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

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"We were staying at one of the best hotels in Rome," Zaina says.

"The owner asked if I would like to meet him. I said sure, just to say hello. But he wouldn't look at me. He wouldn't answer when I tried to introduce myself. The owner of the hotel was embarrassed. Later, in a British newspaper, he said that I was son of Hitler."

"He said he was disgusted to be in the same room with bin Laden," Zaina says. "It was unbelievable."

Events in Omar's childhood weren't marked by birthdays or family vacations — they were punctuated by embassy bombings and missile attacks and nights sleeping in the desert to prepare for Armageddon. Omar befriended the teenage sons of the men then plotting the first World Trade Center bombing, as well as the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Even so, he recalls the time with fondness, relatively speaking. He and his brothers were sent to the best school in the country, until a bullet whistled through a window one day and the compound was besieged by gunmen attempting to assassinate his father. The attack only deepened bin Laden's commitment to jihad, as well as his paranoia and anger. When Omar's pet monkey was deliberately run over by one of Osama's men, Omar discovered his father had convinced the man that the animal was a Jewish human turned into a monkey "by the hand of God."

"In the eyes of this stupid man, he had killed a Jew!" Omar says in amazement.

Video: Contributing Editor Guy Lawson on the motivation behind his piece, "Osama's Prodigal Son."

In what Omar calls his father's "mad world," there was no way to know where peril lay. One day, one of Omar's closest friends was raped by a group of men. "The rapists added insult to the attack and injury by snapping photographs of the young man during and after the rape," Omar recounts in his memoir. When the photographs fell into the possession of Ayman Muhammad al-Zawahri, his father's top deputy, it was the equivalent of a death sentence. Zawahri — who in Omar's eyes was little more than a psychopath — concluded that the boy was homosexual. Despite pleadings from the boy's father, Omar's friend was dragged into a room with Zawahri, who shot him in the head.

Omar says that the form of Islam he practices today is "moderate," but his childhood experience clearly helped shape his religious beliefs. Walking with Zaina through the crowded market in Damascus, Omar comes to the stern facade of the Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest places in Islam. He points to an ornate minaret. This, he says, was the place where the Prophet declared that Christ would return to Earth. "When Christ comes down, God will say to the Christians there is no more Christianity," Omar says. "Christians will become Muslims."

Zaina quickly cuts him off. "He doesn't mean that literally," she interjects, trying to moderate Omar's vision of how history will unfold. "It's a question of interpretation of the Koran."

But Omar will not have his views softened. "I believe this 100 percent," he insists. "It is fact. To be a Muslim, you have to believe, because it is what the Prophet said."

As a teenager, Omar began to bridle against the severe way of life imposed by his father. He was a headstrong kid, with an independent streak that Osama proudly said gave him the qualities of a judge — a high compliment in Islam. Omar was given the nickname Alfarook, Arabic for "sword."

In 1996, under increasing pressure from the United States, the Sudanese government ordered bin Laden to leave Khartoum. Omar was the only son Osama took with him when he returned to Afghanistan. "No one could control me," Omar recalls. "That is why my father was always taking me with him. I was his chosen son. I was my father's favorite. He said that to me. He said he had a lot of hope that I would do something for the world. I didn't want this. I wanted to be a normal boy. I wish it didn't happen. God puts responsibility on the leaders of the world. He doesn't put responsibility on me."

In May 1996, after taking a private jet to Jalalabad, father and son arrived in a nation immersed in civil war and still reeling from the decade-long campaign against the Soviets. They were immediately welcomed by tribal leaders, who gave bin Laden a mountain called Tora Bora as a gift. Taken to the remote redoubt, little more than a collection of abandoned shacks, 15-year-old Omar's heart sank. He had hoped for a house, electricity, maybe a few creature comforts. His cousins in Jeddah had Jet Skis and weekend trips to London and Beirut; they had whiskey, women, freedom. "I really could not believe that our lives had come to this," Omar recalls in his memoir. "Here I was, the son of a wealthy bin Laden, living in a lawless land, wheezing for air in a small Toyota truck, surrounded by Afghan warriors carrying powerful weapons, on my way to help my father claim a mountain hut for our family home."

Osama was ecstatic in Tora Bora. The "sheik," as his men called him, began to act as if he were the Prophet himself. "My father was always a source of awed conversation," Omar recalls. "His men were so overcome by his presence that they believed every little thing was a sign from God." But while his followers treated bin Laden as the modern incarnation of Muhammad, Omar saw a father disappearing into a world of extremist make-believe. Like the son of a Civil War re-enactor who has taken his hobby to absurd lengths, Omar was miserable, a seriously pissed-off teenager made to endure his dad's lunacy on a never-ending camping trip to relive the bloody battles of the past.

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