There is no more revealing view of a man than through the eyes of a son he has wronged. To Omar, Osama bin Laden is neither a freedom-fighting jihadist nor a terrifying mass murderer — he is a lost man, a flawed and fanatical father who withheld his love, beat and betrayed his own children, and destroyed his family chasing his fantasy of becoming a latter-day prophet. "My father is a strong personality," says Omar. "Nobody can stop him from getting his dream. Either he gets what he wants, or he dies."
Now 28, Omar is one of 11 sons of Osama bin Laden. But from an early age, Omar stood out from his brothers for his independence. Though Omar does not believe that any of his siblings are still by his father's side, he is the only bin Laden son to publicly disavow his father's violence. In Growing Up bin Laden, co-authored last year with his mother and an American writer named Jean Sasson, Omar not only captures the insanity and cruelty inside his father's world, but also provides an intimate portrait of what it is like to be the son of a sociopath. "In many ways, Omar's story represents how the modern Arab world is thinking through its views of the West," observes Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Bin Ladens and president of the New America Foundation. "They accept the critique provided by Al Qaeda but not its idea of never-ending war. Like Omar, they won't follow Osama onto the battlefield."
Omar bears a striking resemblance to his father: He has the long, broad nose, the pronounced brow, the dark, brooding eyes. Sitting in the hotel bistro at the Four Seasons in Damascus the morning after our visit to Les Caves, Omar attracts sly glances from the bellhops and waitresses. Shorter and more muscular than his father, he wears his jet-black hair rock-star long and pulled back in a ponytail, his goatee neatly trimmed. He is dressed in black — leather jacket, Versace T-shirt, designer jeans — and, in perhaps the final insult to the aesthetics of jihad, shiny silver sneakers. With the finishing touch of dark sunglasses, the Matrix-like outfit gives Omar the appearance of a celebrity trying to deflect notice — at the same time as he attracts attention with a flamboyant disguise.
"People recognize me a lot of times in Saudi Arabia," he says. "They say I should be proud of my father. There are millions who agree with my father. By many people, he is respected, idolized. I could face reprisals because you can't speak against your father in the Muslim world. Many people say I should not talk. But my father would never harm me."
Sitting next to Omar drinking a virgin piña colada is his wife, Zaina, a British grandmother nearly twice his age. Short, light-skinned, with striking blue eyes, she wears an ankle-length black coat that looks like a costume from The Lord of the Rings. Zaina acts as Omar's conduit to the Western world, serving as his publicist, dresser and interpreter, hovering over his every word and rushing to deflect anything she considers damaging or inflammatory. Since they met four years ago, the unlikely couple have become tabloid fodder in England. "We are bigger than Prince Charles and Lady Diana," Omar says, shaking his head. He made headlines for a few days in 2008 when he went on television and declared that his father should "find another way" — an appearance designed to promote a horse race he had proposed from Cairo to Morocco, an event Omar said would help promote world peace. He had lofty goals for himself: He hoped to become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, like Audrey Hepburn or Angelina Jolie.
It didn't help that Zaina struck many in the British press as an attention-hungry harpy, a scheming wanna-be who was using Omar and his infamous father as a chance to become rich and famous. "To anyone who wants to give me £10 million, I will give my full life story," she told the London Daily Mail. "My story is worth it because I am married to the son of Osama bin Laden." No one took up the offer, but the details of her colorful past soon made the papers: her five previous marriages, including one to a Hells Angel, her adoption of the title "Lady," the spider-web tattoo across her back.
"They made me sound crazy," Zaina complains. "They said that Omar had run away with a grandmother with thousands of pounds worth of plastic surgery. I have no scars from plastic surgery. They made it up. They lied about us."
Like his father, Omar is a man in search of a country. A citizen of Saudi Arabia, where he has primarily lived since he left his father, he has been denied a visa by England and turned down for political asylum by Egypt and Spain. After months of back-and-forth negotiations, he finally agreed to meet me in Syria, where he was going to visit his mother, Najwa, Osama bin Laden's first wife. We would spend four days together, first in Damascus and then on a drive through the Bekaa Valley into Beirut, a city that Omar wanted to see but had never visited.
The night before, in the strip club, Omar had been relaxed. But when I turn on my tape recorder in the Four Seasons bistro, he lapses into awkward silence. When I ask about his father, he is defensive and evasive. "I love him because he is my father," he says. "I don't want him to be caught and put on trial. It would break my heart. I wish he could die before someone gets him. I don't want to see my father under the rule of somebody else. My father is my father, to this day, and until I die. I came from his body. I am part of him."
"How do you feel when you see him on television?" I ask.
"I get worried," Omar says. "For me, for my father, for the world."
After a long silence, Omar turns on his smartphone and shows me the logo for a company he and Zaina are starting called B41. The company's first project, he says, will be a line of high-fashion clothes. "It will be like Armani but with a different style," Zaina explains. "It will be a mixture between East and West, silk and quality fabrics, a semiconservative mix and match." The notion of the bin Laden name being re-branded as the pinnacle of luxury may seem risible, but Zaina has grandiose plans for B41. She says she is going to design horseback-riding equipment — show bridles and shawls — followed by another book, centered on her and Omar's experiences after 9/11. This interview, it becomes clear, is part of an overall business strategy: Omar and Zaina hope that an investor will read about their venture and put large sums of money into B41.
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