Almost 17 Years Later Osama bin Laden’s Family Gives First Interview

As America approaches the 17th year anniversary of its most deadliest attack on her soil The Guardian’s Martin Chulov was able to score the first ever interview with the maternal family of the mastermind behind the September 11 attack.

What makes this even more impressive, other than the Saudi government allowing it to happen, is that at the center of it is Osama bin Laden’s mother, Alia Ghanem, now 70 years old, who, until now, hasn’t spoken about him, at least not publicly.

Ghanem and her family now live together in a mansion in a well-to-do section of the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah and it is here Chulov sets the scene for readers – one only made possible because he’s been granted permission by the monarch’s new and young leadership, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – telling of the woman who is at center stage, “wearing a brightly patterned robe” whose “red hijab … is reflected in a glass-fronted cabinet” which are holding pictures of  Ghanem’s first born son from a previous marriage, “between heirlooms and valuable.”

The bin Laden family, Osama’s paternal side, are still one of the most wealthy non-royal families, and have been for generations, within the Saudi kingdom, and their ‘dynastic empire’ primarily in construction is said to have “built much of modern Saudi Arabia, and is deeply woven into the country’s establishment.”

With a representative from the Saudi government, “a minder,” present, Ghanem, flanked on either side by Osama’s two half brothers and her second husband, Mohammed al-Attas, who raised him from 3 years old, speaks about her first-born son who “was a very good kid and he loved me so much,” telling tales of his youth, that he was a good student and how she believes he was radicalized in his 20s while at university by Abdullah Azzam who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and would later become his “spiritual advisor” after being exiled from Saudi Arabia.

“The people at university changed him,” she says. “He became a different man.” She called the people he was associating with “a cult” saying they “brainwashed” him into jihadism, and that she told him to stay away from them, but that “he would never admit to me what he was doing, because he loved me so much.”

Chulov then lays out the timeline of bin Laden’s life from the 70s on, going from “freewheeling” before the Iranian revolution which saw Shia come into their country to going to Afghanistan “to fight the Russian occupation,” and how in the early days “everyone respected him.” He writes of Saudi Arabia’s history and its Sunni rule of the land that emerged from the cleric Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab from the 18th century that shaped its hardline Wahhabism and a pack made between the powerful house of Saud and the clerics, an alliance, which is believed, “directly contributed to the rise of global terrorism.”

Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, who has written four books on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, writes, “What Ghanem says in the interview is largely credible and tracks with the little that is publicly known about her relationship with her son.”

Bergen reports that the news in the interview that Ghanem is Shia confirms something that “had long been suspected,” adding that this information “fills in a key aspect of bin Laden’s background” that may “help explain why bin Laden never advocated for or fought wars against the Shia, as have other Sunni jihadist groups, such as ISIS.”

The family said the last time they saw Osama was in 1999 in Kandahar when they were, it is believed, sent by the Saudi government to talk him into coming back to Saudi Arabia. They say when they heard of the attack on America they knew it was him from the beginning.

On August 5th, in a follow-up to the interview, Chulov writes, “Hamza bin Laden, the son of the late al-Qaida leader, has married the daughter of Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker in the 9/11 terror attacks, according to his family.”

Hamza is a son of one of OBL’s three wives who was at the Pakistani compound where he was killed. All three wives captured during the raid and their other children are now living in Saudi Arabia and live under restricted movements. Last year Hamza was designated a ‘global terrorist’ by the United States. He has said he plans to avenge his father’s death and has issued public statements “urging followers to wage war on Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv.”

What happens next in Saudi Arabia, they say, is going to depend on how much reform the young crown prince Salman can accomplish going forward as he attempts to break through decades of hardline doctrine.


For What It’s Worth (Opinion)

I’ve just touched on a small sampling and would encourage readers to go read the entire interview, as well as Chulov’s other story about the son. 

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