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

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At Tora Bora, he became his father's personal tea boy, bathing Osama's feet before prayers each day. His father often listened to the BBC on a transistor radio, shouting into a Dictaphone about the evils of America. "After a week or so of hearing his tirades, I shut my ears to his unpleasant rants, but now I regret my inattention," Omar recalls. "Many times I wish I had those tapes in hand so that I could better understand what it was that drove my father to hate so many governments and so many innocent people."

Alone with his son, Osama also shared stories of his own childhood. The elder bin Laden said he had been abandoned by his father and spoke of the pain he suffered when his father beat him — just as he beat Omar and his brothers. "I was puzzled," Omar says in his memoir. "If after so many years he could recall how pained he was when his father struck him or ignored him, I could not understand how he could so easily, even eagerly, beat or ignore his own sons. I never got the courage to ask my father that question, although I am sorry now that my nerve failed me."

Living in a remote mountain hide-out with a father bent on world domination, Omar's existence was like some twisted, real-life version of Dr. Evil's son from the Austin Powers films. Omar laughs at the comparison. There is a good resemblance, he admits. But to Omar, what Austin Powers really got right was the relationship between his father and his father's followers. "These men are all Mini Me's," he says. "They want to be just like my father — to look like him, to act like him, to be him."

Living in the camp at Tora Bora, Omar grew to admire the veterans of the war against the Soviets. "I loved the old guys — the ones who fought the Russians," he says. "The old people were calm and friendly. They had finished fighting. They couldn't go home because their old country wouldn't take them. They were stuck." But that same respect didn't extend to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the Al Qaeda recruits who were flocking to the mountains of Afghanistan, eager to wage war on America. To Omar, the newcomers were buffoons and bores. He dismisses their Afghan pilgrimages as "jihad vacation," his father's grand scheme as nothing but a suicide camp for wayward Muslims.

"Most of the new ones who came to my father were just silly soldiers," he says. "Some were running away from problems in their lives. Some could not live a normal life. I didn't do the training like the others. I have no use for this. All the running and jumping were silly." In Omar's telling, grenade pins were pulled accidentally, explosives were mishandled and jihadists regularly killed each other in friendly-fire incidents.

One of the most highly publicized items seized from bin Laden's hide-out after the U.S. invasion in 2001 was a cache of videotapes that showed puppies being put into pens and slowly, painfully killed to test chemical weapons. To the world, the tapes proved the diabolical ambitions of bin Laden and his followers. To Omar, it was just another example of a cruel and inconsiderate father. The puppies had been born to Omar's favorite dog, and he had hoped to raise the entire brood. But Osama's men kept taking the puppies for their experiments.

In his memoir, Omar says he wept when he learned that his puppies had been killed. But when I ask him about the incident, he stops short of blaming his father. The Arab stricture against speaking ill of one's parents is too hard to defy. "To this day, we don't know who gave the order," Omar insists. "Better they have my dogs than someone else's."

In Afghanistan, Omar was taught to fire a Kalashnikov and learned to drive a Russian tank. But for the most part, he found life in the mountains unbearably tedious. For days on end, he would be stuck in the camp's mosque listening to speech after speech. "Once they start, you can't leave when a man is talking," he says. "You can't make him angry or embarrassed by leaving. They talk about Islam, about what the Prophet said, basic religious things. I heard this 100 times. I was fed up." Like a bored teenage version of Martin Luther, Omar decided to stage a protest by tacking a note to the front of the mosque — being careful to disguise his identity by altering his handwriting. "Believers should not be put in a position of total boredom," he wrote, "as such will discourage believers from attending many worthwhile events at the mosque." But the note failed to spark a revolt. "After the people look at it, some smile," he recalls now. "But most say nothing. One guy said that nobody could do this but me. He came to me and said I did it. I said I didn't know."

At night, listening to the airplanes that flew overhead, Omar began to dream of escape. All but three of his 10 brothers had joined his father in Afghanistan, but their companionship did little to relieve the tedium. "We were bored so much," he says. "We had nothing to do. Me and my brothers went out hunting on our horses. We traveled from village to village. We all planned to leave and see the world together."

But the day of reckoning with his father's violent vision was inevitable. To become the leader of Al Qaeda, Omar would have to prove himself as a warrior. Sometime around 1999, after Omar turned 17, Osama arranged for him to go to the front lines for 40 days and 40 nights. "He was giving me a test," Omar says. "There is a hadith — these are the sayings of the Prophet — that says if you live with the people for 40 days, you will be one of them. All my life I was fighting this battle inside me. It was a struggle. I wanted to see the real war. This was my chance."

Under the protection of his father's fighters, Omar was taken to the mountains north of Kabul, where Ahmad Shah Massoud was waging a civil war against the Taliban. A brilliant general known as the "Lion of Panjshir," Massoud had been instrumental in defeating the Soviets in the 1980s. At one point, playing with a walkie-talkie, Omar suddenly found himself talking to Massoud's men. The soldiers were friendly, but pointed. "You are Arab, and you should go away," they told him. "This is a war between tribes — nothing to do with religion." When Omar asked what they thought about Osama bin Laden, the Afghans said they respected him but felt he was being used by the Taliban.

What Omar saw at the front lines turned him against the war his father supported. "Muslims fighting Muslims? It was crazy," he recalls. "The fight with the Russians was over. I felt sorry for the victims. Innocent civilian farmers were attacked by soldiers. Women and children die for no reason. In the hospital I found a very bad situation. People broken, injured. There was bad medical service. That was the start of wanting to leave all this. It changed me. I believe we could sort out our problems without fighting."

After 35 days, Omar left the front lines and returned to his father's base. "I finish what I needed to see," he says. "I couldn't stay more. I couldn't stand it. I hated it."

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