Jan 08, 2006

The Sunday Times (UK) “Bin Laden family values”

The people who really knew the world’s most wanted terrorist reveal the truth about his early life to Peter L Bergen Despite his impact on history, Osama Bin Laden remains shrouded in a fog of myth, propaganda, and half-truths. For eight years I have been interviewing people close to him and gathering documents, including his own letters, in order to fill out the picture of this mysterious man. Bin Laden grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in Jidda, a port on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, 30 miles from Mecca. Brian Fyfield-Shayler, a British citizen, lived in Saudi Arabia and taught English to a number of the Bin Laden boys: All the sons are very good-looking. I don’t think that I have ever met any ugly Bin Ladens. Osama’s mother, I am told, was a great beauty. Since his father never had more than four wives at any one time he was constantly divorcing the third and the fourth and taking in new ones. This was an anachronism even in the 1950s and 1960s. Osama was one of 30 students. He [used to sit] two-thirds of the way back on the window side that looked out onto sports fields and playing grounds. He was literally outstanding because he was taller than his contemporaries, and so he was very noticeable. His English was not amazing. He was not one of the great brains of that class. It was big news, national news, when [Osama’s father] was killed [in a plane crash in 1967]. And for the next year at least the future of the business [hung in the balance]. There were a lot of projects that were not completed, and it was the major construction company of Saudi Arabia, so it was of huge importance, and there was probably only Salem [Osama’s oldest brother] and three or four brothers at that period who were of an age even to take on the mantle. Salem was educated at Millfield [a boarding school in England]. Salem was a fraction younger than me, but not much. I was introduced to him by mutual friends. He was very westernised. His English was beautiful; it was very fluent, very characterful. A relative of the Bin Laden family: Salem was a unique individual by any standard. By Saudi standards he was off the charts. Very charismatic, amusing, no facial hair. He played guitar — Sixties hits such as Where Have All the Flowers Gone?. He acted as sort of a court jester to King Fahd and was part of Fahd’s inner circle. One time he buzzed the king’s camp in the desert with one of his planes, which went down badly, but he was always taken back into the fold. Salem took control of the business beginning in 1973–4. If Fahd wanted a palace built, Salem would build it for him. Christina Akerblad, former owner of the Hotel Astoria in Falun, Sweden, recalls how in 1970 Salem and Osama paid a visit: They came with a big Rolls-Royce, and it was forbidden to park the car outside the building in this street. But they did it, and [my husband and I] said to them, “You have to pay [a fine] for every day and every hour you are staying outside this hotel,” but they said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter — it’s so funny to go to the police station and to talk with the police. We will stay where we are.” They had so much money they didn’t know how much they had. I asked them how they had managed to come to Sweden with this enormous Rolls-Royce. They said, “We have our plane.” They stayed one week. They were dressed very exclusive. They had two double rooms. They slept in one bed and on the other bed they had their bags. On Sunday, I had no cleaner at the hotel, so I took care of the room myself, and I was shocked because in the big bag they had lots of white, expensive shirts from Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. When they had [worn] the shirt once, they dropped it. So the cleaner had taken these shirts to wash them, but they said, “No, we are just using them once, so you can [have] them if you want.” Khaled Batarfi, three years younger than Bin Laden, met him when Osama was in his teens and they lived next door to each other in Jidda: I was the soccer captain even though Osama was older than me. Because he was tall, he used to play forward to use his head and put in the goals. I was a tough guy then and Osama was the peaceful one. He was very shy, very observant. He liked western movies, and he liked karate movies. Bruce Lee. He liked to go climbing mountains in the area between Syria and Turkey. He loved horse riding. He would fast every Monday and Thursday. [Such] fasting is an extra thing, it’s what the Prophet used to do, but you don’t have to do it. [Osama’s mother, Alia Ghanem, a Syrian] is a moderate Muslim. She watches TV. She [has] never been very conservative, and her [current] husband’s like that; their kids are like that. So Osama was different, but in a quiet way. He would bother his brothers sometimes for looking at the maid or things like that. Of course, he woke them for prayers in the morning, and that was good — nobody complained. But sometimes he was kind of upset if something is not done in an Islamic way. “Don’t wear short sleeves, don’t do this, don’t do that.” At 17 he married his cousin in Latakia [in Syria] — a beautiful resort, I hear — the daughter of his uncle, the brother of his mother. And then he went to the university and I saw less of him. Jamal Khalifa recalls his years with Bin Laden at Jidda’s King Abdul Aziz University: In 1976 I met Osama. He was in a different college, in economics. I was in science, but our activities were the same. I was almost 20, and he was 19. At that time we were religious and very conservative. Of course, no girls — don’t even talk about it — and no photographs. That’s why I don’t have any pictures with Osama. I was photographed in high school, but when I became religious I threw everything away. We [discussed] polygamy, and we recalled our fathers. We found that they were practising it in a wrong way, where they married and divorced, married and divorced — a lot of wives. Some of those practising polygamy will, if they marry the second one, neglect the first one — not the Islamic way at all. We look at polygamy as solving a social problem, especially when it’s confirmed that there are more women than men in the society. It’s not fun, it’s not a matter of just having women to sleep with — it’s a solution for a problem. So that’s how [Osama and I] looked at it, and we decided to practise [polygamy] and to be a model. Khaled Batarfi: Did you know he went to America? He took his [first] son Abdallah, because Abdallah has problems with his head — it was deformed — so he took him for a medical trip. Even after his marriage, for a year or so he was still living in his mother’s house. Later on, after he got his first child, it seems like it was too tight a place for him, especially since he was planning to marry another woman. So they moved to a building in the Al-Aziziyah district [in Jidda]. He gave each wife an apartment. I visited him once and I saw they were bare apartments. I mean, I wouldn’t live there myself. Very humble. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a profoundly shocking event for Bin Laden. He co-founded the Services Office, an organization dedicated to placing Arab volunteers either with relief organizations serving Afghan refugees or with the Afghan factions fighting the Soviets. Jihad magazine, effectively the house organ of the Services Office: [Bin Laden] was not willing to drink any soft drinks from American companies — Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, 7Up. He is trying to boycott all American products because he believes that without the Americans Israel cannot exist. In 1986 Bin Laden established a base next to a Soviet military post at Jaji, in eastern Afghanistan. Jamal Khalifa was angry about what he regarded as his friend’s foolhardy plan to set up his own military operation: I decided to go myself [to Jaji] to see what’s going on there. I stayed three days. I started to ask people how it’s going. They said [that] every day, we have plenty of shaheeds [martyrs] — people dying. I said, “Why? They are not trained and they are very young. They don’t have experience and they are facing the Soviets. It’s not a joke.” So I sat down with Osama in his tent underground. I told him, “Everybody is against this idea. Why are you here? Don’t you know that this is very dangerous?” He said, “We came to be in the front.” I said, “No, we did not come to be in the front. We came to [support the] Afghans.” I told him, “Every drop of blood bleeds here in this place. God will ask you about it in the Hereafter. Everybody [is] saying this is wrong, so Osama, please leave right now.” Everybody was hearing our argument; our voices become hard. I was very angry; this is our first time to be like this. I told him, “Look, you will leave or I will never see you again.” He told me, “Do whatever you want.” So I left. Khaled Batarfi, who remained in touch with Bin Laden’s mother during the Soviet-Afghan war, noted her growing concerns about her son: He decided to become a fighter, and his mother — oh God, it went from bad to worse. She heard about the chemical gas Russians used against mujaheddin, and her son was affected. She was [watching] TV, waiting for bad news. On May 29, 1988, Bin Laden’s brother Salem crashed a plane in San Antonio, Texas, and died on impact. Although Salem did not see much of Osama, because Salem was running the family business and was far more fun-loving and westernised than his austere younger half-brother, his death was a blow to Osama. A Bin Laden relative: If Salem had still been around, nobody would be writing books about Osama Bin Laden. Salem had a volcanic temper and no problem about rocking the boat. He would have personally flown to Sudan [where Osama lived in the mid-1990s]. Salem would have grabbed Osama by the lapels and taken him back to Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden left Afghanistan for Sudan after having helped to drive out the Russians. His family socialised with that of Hassan Turabi, the de facto leader of Sudan. Wisal al Turabi, Hassan’s wife: I met [one of Bin Laden’s wives], Umm Ali, in her house. I didn’t see her children, but she said the children were in another room trying to learn the Koran. She was a university lecturer. She was very knowledgeable, because she studied in Saudi Arabia. Three of his (four)wives are university lecturers. He married the other three because they were spinsters. They were going to go without marrying in this world. So he married them for the Word of God. If you have a spinster, if you marry her, you will be rewarded for this in the afterworld. Noman Benotman, a Libyan former jihadist: He’s living a normal life, the life of poor people. I saw him many times. You see his kids — you will never, ever in your life think those kids are Bin Laden’s kids; they are people from the poorest family in the world. You wouldn’t believe it — kids running around in old clothes. He always tells his followers, “You should learn to sacrifice everything from modern life, like electricity, air-conditioning, refrigerators, gasoline. If you are living the luxury life, it’s very hard to go to the mountains to fight.” Abdel Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, met bin Laden in 1996: Dinner was really awful. There were about 12 people in that cave. The dinner was rotten cheese, this Egyptian cheese. It's salty cheese — really very bad. And then there were potatoes soaked in cottonseed oil. And also there were about five or six fried eggs, and bread, which was really caked with sand. So I think this is their typical food. They eat very little. It’s Bin Laden who actually loves to live such a harsh life with his followers. Abu Jandal, Bin Laden’s former chief bodyguard, in an interview in 2004 with Al-Quds al-Arabi: Umm Ali asked Sheikh Osama for a divorce when they still lived in Sudan. She said that she could not continue to live in an austere way and in hardship. He respected her wish and divorced her. Sheikh Osama gave me a pistol and made me his personal bodyguard. The pistol had only two bullets, for me to kill Sheikh Osama with in case we were surrounded or he was about to fall into the enemy’s hands, so that he would not be caught alive. © Peter L Bergen 2006 Excerpted from The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaeda’s Leader, by Peter L Bergen. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc