For the first time, Osama bin Laden’s mother, Alia Ghanem, has given an interview to the media.
The interview was conducted in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by Martin Chulov of The Guardian.
The interview is noteworthy because bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his mother were exceptionally close. CNN says that what Ghanem says in the interview is largely credible and tracks with the little that is publicly known about her relationship with her son.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Alia Ghanem said her son had been a shy and good child growing up, but he “became a different man” while studying economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.
“My life was very difficult because he was so far away from me,” she says, speaking confidently. “He was a very good kid and he loved me so much.”
Now in her mid-70s and in variable health, Ghanem points at al-Attas – a lean, fit man dressed, like his two sons, in an immaculately pressed white thobe, a gown worn by men across the Arabian peninsula. “He raised Osama from the age of three. He was a good man, and he was good to Osama.”
While studying at the university, bin Laden met Abdullah Azzam, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Azzam was later exiled from Saudi Arabia and became Osama’s spiritual adviser.
“He was a very good child until he met some people who pretty much brainwashed him in his early 20s,” Ms Ghanem said.
“You can call it a cult. They got money for their cause.
“I would always tell him to stay away from them, and he would never admit to me what he was doing, because he loved me so much.”
“He was very straight. Very good at school. He really liked to study. He spent all his money on Afghanistan – he would sneak off under the guise of family business.” Did she ever suspect he might become a jihadist? “It never crossed my mind.” How did it feel when she realised he had? “We were extremely upset. I did not want any of this to happen. Why would he throw it all away like that?”
When Ghanem leaves to rest in a nearby room, Osama’s half-brothers continue the conversation. It’s important, they say, to remember that a mother is rarely an objective witness. “It has been 17 years now [since 9/11] and she remains in denial about Osama,” Ahmad says. “She loved him so much and refuses to blame him. Instead, she blames those around him. She only knows the good boy side, the side we all saw. She never got to know the jihadist side.
“I was shocked, stunned,” he says now of the early reports from New York. “It was a very strange feeling. We knew from the beginning [that it was Osama], within the first 48 hours. From the youngest to the eldest, we all felt ashamed of him. We knew all of us were going to face horrible consequences. Our family abroad all came back to Saudi.” They had been scattered across Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Europe. “In Saudi, there was a travel ban. They tried as much as they could to maintain control over the family.” The family say they were all questioned by the authorities and, for a time, prevented from leaving the country. Nearly two decades on, the Bin Ladens can move relatively freely within and outside the kingdom.
For years, Ghanem has refused to talk about Osama, as has his wider family – throughout his two-decade reign as al-Qaida leader, a period that saw the strikes on New York and Washington DC, and ended more than nine years later with his death in Pakistan.
Now, Saudi Arabia’s new leadership – spearheaded by the ambitious 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has agreed to my request to speak to the family. (As one of the country’s most influential families, their movements and engagements remain closely monitored.)
Osama’s legacy is as grave a blight on the kingdom as it is on his family, and senior officials believe that, by allowing the Bin Ladens to tell their story, they can demonstrate that an outcast – not an agent – was responsible for 9/11. Saudi Arabia’s critics have long alleged that Osama had state support, and the families of a number of 9/11 victims have launched (so far unsuccessful) legal actions against the kingdom. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
After an almost 10-year search, bin Laden was killed during a late-night US Navy SEAL raid on a compound in Abbottabad, near the Pakistani capital Islamabad, on May 2, 2011.