‘Austere dad who loved nature’

Normal, Weekender

A new book to be published next month describes Osama bin Laden as a harsh disciplinarian who regularly beat his children, writes ANDREW BEATTY

WASHINGTON: Osama bin Laden was an austere father who banned toys and modern appliances at home, but also a flower-growing nature lover who spoke fluent English and adored fast cars, according to his wife and son.
In a book to be published next month, the al-Qaeda boss’s first wife Najwa and fourth son Omar give a rare glimpse into bin Laden’s personal life up to the Sept 11, 2001 attacks against the United States he is believed to have masterminded.
They chart bin Laden’s transformation from a pious teenage newly-wed to the global face of Islamic extremism, a role that took the family from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan and at one point, Najwa revealed, to the United States.
Shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, bin Laden and his wife, whom he married aged 17, visited Indianapolis and Los Angeles for a meeting with his mentor, Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam.
“We were only there for only two weeks, and for one of those weeks, Osama was away in Los Angeles to meet with some men in that city,” Najwa told the book’s co-author Jean Sasson, later recalling the gathering was with Azzam.
Soon after, bin Laden began to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation, returning to tell his sons tales of battles in Afghan caves and mountains under Soviet fire.
He eventually returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, but at home was increasingly disciplinarian, punishing his children – who eventually numbered more than a dozen – for transgressions such as “showing too many teeth” while laughing.
Meanwhile, Najwa was kept in seclusion with Osama’s new wives, one of whom she picked, in a spartan home without the modern conveniences that make life in the stifling desert lands of Saudi Arabia and Sudan more comfortable.
“My father would not allow my mother to turn on the air conditioning that the contractor had built into the apartment building,” Omar said.
“Neither would he allow her to use the refrigerator that was standing in the kitchen.”
Despite this aversion to modern appliances, bin Laden indulged in his penchant for fast cars, including at least one gold-coloured Mercedes. He once even bought a speedboat.
“Nothing gave him more satisfaction than having a full day to take a speedy drive to the desert, where he would leave his automobile while he took long walks,” said Najwa.
After being forced into exile in Sudan because of his vocal opposition to US troop deployments in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden would later take pride in growing sunflowers as he dodged assassination plots and built the al-Qaeda network.
“Osama’s favourite undertaking was working the land, growing the best corn and the biggest sunflowers,” Najwa said.
But his love of nature was also coloured by growing political fervour.
He forced the family to spend nights in the desert, with only dirt as cover from the cold. He also forced his sons to climb desert mountains without water to toughen them ahead of more difficult times.
But there were more lighthearted moments with bin Laden, whom his sons admired as a good horseman, a fluent English speaker – thanks to his school days ñ and a mathematics whiz.
“My father was so well known for the skill that there were times when men would come to our home and ask him to match his wits against a calculator,” Omar said, adding his father usually won.
They also spoke about a man who loved eating fruit, particularly mangoes, took two sugars in his tea, whose favourite meal was marrow-stuffed zucchini and who liked to listen to BBC radio.
Spooks will no doubt pore over the book for new clues to bin Laden’s habits or whereabouts.
They will learn he may be able to pilot a helicopter, but also suffers from bouts of malaria and is partially blind in his right eye thanks to a boyhood metalwork injury for which he received treatment in London. – AFP