March 2021


The artist formerly known as bin Laden

By Mahmood Fazal
Conversations with Omar bin Laden about art, cowboys and growing up the son of the world’s most notorious terrorist

“I am going away tomorrow. I am taking my son Omar with me.”

— Osama bin Laden, May 1996


Omar bin Osama bin Mohammed bin ’Awad bin Laden, the fourth eldest son of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, plays a YouTube video titled “The Last Cowboy Song”. He mixes paint on a wooden palette and puffs on an antique German hunter tobacco pipe.

On his canvas, it’s midnight in the American south and the silhouette of five cowboys, in wide brim hats, is illuminated by a campfire.

“It means freedom,” explains Omar. Over the past year, the reclusive 40 year old has begun to envisage life as an artist, learning to paint in his home by the beaches of Normandy, France.

In another painting, from the vantage point of a cowboy, the bright rocky plains of a desolate American landscape are illustrated in the mode of primitivism, with broad brushstrokes and blooming colours. “I respect cowboys. I love cowboy dignity,” he tells me. “When I’m depressed, I watch Unforgiven. I like Clint Eastwood.”

Omar suffers from severe bipolar disorder. In his darkest moments, he hears his father’s voice.

In selfies, he portrays a heroic confidence – on horseback with long shoulder-length curls and a tilted hat. The inspiration for his art, he says, “comes from the peace I feel when I ride the horses, from when I sit and watch the river as it flows past our home”.

Omar looks to the canvas to understand himself, and in turn is confronted by his unintelligible past. “When I was seven years old, after spending time with my father’s horses in the desert, I would go home and draw pictures of horses. The only happy moment I recall was the time that I submitted artwork that was chosen to hang on the school wall. I remember I drew a desert road, a group of ostrich birds and three horses jumping barriers.”

It was around this age that Omar was taken under Osama bin Laden’s wing and groomed to be his successor. He thinks about his artwork on display in his school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Unfortunately my father was never around for these kinds of things… You know what kind of man he was.”

On the morning of Omar’s birth, Osama bin Laden misplaced the keys to his new gold Mercedes. He had just purchased the car and had been testing it all afternoon. Omar imagines the “golden carriage” winding through the palm-tree boulevards of Jeddah, as Osama later raced to the hospital.

Over video chat, Omar’s broad shoulders temper his shy personality. He is pensive when he speaks. He punctuates his sentences with emojis, is quick to draw on black humour and is troubled when speaking about his father.

Osama bin Laden’s own relationship with fatherhood was complicated. His parents divorced, and he “felt a loss, he felt his lack of status, genuinely suffering from his father’s lack of personal love and care”, says Omar. “I know how my father felt. I’m one of 20 children. I’ve often felt that same lack of attention from my father.”

When Osama was 10, his father died in a plane crash. While mourning the loss, Osama became a hafiz of the Qur’an, memorising the surahs by heart. In later years, Omar would quietly check his recitations. “My father never missed a word. I can admit now, as I got older, I was secretly disappointed. For some strange reason, I wanted my father to miss a word.”

Omar’s childhood was constricted by his father’s rejection of modernity and the ever-increasing security threats. “We were kept like prisoners in our homes,” he says. “We were not allowed to play outside, even in our own garden … My brothers and I would spend many long hours staring out the apartment windows, longing to join the children we saw riding their bikes.”

Their father made it clear that his sons were expected to adhere to strict rules. And like most children, they rebelled at every opportunity. “Father forbade us to drink fizzy drinks that came from America,” explains Omar. The boys loved drinking Pepsi. “How we loved the forbidden!”

Omar’s paintings are roughly the same size as those childhood apartment windows. “Childish love,” he offers, presenting an image of two children facing a sunset.

Omar and his brothers would protest about their education and way of life, archaic compared to that of their cousins who were attending the finest schools in the world. The boys would be lectured: “Life has to be a burden. Life has to be hard. You will be made stronger if you are treated tough.” They were often beaten by their father, sometimes for as little as smiling too widely. He refuses to speak about it now.

The only place Omar experienced freedom was on the family farm, south of Jeddah, where Osama had built a peach-coloured compound. All toys were forbidden. Instead, the children were given goats and gazelles.

He and his father’s favourite building on the farm was the stables. Omar’s favourite horse, his great source of solace, was a white Arabian mare called Baydah, meaning worshipper. “She was about 14 hands high. I thought she was a queen, with her strong, proud stance. Baydah loved me too.”

Two moments stand out for Omar from his early childhood. The first was when his father was gifted a baby camel. Although the young boys were glowing with excitement when the camel arrived, they quickly realised it was too young to be taken from its mother. “The poor baby was so lonely and cried so pitifully that my father decided to take it to one of the farms belonging to his brother,” he says. The only time his voice trembles is when he thinks about the pets from his childhood. “But the baby camel was attacked by the other camels … We never knew the outcome of this sad story, but I was haunted by that baby’s misery.”

He describes the second memory as his first and last moment of magic. When the afternoon call to prayer rang out throughout the compound, Omar was excited because he could be close to his father. “On that day I failed to slip on my sandals. The sands were blistering hot. The bare soles of my feet were burning. I began jumping, crying out from the pain.” Awash with the musk-like scent of oud, Osama cradled his son for the first and last time. “My mouth went dry from disbelief.” He describes every other interaction with his father as like speaking with a mirage.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. “For the first time I truly grasped the concept of war, and that war could come to any nation,” Omar says. His father was convinced Saddam would attempt to seize the Saudi oil fields.

“That was also when I recognised my father’s standing, as a war hero so revered that his actions generally went unquestioned,” he says. After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, where Osama had been waging guerrilla war, he was welcomed back to Saudi Arabia as a hero of jihad. Alongside a rag-tag legion of mujahideen fighters – armed with faith, endless finances, American missiles and maps – Osama believed he had conquered a superpower. “He was the only civilian in Saudi Arabia allowed to drive cars with blackened windows, or to strap a machine gun across his shoulder and walk through the streets of Jeddah,” Omar says, still evidently proud.

Osama began stockpiling food, candles, gas lights, handheld transceivers, battery-operated radios and gasmasks. The bin Laden boys were scolded for playing games with the masks – they weren’t toys. Saddam had used chemical weapons against the Iranians.

The farm was transformed into a military base, and Osama was becoming increasingly convinced the Iraqi army would cross the Kuwaiti border to invade Saudi Arabia, so he approached the royal family, calling on the interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who was a full brother to the Saudi king. Osama had arranged for more than 100 of his former mujahideen to be given visas and to live on the farm south of Jeddah, and he volunteered to bring in a further 12,000 well-armed veterans from the Soviet–Afghan War still under his command. Desperate for royal approval, he assured Prince Naif that his soldiers were at Saudi Arabia’s disposal.

On August 7, 1990, Osama learnt through the Arab media that a coalition of military forces, led by the United States, would defend Islam’s holiest land. That morning, Saudi government forces raided his farm and arrested his soldiers.

“The sting of the incident changed my father’s feelings forever,” Omar says.

That same day, the US military landed in Saudi Arabia before entering Kuwait and driving out the Iraqi forces. “The easy victory seemed to anger him further, making me believe that he would have preferred defeat by a Muslim sword to victory at the hands of the infidels.”

Osama became an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, lecturing at mosques, distributing flyers and recording audiotapes in which he claimed Saudi Arabia was becoming a US colony. He decided to migrate his family and militia to Khartoum in Sudan.

Omar was 10 when the family moved. Osama quickly became preoccupied with transforming the impoverished country, investing in an experimental agricultural project called Al-Damazin Farms. Nevertheless, “we still could not have bicycles or any kind of mechanical transportation,” says Omar, opining about his father’s disdain for most modernity. “I remember pleading with my father for a bicycle or a motorbike. I’ll never forget his words: ‘If you need to travel, Omar, travel on a goat.’”

Omar often returns to the Nile in his paintings. On the canvas, the lapis lazuli–coloured river shimmers with splashes of white paint. He recalls “swimming in the river under a starry sky. The moon’s reflection in the Nile was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.”

On another occasion, one of his father’s workers decided to build their leader a speedboat. Naturally, Osama was himself asked to captain it. As it took off, he was flung into the Nile. Onlookers screamed, “The prince is in trouble! The prince is in trouble!”

Omar offers a rare smile at the thought of the incident. Outside Saudi Arabia, where Osama lived in the shadow of monarchy, he was accustomed to being the best, the most pious, the greatest horseman, the most skilled driver, the fastest runner and the top marksman.

“Our father was so ashamed at losing control that he actually slipped out of the boat and into the water to hide. He hung to the back of his boat, concealing his face, not wanting anyone to witness his humiliation.”

One afternoon, while Omar was studying the Qur’an, bullets whistled through an open window. The Sudanese government later told the family that assassins had been hired by the Saudi government. The Saudi king sent word to Osama to expect a personal telephone call from him. Osama refused to take the king’s call. The Saudi government decided to revoke the family’s citizenship and freeze his assets.

Omar was 14 at the time and beginning to understand the turbulence of his father’s political persuasion. In Khartoum, he began noticing an increasing presence of militants from Afghanistan, and was learning about his father’s group, Al Qaeda, literally “The Base”. (“I wished that he would limit his activities to raising the biggest sunflowers the world had known.”)

In May 1996, when Saudi Arabia and the United States pressured Sudan to expel the bin Laden family, Osama presented his sons with legal documents stating that Omar’s brothers Abdullah, Abdul Rahman, and Sa’ad would be given the authority to act on his behalf when he died. Omar’s name was not on the list. Osama told his children, “I am going away tomorrow. I am taking my son Omar with me.”

In the Afghan valley of Spīn Ghar (“White Mountain”), Osama and Omar bin Laden were welcomed by Pashtun tribal leader Mullah Nourallah, or “Light of God”. Nourallah tapped Omar’s nose declaring it “long and prominent … the nose of a strong man”. The mujahideen commander then presented Osama with a mountain in Tora Bora before announcing that Osama was now an honorary Pashtun.

Their new home was decorated with the debris of war: they were living in an ornament of bin Laden’s triumph against the Soviet empire. Omar recalls Afghanistan with fondness, despite the rotten beds, empty shell casings and yellow newspapers. He romanticises the times spent with his father among the nomadic farmers in the mountains.

Four months after his arrival, Omar’s brothers entered Afghanistan. The time had come for Osama’s sons to follow “the straight path”.

Omar, who “could not recall ever seeing my father so much as an arm’s length from his weapon, even when he was visiting with my mother”, was presented with his own Kalashnikov assault rifle. He was taken to Al Qaeda’s training camps. “The trainees were tough men. Most were young with long beards,” Omar says, recalling his excitement at partaking in his father’s passion. “There was no specific camp uniform, so some trainees were dressed as Taliban, others as Pashtun, and some soldiers were in the uniforms of American or Russian soldiers.”

Omar would play with the camp radios. “[My father] would listen to the news of the world as though he was in every story.” But what he remembers most strikingly was a melody that rang out from the radio. It was the haunting, hypnotic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, the “Star of the East”.

“Every desire created by those love songs and poems was wrapped around my desperate need to create a new life for myself. Umm Kulthum’s message brought me to the realisation that there was a parallel world to our bin Laden universe of hate and revenge, a world previously unknown to me, where people lived for and sang about love.”

The following year, in 1997, Osama asked Omar to ration the food among the family. Behind the request was a deeper understanding: Omar was to begin assuming his role in the Al Qaeda jihadist dynasty. But Omar followed his father, not his ideology. Omar confronted him with a burning truth: he would not be his successor. He wanted his father’s love, not his war.

“Even after this, my father failed to abandon the idea that I was his rightful replacement.” For inspiration, Osama took Omar to the front lines of the Afghan Civil War, which followed the Soviet withdrawal. The Taliban was embroiled in bloody conflict with the Northern Alliance, headed by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a key commander in the resistance against the Soviet occupation.

It wasn’t long before Omar and his father were smothered by clouds of violence. Omar remembers squatting, expecting to die. “Missiles whistling past my head, dirt and small stones peppering my face, and deep craters appearing all around me… I truly believed I was living my last moments on earth.” When the fight ended, the Taliban soldiers, including the bin Ladens, discovered they weren’t under attack from the Northern Alliance but suffering from friendly fire.

Omar soon realised he couldn’t even spot the difference between Massoud’s men and the Taliban. He toyed with his handheld receiver until he tuned into the frequency of Massoud’s men. “Why are you trying to kill us?” Omar asked them. A soldier replied, “I have nothing against you. This is a war over land. We have orders to shoot anyone on the land. You are on the land. I will have to shoot you if I get the chance.”While acting as a lookout along a mountain trail, Omar himself was spotted by a sniper. Bullets burned passed his ears, but he stood stock-still. “I couldn’t settle on which way to jump … I grew accustomed to the noise of war, but never to the sight of war. On that mountain top, I pledged to spend the rest of my life speaking out against the very thing my father so loved.”

In August of 1998, the compound in Afghanistan became a beehive. There had been simultaneous Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. They resulted in the deaths of 224 people. Twelve Americans were killed, including two CIA employees.

It had been exactly eight years since American troops had landed in Saudi Arabia. “The breath left my body,” says Omar. “I studied my father’s face. In my life I had never seen him so excited and happy.”

They were called to a meeting with the leader of the Taliban, the enigmatic Mullah Omar.

“When he stepped from the vehicle, all identified him instantly from this aura of power,” says Omar. “I found myself looking at a man taller than my father.”

Mullah Omar had lost an eye in battle and wore his scars like a medal of honour. When Osama approached him, the Taliban commander briskly walked towards the building, ignoring the emir of Al Qaeda.

Mullah Omar demanded a chair be brought for him. When soldiers recovered a chair left behind by the Russians, he gestured for Osama to sit on the floor. The cultural insults continued when Mullah Omar refused to address Osama directly in Pashto, preferring to have his translator relay the message to him in Arabic. The Taliban leader told the Al Qaeda leader to leave Afghanistan. Osama protested, declaring that if Mullah Omar’s demand had been influenced by “infidel” governments, it would be against Islam. According to Omar, Mullah Omar told Osama he could stay for another two years. When Osama arranged dinner, Mullah Omar refused to eat with him.

In the following months, one of Osama bin Laden’s closest advisers, Abdul Hadi, warned Omar of the advent of another, much bigger, Al Qaeda mission. If Omar wished to stay alive, Abdul Hadi cautioned, he should leave. Omar hatched a plan to flee with his brothers on horseback. But as the time to leave ticked closer, the boys lost their courage.

Osama gathered his sons and told them about a list of names on the wall of the mosque. “This list is for men who are good Muslims, men who volunteer to be suicide bombers.” Omar did not add his name to the list.

Osama began distancing himself from Omar, and eventually he was told he held no more place in Osama’s heart than any other man or boy in the entire country. “My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.”

In late 1999, Omar was granted permission to travel to Syria with his mother. On October 12, 2000, Al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole warship at the Aden harbour in Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed and 37 wounded. Omar believed this was the attack Abdul Hadi had warned him about.

Within days, Omar received a message, demanding that he return. “I decided to do something I said I would never do: return to Afghanistan,” he says. By the time he arrived at his father’s compound in 2001, Osama was uninterested.

Abdul Hadi then reiterated his original warning: an attack was imminent. Before leaving again, Omar was not given an opportunity to speak to his father.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Omar, now back in Saudi Arabia, watched on television as smoke billowed from the side of the World Trade Center. And then the second plane collided.

“After hearing an audiotape of my father’s own words taking credit for the attacks, I faced the reality that he was behind the events,” says Omar. “I was finally my own man. I had to live with that.”

Osama bin Laden retreated to his mountain in Tora Bora.

“Everyone we know has passed now. I lost so many good friends. I lost three brothers, my sister and father…”

In Normandy, Omar shares a photograph of his older brother Sa’ad, who suffered autism and was his closest friend. “This was in Tora Bora.” Sa’ad is looking into the distance, dressed in the image of Osama, in an Afghan pakol hat and a green US field jacket. He grips a Kalashnikov in his left hand. And, just like his father, Omar says, “America killed him.”

Another painting: a white cattle skull is stretched across the quiet landscape. A tree with no leaves is bent out of shape. The perspective is high on horseback.

Omar admits that he is not the cowboy in his painting.

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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