DAMASCUS, Nov 15: Osama bin Laden, who tops the world’s most-wanted list in the wake of the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, was quiet and shy as a child, Syrian relatives of his mother recall.
Osama is today a 44-year-old man, pictured by many people in the west as being callous and heartless enough to send thousands of innocent people to their deaths in attacks on New York and Washington.
But his relatives in Syria’s port city of Latakia tell the story of a different person altogether. They remember a young boy mourning the tragic death of a beloved father, before turning in upon himself and towards his ever-deepening Islamic faith.
This picture of Osama bin Laden was obtained by a Syrian satirical weekly paper, Addomari, which videotaped interviews with a number of osama’s relatives.
“Osama was a calm child,” recalls cousin Suleiman al-Kateb, who lives in the same port city that was the childhood home of Osama’s mother, Alia Ghanem.
It was to Latakia that 11-year-old Osama was sent following the death of his father, construction magnate Mohammed bin Laden, in a 1969 helicopter crash that left the boy with an 80-million-dollar inheritance.
Suleiman, a 54-year-old English teacher, said Osama was “affected by the death of his father; he was very solitary”.
The boy later went home to Saudi Arabia, but came back each year with his mother to visit the family.
As each year passed, Suleiman says, Osama was “ever more pious” and began to let his beard grow when he was 17.
“I suppose that he was under the influence of the Saudi environment,” says his cousin.
When he was 18, Osama married his first wife, his 14-year-old cousin Najwa Ghanem.
Naji Ghanem, a childhood companion of Osama and his wife’s brother, remarks on Osama’s reserved nature.
“He loved to swim, hunt and ride horseback. He didn’t talk much and was very timid. When a woman passed by, he would always turn away.”
Perhaps, Osama’s brother-in-law says, that is why the boy married his own cousin, to avoid temptation.
But Osama’s Syrian relatives say he subsequently married two other women.
Suleiman said one was “Oum Hamza, who is Saudi, and one was Yemeni.”
Naji, who like his cousin is 44, says he last saw Osama in Sudan, where he lived for four years until he was expelled in 1996.
“He was living with his wives in Khartoum, in the Al-Ryad district, in a three-storey villa,” Naji says.
Leila Ghanem, a sister of Osama’s first wife, remembers his “gentleness” and his piety.
“He used to wake us up at dawn to pray,” she recalls.
Leila, 30, remembers how Osama’s mother, during her son’s years of battling against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, had tried in vain to turn him from his growing militancy.
“But she realized that he believed in what he was doing and that he would not give it up, so she said to him ‘God protect you.’”
And Leila says that her sister had willingly gone to Afghanistan with Osama where “they live the jihad, she is used to it and encourages him”.
While Osama bin Laden’s three Syrian cousins do not approve of what happened on Sept 11 — Suleiman doubts Osama was behind the suicidal crash of the hijacked airliners — they back him to the hilt.
“Osama looks upon the United States as a sort of whale that wants to swallow the world,” Suleiman says, “but I am 90 per cent certain that he had nothing to do” with the attacks.
“I believe they have pinned these charges on him as a way to distort the image of Islam.”
“Abu Abdullah” (father of Abdullah) they call him in reference to his eldest son as they speak to him through the videotape.
“Abu Abdullah, if your battle is against American and British injustice, then I wish you victory,” Suleiman says.—AFP