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

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The rift between Omar and his father widened soon after, when Osama tried to recruit him to become a suicide bomber. Not directly — Osama was too devious for that. Bin Laden's hold over his followers came in large part from the way he never gave orders. He asked questions, made suggestions. "He never pushes anyone to do something," Omar says. "Never, ever. He asks you to do something. But if you don't want to, you don't have to. He only gives order in the very immediate war situation. Even then he is kind. He says, 'Please.'"

One day, around the time that bin Laden was plotting the attacks of 9/11, he tacked a piece of paper to the wall of the mosque to recruit men willing to be suicide bombers. A stir of excitement traveled through the camp as men signed up — likely some of the very men who perpetrated the attacks of September 2001. That same day, bin Laden called his sons together and said they should consider joining the other volunteers. "If any of you, my children, want to go, he should write his name down," their father told them. It was a sly rhetorical turn of phrase, tantamount to inciting his sons to self-annihilation.

I remind Omar that the way he tells the story in his memoir, this was the moment when he finally confronted his father. "How can you ask this?" he recounts himself demanding. It is presented as a heroic gesture: Omar protecting his brothers and speaking out forcefully against his father's death cult.

Omar appears confused. "It says that in the book?"

Yes, I say — it's right there on page 263. Zaina reaches for my copy to search for the passage. When she reads the lines aloud, however, Omar shakes his head. "It was not like that," he insists. "It is true my father put the paper up in the mosque and everyone wanted to put their name on it. He didn't say I should go. He said if anyone wants to go they can put their name on the paper in the mosque. I wasn't going to put my name. But one of my little brothers wanted to put his name. I shouted at him not to do it. My older brother and I are the leaders, so no one dared to do it."

"You never said anything to your father?"

"A lot of times I said things like that to my father. But not at this moment. He walked away from us. He was smiling, like it was just between him and his God." In Omar's world, it appears, it is possible to be misquoted in your own autobiography.

The drive from Damascus to Beirut winds through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The car I have booked is a BMW 7 Series sedan, with tinted windows for Omar's security. Unimpressed, Omar sniffs at the fake-leather interior. Saudis, he says, drive only the finest Mercedes. He asks the driver to put on country & western music or Madonna — music he first heard as a boy in the mountains of Afghanistan, scanning the transistor radio for sounds of the outside world.

During the drive, as Omar reflects on his childhood and discusses his views on world issues, Zaina repeatedly interrupts to answer on his behalf. When I finally ask if she would mind if Omar spoke for himself, she retreats into glum silence.

I ask Omar what he thinks of Barack Obama. He says the president seems like a very refined man — intelligent, widely read, capable. But he is certain Obama is on the verge of committing a massive error by sending more troops into Afghanistan. "Obama should ask for my advice about Afghanistan," he says. "I could help. But I have to see him personally. I would tell him you can't solve Afghanistan's problems with more soldiers. It is like adding water to sand, as we say in the Arab world — it only makes the sand heavier and messier. If I was in his position, the first thing I would do is make a truce. Then for six months or one year, no fighting, no soldiers. Afghanistan can never be won. It has nothing to do with my father. It is the Afghan people."

It is dark by the time we take the switchback roads down into Beirut. This is the fabled Arab city that Omar has heard about all his life, the pearl of the Mediterranean, the Paris of the Levant, Sin City for Arab men seeking to escape the stifling hypocrisy of their own nations. In Omar's imagination, Beirut is the epitome of class and sophistication. His uncle, he says, owns the Hard Rock Cafe on the Corniche, near our hotel.

As a good Muslim, Omar is a teetotaler, but that doesn't mean he isn't interested in seeing what the city has to offer. That night, after dinner, we catch a cab to the Music Hall, a cabaret-style club in a converted movie theater in the center of Beirut. In the packed main room, a singer dressed as a Saudi sheik is belting an Arabic tune. The air ripples with what has long made Beirut legendary: astonishingly beautiful people, cultural diversity, the wild abandon of a perpetual war zone. It is Omar's first time in a real club, not the dreary sex trade of a Syrian strip bar. He stands with his back to the wall, looking on in amazement as a crowd of people his own age drink and dance and flirt with each other. On this night, in the noise and sweat and joy, the Music Hall may well be the best club on the planet.

"You like?" I ask Omar.

"Yes," he says, straight-faced. "But I want rock & roll. Rock & roll is the best."

As if on cue, a Twisted Sister tribute band appears onstage. The players are dressed in full heavy-metal glam regalia: big wigs, flashy makeup, tight-fitting spandex, platform heels. The crowd goes berserk as the band lights into a bone-crushingly loud cover of "We're Not Gonna Take It."

"This is the best!" Omar says with a huge grin, all his teeth on display.

By the next morning, however, Omar has had a change of heart. When we meet for a late breakfast, he says he didn't enjoy the Music Hall at all. "That was an Iraqi dressed as a high sheik, like a prince or a bin Laden," Omar says. "It was not respectful. A Saudi doesn't dance in front of silly young people in Lebanon. It is the other way around. I would ban this place if I was the ruler of Lebanon.

"I don't like modern people," he continues, his words growing emphatic. "I like original people. If you go back 1,000 years, you will find the same people. I am like that — the way I look. But there are some people who are very strange-looking. Not black or white or Chinese or Arab. I hate this. I get a mess in my head. I don't like the modern life. It is a mistake. I like pure-looking faces. I talked about this with my father. He is the same as me. He doesn't like the mix."

Omar looks directly at me. "Like you," he says. "You are not original. You are a mix." The offense in his words seems to elude him, as if he doesn't realize his ideas about racial superiority might have an effect on the person he is talking to.

For all his insights into his father's pathology, Omar can also come across as something of an apologist for the elder bin Laden. Though Westerners might think he is repudiating his father, he is careful to signal to Arabs that he is still a conventionally respectful son. He refers to his father as "kind" — by which he means that Osama, unlike other jihadists, follows a religious and moral code, however perverse. He even downplays his father's attempt to recruit him as a suicide bomber. "He thinks he is doing it for justice, for the Muslim people," he says.

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