- Nearly 17 years since 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s family remains an influential part of Saudi society – as well as a reminder of the darkest moment in the kingdom’s history. Can they escape his legacy?
On the corner couch of a spacious room, a woman wearing a brightly patterned robe sits expectantly. The red hijab that covers her hair is reflected in a glass-fronted cabinet; inside, a framed photograph of her firstborn son takes pride of place between family heirlooms and valuables. A smiling, bearded figure wearing a military jacket, he features in photographs around the room: propped against the wall at her feet, resting on a mantlepiece. A supper of Saudi meze and a lemon cheesecake has been spread out on a large wooden dining table, according to The Guardian.
Alia Ghanem is Osama bin Laden’s mother, and she commands the attention of everyone in the room. On chairs nearby sit two of her surviving sons, Ahmad and Hassan, and her second husband, Mohammed al-Attas, the man who raised all three brothers. Everyone in the family has their own story to tell about the man linked to the rise of global terrorism; but it is Ghanem who holds court today, describing a man who is, to her, still a beloved son who somehow lost his way. “My life was very difficult because he was so far away from me,” she says, speaking confidently. “He was a very good kid and he loved me so much.” Now in her mid-70s and in variable health, Ghanem points at al-Attas – a lean, fit man dressed, like his two sons, in an immaculately pressed white thobe, a gown worn by men across the Arabian peninsula. “He raised Osama from the age of three. He was a good man, and he was good to Osama.”
For years, Ghanem has refused to talk about Osama, as has his wider family – throughout his two-decade reign as al-Qaida leader, a period that saw the strikes on New York and Washington DC, and ended more than nine years later with his death in Pakistan.
Sitting between Osama’s half-brothers, Ghanem recalls her firstborn as a shy boy who was academically capable. He became a strong, driven, pious figure in his early 20s, she says, while studying economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he was also radicalised. “The people at university changed him,” Ghanem says. “He became a different man.” One of the men he met there was Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was later exiled from Saudi Arabia and became Osama’s spiritual adviser. “He was a very good child until he met some people who pretty much brainwashed him in his early 20s. You can call it a cult. They got money for their cause. I would always tell him to stay away from them, and he would never admit to me what he was doing, because he loved me so much.”
In the early 1980s, Osama travelled to Afghanistan to fight the Russian occupation. “Everyone who met him in the early days respected him,” says Hassan, picking up the story. “At the start, we were very proud of him. Even the Saudi government would treat him in a very noble, respectful way. And then came Osama the mujahid.”
A long uncomfortable silence follows, as Hassan struggles to explain the transformation from zealot to global jihadist. “I am very proud of him in the sense that he was my oldest brother,” he eventually continues. “He taught me a lot. But I don’t think I’m very proud of him as a man. He reached superstardom on a global stage, and it was all for nothing.”
Ghanem listens intently, becoming more animated when the conversation returns to Osama’s formative years. “He was very straight. Very good at school. He really liked to study. He spent all his money on Afghanistan – he would sneak off under the guise of family business.” Did she ever suspect he might become a jihadist? “It never crossed my mind.” How did it feel when she realised he had? “We were extremely upset. I did not want any of this to happen. Why would he throw it all away like that?”
The family say they last saw Osama in Afghanistan in 1999, a year in which they visited him twice at his base just outside Kandahar. “It was a place near the airport that they had captured from the Russians,” Ghanem says. “He was very happy to receive us. He was showing us around every day we were there. He killed an animal and we had a feast, and he invited everyone.”
Ghanem begins to relax, and talks about her childhood in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, where she grew up in a family of Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Syrian cuisine is superior to Saudi, she says, and so is the weather by the Mediterranean, where the warm, wet summer air was a stark contrast to the acetylene heat of Jeddah in June. Ghanem moved to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1950s, and Osama was born in Riyadh in 1957. She divorced his father three years later, and married al-Attas, then an administrator in the fledgling Bin Laden empire, in the early 1960s. Osama’s father went on to have 54 children with at least 11 wives.
When Ghanem leaves to rest in a nearby room, Osama’s half-brothers continue the conversation. It’s important, they say, to remember that a mother is rarely an objective witness. “It has been 17 years now [since 9/11] and she remains in denial about Osama,” Ahmad says. “She loved him so much and refuses to blame him. Instead, she blames those around him. She only knows the good boy side, the side we all saw. She never got to know the jihadist side.
“I was shocked, stunned,” he says now of the early reports from New York. “It was a very strange feeling. We knew from the beginning [that it was Osama], within the first 48 hours. From the youngest to the eldest, we all felt ashamed of him. We knew all of us were going to face horrible consequences. Our family abroad all came back to Saudi.” They had been scattered across Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Europe. “In Saudi, there was a travel ban. They tried as much as they could to maintain control over the family.” The family say they were all questioned by the authorities and, for a time, prevented from leaving the country. Nearly two decades on, the Bin Ladens can move relatively freely within and outside the kingdom.
Bin Laden remains a popular figure in some parts of the country, lauded by those who believe he did God’s work. The depth of support, however, is difficult to gauge. What remains of his immediate family, meanwhile, has been allowed back into the kingdom: at least two of Osama’s wives (one of whom was with him in Abbottabad when he was killed by US special forces) and their children now live in Jeddah.
“We had a very good relationship with Mohammed bin Nayef [the former crown prince],” Osama’s half-brother Ahmad tells me as a maid sets the nearby dinner table. “He let the wives and children return.” But while they have freedom of movement inside the city, they cannot leave the kingdom.
Osama’s mother rejoins the conversation. “I speak to his harem most weeks,” she says. “They live nearby.”
Osama’s half-sister, and the two men’s sister, Fatima al-Attas, was not at our meeting. From her home in Paris, she later emailed to say she strongly objected to her mother being interviewed, asking that it be rearranged through her. Despite the blessing of her brothers and stepfather, she felt her mother had been pressured into talking. Ghanem, however, insisted she was happy to talk and could have talked longer. It is, perhaps, a sign of the extended family’s complicated status in the kingdom that such tensions exist.
I ask the family about Bin Laden’s youngest son, 29-year-old Hamza, who is thought to be in Afghanistan. Last year, he was officially designated a “global terrorist” by the US and appears to have taken up the mantle of his father, under the auspices of al-Qaida’s new leader, and Osama’s former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
His uncles shake their heads. “We thought everyone was over this,” Hassan says. “Then the next thing I knew, Hamza was saying, ‘I am going to avenge my father.’ I don’t want to go through that again. If Hamza was in front of me now, I would tell him, ‘God guide you. Think twice about what you are doing. Don’t retake the steps of your father. You are entering horrible parts of your soul.’”