Rabat - After 17 years of state control and self-imposed seclusion and silence, Osama bin Laden’s family has finally agreed to an interview.
Rabat – After 17 years of state control and self-imposed seclusion and silence, Osama bin Laden’s family has finally agreed to an interview.
Nearly two decades after Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national, brought global terrorism to new heights on 9/11, altering the course of the 21st century, what legacy has he left for his close associates and country? What side of him does his close family remember?
An ambivalent legacy
In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Martin Chulov, bin Laden’s mother, Alia Ghanem, spoke of a beloved son. She recalled a kindhearted, passionate, and smart boy, though she complained about the distance—both physical and emotional—that bin Laden’s political convictions created between them.
“My life was very difficult because he was far away from me. He was a very good kid and he loved me so much.”
But what about the other side, the one that terrified the world on 9/11? What memory does she keep of a son whom many in the world now associate with the bloodiest terror strike in contemporary history?
For all the negative repercussions that 9/11 has had on the family’s life—from travel bans to tighter state control of movement inside the Saudi kingdom—Ghanem still harbors memories of a shy, academically gifted, and devout boy. Osama’s misfortune was that his path crossed that of a “cult” whose members indoctrinated him and put him on a wrong path when he was still an impressionable young man, she said.
“The people at the university changed him. He became a different man.” Ghanem was referring to bin Laden’s formative years while studying economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s commercial capital.
“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.”
The two Osamas
If anything, the man who masterminded the epoch-defining strike that claimed nearly 3,000 lives on September 11, 2001, has left a mixed legacy: a martyr and freedom fighter to many and a bloodthirsty, vengeful terrorist to many more. Osama’s family, too, is ambivalent about how to remember him, despite his mother’s denial of his darker side that makes her most uncomfortable.
Hassan, one of Osama’s younger brothers, said that their mother cannot blame Osama because of her motherly love for him. He said that Ghanem only knew the “good side” of her son, and she “blames those around him.”
Hassan added: “Everyone who met him in the early days respected him. At the start, we were very proud of him. Even the Saudi government would treat him in a very noble, respectful way.” But that was the 1970s, and Osama was fighting for what many at the time called a just and noble cause, risking his life to liberate Afghanistan from the grip of communism.
For Hassan, his memory of Osama from those years is one of a kind and affectionate brother he looked up to and wanted to emulate. But Osama’s early years of political engagement were also that of a “proud” freedom fighter that Saudis and others in the Muslim world revered and admired, the brother suggested.
“And then came Osama the mujahid” Hassan said, referring to his brother as a struggler. He said Osama attained “global stardom” fighting for the wrong cause, “all for nothing.”
“There are two Osama bin Ladens. One before the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and one after it,” Turki al-Faisal, former chief of Saudi intelligence, told the Guardian. “Before, he was very much an idealistic mujahid. He was not a fighter.”
Transcending bin Laden
“Bin Laden’s legacy remains one of the Kingdom’s most pressing issues,” the Guardian’s report noted of Saudi Arabia’s and the bin Laden family’s decision to finally agree to an interview.
While Saudi Arabia seeks to salvage its bruised reputation of condoning terrorism by casting Osama as an “outcast” rather than a “Saudi agent,” the bin Laden family wants to transcend the lasting clouds of a kinsman’s haunting past.
But then there is Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s 29-year-old son, who has vowed to avenge his father’s death. Hamza is now a prominent figure in his father’s organization, and the US last year designated him “a global terrorist.”
When asked about the family’s relationship with Hamza, his uncle Hassan said: “We thought everyone was over this. 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.’”
Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, has been lauded for the kingdom’s recent liberal-minded reforms, including the extension of the right to drive to women and the re-introduction of cinema. (The Western media profusely commented on the Saudi Arabia screening of Black Panther in April.)
But it remains to be seen whether both the bin Laden family and the Saudi kingdom can really leave behind and once and for all push to the side the perennial legacy of global terrorism’s godfather.