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

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Such ambivalence has prompted some counterterrorism experts to question whether Omar is actually operating as a double agent, dispatched by his father to deploy peacenik rhetoric as a deceptive and sophisticated weapon. Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Laden desk at the CIA, has even written an article about Omar titled "Osama's Flower-Child Son or Al Qaeda Disinformation Agent?" When I contact Scheuer, he says he has just finished reading Omar's memoir, which he considers an important piece of intelligence. The book confirms much of what the CIA has long believed about bin Laden. But it seems to Scheuer that Omar is also pursuing an unspoken agenda, one that serves his father.

"When it is published in Arabic, it will make his father look like a hero in the Muslim world," Scheuer observes. "People say Osama didn't really fight or give up the luxurious lifestyle. But Omar lays out the story in detail about what a tough hombre his father is and how he gave up everything for God. The book shows bin Laden to be eloquent, devout, pious, with extraordinary leadership qualities in the Muslim context. He's Robin Hood eating lousy food in the mountains with his men. That is a much more powerful enemy than a madman."

Omar made his final break with his father in April 2001, when one of the older fighters took him aside and warned him that "a big plan" was in the works. "You need to be far, far away," the fighter told him. "It is my belief that many of us will die." The elder bin Laden reluctantly agreed to let Omar go. "I don't agree with you leaving me," he told his son. "But I can't stop you."

"My father is a wealthy man," Omar recalls. "He gave me $10,000 in cash. He told me to get a car and go." Omar's eyes well with tears. "If he wanted to keep me, he had to follow my way. If I wanted to keep him, I have to follow his way. I had a broken heart as I drove away. We don't show our feelings. I kissed his hand and said goodbye. This is the last time I saw him."

He remembers his last glimpse of his father: As Osama bin Laden walked away, he wore the same small, mysterious smile he had when he suggested his sons become suicide bombers.

Alone for the first time in his life, Omar took a car to the Pakistan border. A few months later, his father destroyed the World Trade Center, killing thousands. "I never thought the attack would be civilian buildings," Omar says. "I thought it would be a ship, like the USS Cole. My father's dream was to bring the Americans to Afghanistan. He would do the same thing he did to the Russians. I was surprised the Americans took the bait. I so much respected the mentality of President Clinton. He was the one who was smart. When my father attacked his places, he sent a few cruise missiles to my father's training camp. He didn't get my father, but after all the war in Afghanistan, they still don't have my father. They have spent hundreds of billions. Better for America to keep the money for its economy. In Clinton's time, America was very, very smart. Not like a bull that runs after the red scarf.

"I was still in Afghanistan when Bush was elected," he continues. "My father was so happy. This is the kind of president he needs — one who will attack and spend money and break the country. Even Bush's own mother says he is the biggest idiot boy of his family. I am sure my father wanted McCain more than Obama. McCain has the same mentality as Bush. My father would be disappointed because Obama get the position."

"Do you think Obama can win in Afghanistan?"

"Out of what you see," Omar asks, "what do you think?"

According to Omar, Americans are actually lucky that his father has not been captured or killed. "It is going to be worse when my father dies," he says. "The world is going to be very, very nasty then. It will be a disaster."

"Omar always says that without the head, the arms and legs will run wherever," Zaina says.

"I know this for a fact," Omar says. "People were always asking my father to attack more. They would say, 'Sheik, we must do more.' Crazy fucking things. My father has a religious goal. He is controlled by the rules of jihad. He only kills if he thinks there is a need."

"Will there be more attacks?" I ask.

"I don't think so," Omar says. "He doesn't need to. As soon as America went to Afghanistan, his plan worked. He has already won."

On our last day in Beirut, Omar appears agitated. He seems to be regretting the interview, the book, the whole idea of opening himself up to the scrutiny of people like me. But he is also impelled forward, trying to find a way to make his own fame and fortune. He asks me what I think his future might be. Could he be a successful businessman? Could he be an important person? Could he help make peace in the world? Would the United Nations want his help? Would Obama, or Hillary Clinton, want to meet with him?

Omar may have rejected his father's violence, but he shares the elder bin Laden's sense of being destined for greatness. Rather than citing the Koran to make sense of his circumstances, he relies on a somewhat different canon. "I am like the character of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart," he says. "Sometimes people say I look a lot like Mel Gibson. It is a strange accident. William Wallace wanted to live his normal life, but they push him and push him to become a warrior. The same for me. I have been pushed to be political. I have been given no good life, no good business. It is impossible for me to live a normal life. I tried hard for years. In Islam, what is happening to me is not allowed — the sins of the father going to the son. I am like Tom Cruise in the movie The Last Samurai. He turned around to fight his own people. This is like me."

Omar orders a shisha and a Turkish coffee. As he smokes the hookah-like pipe, he wonders aloud at what the future holds for him. His older brother Sa'ad is believed to have been killed by a drone missile in Pakistan last year, and six other siblings are reportedly being held against their will in Tehran by the Iranian government. Returning to Jeddah and the life of a scrap-metal merchant holds no interest for him. "I need to make a hundred million dollars," he says. "I need to make a billion. Do you know how I can make money like this?" I allow that I do not.

Omar turns to the deepest question defining his existence: how to deal with his father's legacy. His father, he says, rejected money and power to go to the mountains of Afghanistan and fight for what he believed. In the same way, Omar adds, he himself has rejected jihad to return to the "real" world and live according to his beliefs.

As Omar sees things, his father had destroyed the Soviet empire. Now, nearly a decade after 9/11, his father's vision for an America of economic ruin and a soul-sapping war in Afghanistan has come to pass. As far as Omar is concerned, his father has brought ruin to two empires. What does the son of such a man do to compete with that?

"If I had stayed with my father, I would have the ambition to be a modern-day Alexander the Great," Omar says. "I have a larger ambition than my father. I find this life I have to be very small. I expected my life to be bigger than this. I feel this world to be small. It could be under one man. If I am in my father's way, I would want to be that man. If I was in that position, I would want to rule the world. I want to be the highest."

Omar puffs on his shisha.

"Always the son tries to be better than his father," he says. "I try my best to be better — in a good way. I think a lot of people should thank God I chose the peaceful way. If I chose war, I would be unbelievable at it. A lot of people should pray to their god to thank him that I did not do that."

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