Book review: 'Growing Up Bin Laden' by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden and Jean Sasson

By Thomas W. Lippman
Sunday, November 15, 2009


Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World

By Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden and Jean Sasson

St. Martin's. 334 pp. $25.99

For readers who have been living on another planet for the past decade or so, here is the news: Osama bin Laden is a monster, a priapic zealot who was as cruel and arrogant in family life as he has been in his bloodstained public career. Not only is he a mass murderer, he is committed to inflicting death on as many people as possible. He lives to kill, the pursuit of violent jihad overpowering even the most basic human feelings and paternal concerns. He was a tyrannical and selfish father who deprived his many children of education, food and the comforts of modern life. From his wives he insisted on absolute subservience, sexual and otherwise. His only friends are the sycophantic thugs of his al-Qaeda entourage. At home he forbade laughter, not that there was much to laugh about.

We may have long suspected all this. Now our suspicions are confirmed by "Growing Up bin Laden," a repellent but oddly fascinating as-told-to memoir by bin Laden's first wife, Najwa, and fourth son, Omar. Assuming that their accounts, as recorded by Jean Sasson, are truthful, we have an inside-the-tent view of a person so blinded by his cause that he strips himself of all humanity.

According to Omar, who finally broke with his father when Osama told his sons to add their names to the list of suicide-bomber volunteers posted on a mosque, "My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons." In "The Bin Ladens," Steve Coll's history of the family, Najwa and Omar are minor characters. And so they would have remained but for the decision -- not fully explained in this book -- to tell their stories to the public. Their narratives of life with the greatest of contemporary criminals add little except small details to what is already known, but they add up to a horrifying portrait. Some of those details are useless -- bin Laden's favorite food as a young husband was "zucchini stuffed with marrow" -- but others contribute useful pieces to our understanding of him.

For example, he is not left-handed: He fires his weapon from the left side because he is nearly blind in his right eye. He likes to listen to the BBC on a portable radio. He has kidney stones but is not on dialysis. He talked one of his men into killing a monkey by convincing him that a monkey is actually a Jew. Salim Hamdan was not his driver, despite what U.S. prosecutors said, because he never had any one particular driver; he parceled out the honor among his followers.

Together, Najwa and Omar provide an intimate account of a family life that became steadily more dangerous and bizarre as Osama dragged them along from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan. From affluence and comfort in Jeddah they were reduced to penury and privation in Afghanistan, all the wives and their many children living without electricity, running water or even real beds, in forced pursuit of Osama's jihadist dreams.

The book's early chapters are the least interesting because they recount Najwa's happy girlhood in Syria, which seems to have been marred only by an overdose of adjectives: All grapes were juicy, all apples sweet, all pecans crunchy, all emotions intense. Throughout the book, in fact, Najwa's story is less compelling than infuriating because of her unquestioning submission to her husband. Confined like bin Laden's other wives to the house, she was ignorant of what he was really up to, so she tells us little about al-Qaeda.

Omar, being a boy, is increasingly drawn into his father's grim life as he progresses toward adulthood. He describes his growing awareness of the true nature of the father he loved and his growing alienation from a life committed to violence. His father assumed he would willingly join the gang he assembled in Afghanistan to plot and train for attacks against infidel targets, but young Omar wants peace and a nice wife, not war and death; his break with his father seems inevitable. That he later caused a small scandal by marrying a much older British woman does not detract from the sad power of his account here.

It is not necessary to read this book to understand the al-Qaeda threat, but for those seeking deeper knowledge of Osama bin Laden and how his mind works, the book is a valuable supplement to the existing libraries.

Thomas W. Lippman is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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