Osama's Prodigal Son: The Dark, Twisted Journey of Omar bin Laden

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Since returning to Saudi Arabia shortly before the attacks of 2001, Omar has struggled to make a living, an injustice that cuts him to the quick. He had assumed that he would slide effortlessly into the life of private jets and luxurious homes enjoyed by his wealthy Saudi relatives, but instead, he was forced to work for the family as a real estate agent, on commission. "Saudi families are afraid to be around me," he says. "That was why I couldn't marry one of my cousins or a Saudi girl from my class. I got refused seven times, from people at the same level as my family." He managed to amass several hundred thousand dollars by starting a scrap-metal business, but for a bin Laden accustomed to vast wealth, such a sum was a pittance. Haunted by his father's misdeeds and unable to make a name for himself, he plunged into a deep depression.

Then, on a horseback-riding tour near the Pyramids in 2006, he met Zaina. "I see her blue eyes and the black hair, and in my heart I wanted to marry her," he says. "She was in the same group of horse riders as me. It was a sign I could make my dream. The second day, we were walking down from the Pyramids, and I told her who I am. A lot of time people run away. She told me she knew who I was. She didn't go away from the trouble. Why she would want to be with me and marry into a mess situation if her heart is not clean and right?"

"Before Omar, I had a very quiet life," Zaina says. "I preferred to ride horses. I liked to be left alone. Then the awful things came out in the newspapers, and I was mortified. Everybody believed these horrific things about Omar and about me. They think he is just like his father."

"I am judged by my father all the time," Omar says. "It is not right. I am trying to fight all the world to think differently than they do about me. It is very, very, very hard work."

As a coming-of-age story, Omar's childhood surely ranks as one of the strangest on record. When Omar was a child growing up in Saudi Arabia, his father was off in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. "In those days, my father was a great hero to the West, too," Omar observes. But the years of war, and the deprivations he suffered in Afghanistan, had turned Osama's views bleak and Spartan. "Life has to be a burden," Osama advised his sons. "Life has to be hard. You will be made stronger if you are treated toughly. You will become capable adults, able to endure many hardships."

While his cousins enjoyed the luxury and comfort afforded to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Saudi Arabia, Omar and his brothers were forced to live as though it were the seventh century: no movies, no television, no indecent music. His father's hatred for the "evils of modern life" meant no fizzy drinks, no toys, no inhaler for Omar's asthma. If Omar needed relief, his father told his desperate son, he could breathe through a honeycomb.

"We were told that we must not become excited at any situation," Omar recalls in his memoir. "We were not allowed to tell jokes. We were ordered not to express joy over anything. He did say that he would allow us to smile so long as we did not laugh. If we were to lose control of our emotions and bark a laugh, we must be careful not to expose our eyeteeth. I have been in situations where my father actually counted the exposed teeth, reprimanding his sons on the number their merriment had revealed."

Today, Omar prides himself on his ability to show his teeth when he laughs. His sense of humor, such as it is, tends to run to the dark side: At one point, he offers up a "funny story" about a slutty female dog that ends with her jealous mate tearing apart his rivals. With any luck, Omar hopes to write comedy one day. "Why not?" he asks. "I love Jim Carrey. He is brilliant man. Comedy for me is about adult with children mentality, and children with adult mentality. Jim Carrey is adult, but he doesn't take it seriously. He doesn't have to be respectable man."

Although Omar comes from a society that has no truck with modern psychology, he is able to see that his development was profoundly impacted by the way he was denied nurture as a child. "While it is difficult for any human being to accurately describe their own personality," he says in his memoir, "I know enough of myself to be convinced that the life my father decreed for his sons also shaped me negatively." But the harsh upbringing didn't destroy Omar's need for his father's affection. "Of all my children," his mother says in the book, "Omar felt the keenest longing for a father's love."

In 1992, when Omar was 10, Osama moved his family to a jihadist compound in Sudan. Isolated and impoverished, Omar grew desperate to connect with the outside world. Forbidden to watch movies or television, he improvised. When Omar caught the bus to school in Khartoum, he had one of his friends recite entire scenes from Rambo line by line while he imagined what the onscreen action might look like.

"Tell him the story about meeting Sylvester Stallone," Zaina says.

"I met Rambo in Rome," Omar says with a smile. He had traveled to the city with Zaina in 2008, to appear on an Italian television show.

"He lied about us," Zaina says.

"Until I met him, he was one of my heroes. I thought he would be a friendly man. But he doesn't care about anyone around."

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