Alia Ghanem, the mother of former al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, has opened up for the very first time about various aspects of her son’s life from being a shy boy to becoming the global symbol of terrorism.
“My life was very difficult because he was so far away from me … he was a very good kid,” Ghanem, who is now in her mid-70s and in variable health, made opening remarks during a candid interview to The Guardian.
The interview, which took days to complete, was carried out at Bin Laden’s family mansion in Jeddah, the Saudi Arabian city that has been home to the Bin Laden clan for generations.
Ghanem had kept her silence regarding affairs of the family and his son throughout his two-decade reign as al Qaeda 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.
Sitting between Osama’s half-brothers, Ghanem recalled her firstborn as a shy boy who was academically capable. “He became a strong, driven, pious figure in his early 20s while studying economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he was also radicalized,” she said, claiming that the people at university ‘changed’ him.
According to her, Osama became a different man after meeting several people at the university including Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who 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. 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.”
Ghanem, being after being born and raised in an Alawite family in Syria, moved to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1950s, and Osama was born in Riyadh in 1957. She divorced his father three years later, and married Mohammed al-Attas, then an administrator in the fledgling Bin Laden empire, in the early 1960s. Osama’s father went on to have 54 children with at least 11 wives.
According to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years, between 1977 and 1 September 2001 (10 days before the 9/11 attacks), “There are two Osama bin Ladens, one before the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and one after it. Before, he was very much an idealistic mujahid. He was not a fighter. By his own admission, he fainted during a battle, and when he woke up, the Soviet assault on his position had been defeated.”
Turki admitted that Osama travelled to Afghanistan with the knowledge and backing of the Saudi state, which opposed the Soviet occupation along with America, adding that the Saudis armed and supported those groups who fought it. “He developed a more political attitude from 1990. He wanted to evict the communists and South Yemeni Marxists from Yemen. I received him, and told him it was better that he did not get involved. The mosques of Jeddah were using the Afghan example.”
The rise of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s youngest child who has reportedly taken his father’s mantle in Afghanistan, may well cloud the family’s attempts to shake off their past. It may also hinder the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to shape a new era in the kingdom, aiming to no longer offering legitimacy to extremism.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian.