III: Bin Laden’s children
Within their world bin Laden’s children have been among the most critical of Qaeda. In fact, what few people know is that bin Laden’s children were given a particularly hard time of it by other Arabs in the militant milieu because it was known they did not like their father’s activities. In addition to being burdened with his legacy they were ostracized by others and often prevented by both their family and others from socializing within their own community. Put that in the context of the isolated life they already led in these small communities, and you start to get a picture of how hard things were. In addition, it seems bin Laden’s response to the recalcitrance of his older children was to further isolate his younger children, as if they lacked any form of control already, and which makes the dehumanizing labeling of them all the more troubling.
Bin Laden’s children were denied the opportunity of an education, and not allowed to mix in the outside world — unless that is their father thought it would serve his purpose. At times they were not even allowed to live with electricity. It was never about them. They were never his priority; they never had control over their destiny while under his authority. When training was still going on, they were put through it at extremely young ages. It wasn’t a choice.
They never had a choice to join al Qaeda—people always just assumed their membership, despite most of them wanting no part of it. Bin Laden even pressured his own children to become suicide bombers. In Growing up Bin Laden, Omar bin Laden recounts his father’s efforts to convince his boys to sign up to the martyrdom list al Qaeda was circulating:
Once we were at his feet, my father said, “There is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who are good Muslims, men who volunteer to be suicide bombers.”
He looked at us with anticipation shining in his eyes. No one spoke or moved a muscle. So my father repeated what he had said. “My sons, there is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who volunteer to be suicide bombers. Those who want to give their lives for Islam must add their names to the list.”
That’s when one of my youngest brothers, one too young to comprehend the concept of life and death, got to his feet, nodded reverently in my father’s direction, and took off running for the mosque. That small boy was going to volunteer to be a suicide bomber.
I was furious, finally finding my voice. “My father, how can you ask this of your sons?”
Over the past few months, my father had become increasingly unhappy with me. I was turning out to be a disappointment, a son who did not want the mantle of power, who wanted peace, not war. He stared at me with evident hostility. “Omar, this is what you need to know, my son. You hold no more a place in my heart than any other man or boy in the entire country.” He glanced at my brothers. “This is true for all of my sons.”
My father’s proclamation had been given: His love for his sons did not sink further than the outer layer of his flesh. At last I knew exactly where I stood.
My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.
That last line encapsulates in a nutshell the situation of children born into this life. They are sacrificed; their needs and safety subjugated by those meant to nurture and protect them.
As for the list; al Qaeda wasn’t short of recruits. Just prior to 9/11 there were 121 people on that list. Bin Laden bragged about it. So it’s not like he had to tap his own family members to bolster numbers, but still he was willing to pressure his own children and sacrifice them in order to strike his enemies. The extent of the control bin Laden exerted over his children is highlighted again in Omar’s book:
My father wanted his sons to be aloof from all men, to follow his direction, a man whom few people really knew. He said, “My sons must be the fingers of my right hand. My thoughts must control your actions in the same manner my brain controls the movement of my limbs. My sons, your limbs should react to my thinking as though my brain was in your head.”
We were to be robots, in other words, without opinions or actions of our own.
In view of this, it is all the more remarkable that through his fortitude Omar managed to get himself, his mother and some of his siblings out. More remarkable still, is that he spoke out about his experiences despite this coming at great personal cost.
For those asking themselves when reading this…well if the majority of children felt that way, why haven’t they too spoken out? But here, consider the impact of being labeled or having your siblings and friends labeled in a way that implies you don’t deserve to be treated as human. Why would they speak out? They have everything to lose and nothing to gain. They’ve already seen how little it did for their brother and friend.
And yes, some of bin Laden’s wives came back from Iran and joined him in Pakistan, but an important point here is that they had no control over how or where or to whom they were released. They were pawns in al Qaeda’s, or more specifically, bin Laden’s game. The hostage taking that spurred their release wasn’t to get his family out—it was to get senior members out. Even then family wasn’t priority.
In any event, my point is that in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid, we’ve seen the complexities of how the situation of the wives and children played out. Given the time it took for their return to be negotiated, it’s not like they could have just up and left once they reached the compound and headed home to Saudi Arabia.
Maybe the wives and one older child didn’t want to leave. Maybe they were happy to stay. Until and/or if they publicly speak out in circumstances where they are not under duress we’ll never know. (As for the older child, well the dead can’t speak and we’ve not heard why he too was shot like his father rather than detained.) At least one wife, it seems, willingly chose to travel from outside the region to join bin Laden, but the children and grandchildren in that compound, with the possible exception of the one older child, had no choice where or with whom they lived. They could not go home and their older siblings were powerless to get them out. The older child living with his father may have made the choice to stay, but here too, it is important to remember that he was essentially stateless—making leaving all the more difficult, especially once in that compound.
The bin Laden children, though, are luckier than others. After their father’s death, the younger ones have been received by Saudi Arabia, will have the opportunity to get an education, and as best as possible live normal lives, while under the permanently watchful eye of family and government. They will live forever knowing they are under scrutiny, and with a legacy you would not wish on any child–and on which they are already being judged and labeled.