wikipedia tells me he's now considered bipolar and is constantly paranoid, not difficult to imagine.
Jean Sasson closes the book with some explanations that the family reached out to her to write the book because she had written other works on on the history of women in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. I give this book 4.5 stars, a must-read if you're interested in Osama bin Laden and the history of Al Qaeda. Many are skeptical of how little Omar knew, but what he provides here is an interesting portrait and probably useful for intelligence profiling.
Al Qaeda and ISIS books:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)