GROWING UP BIN LADEN
Since the first publication of this book in late 2009, there have been many surprises. The first was its initial reception by the media. Omar, Najwa, and I were astonished when several reviewers questioned whether Osama's wife and son had participated in the writing of the book. Fortunately, once Omar had sat for various interviews, confirming that indeed he and his mother had revealed the stories of their lives to this author, any doubts about the authenticity of this book were laid to rest.
Despite much drama, nothing has been more exciting or important than the welcome news about lost members of the family, children Najwa has pined for since she left them behind in Afghanistan in 2001. Shortly after this book was published, Najwa, Omar, and other bin Laden family members received surprising telephone calls from Tehran, Iran. Osman bin Laden, Najwa and Osama's fifth child, was the caller. Everyone was stunned and overjoyed to discover from Osman that several family members they had not heard from for almost a decade had been living in Iran since late 2001. A delighted Najwa learned that the following children and other relatives were alive and well in Tehran: Osman, who at the age of twenty-six now has two wives and three children. Twenty-four year-old Mohammed, whose wedding had been video-taped and shown around the world, was also living with his wife and three children in Iran. Najwa's greatly cherished eldest daughter, twenty-two year-old Fatima, whose first husband Mohammed had perished in October 2001, is alive. Fatima has since remarried and has a daughter whom she named after her mother Najwa. Najwa was overcome with relief to learn that her youngest son Ladin (Bakr) and his sister Iman had also survived. Readers will recall Najwa and Omar's devastation when Osama refused permission for seven-year-old Ladin or eleven-year-old Iman to leave Afghanistan with their mother. Questions were also raised about thirty-year-old Sa'ad. In 2009 it was widely reported that he had been killed by an American drone, but since then there had been accounts from family members that suggested he was living with his wife and three children in Iran. As of this date, news is still unconfirmed regarding Sa'ad.
There were other family members with Najwa's children, including Osama's third wife Khairiah, and her son Hamza. Hamza, now twenty years old, is also married with two children.
The most compelling question was how had the family ended up in Iran? When Najwa departed on September 9, 2001, they were still living at the military compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Some details remain unclear because phone calls are necessarily brief, but this is the account they shared with Najwa and Omar.
After September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden callously abandoned his family in Kandahar and fled to safety in the Tora Bora mountains. Left to fend for themselves, the family formed a group with other followers of Osama and fled across the border into Pakistan. Once in Pakistan, the men of the family concluded that after 9/11 relatives of Osama would not be safe in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, and a decision was taken to cross the border into Iran. They travelled on foot, and the journey took many weeks. Once at the Iranian border they presented their Sudanese passports, the same passports that the government of Sudan had given Osama and his family when the Saudi government revoked their original passports in 1994. Osama had changed the names of his family at that time; therefore, the Iranian officials had no idea that they were admitting one of Osama's wives and a large number of his children and grandchildren into the country. At that time, hundreds of Afghan refugees were flooding over the border into Iran, and the family were taken with the other refugees to guarded compounds set up by the Iranian government. Osman reported that, while the family had been treated with generosity and courtesy, the time passed slowly. Government officials provided all the refugees with food and clothing, and on occasion refugees would be escorted to the souk to shop for necessities. However, it was not long before the refugees became extremely restless, with Najwa's children desperate to be reunited with their mother.
To this end, Iman and Ladin devised an escape plan, both agreeing that a female might have the best chance of success. While on a shopping trip, Iman slipped away from the family and ran through the streets of Tehran, pleading with a kindly faced man to take her to the Saudi Embassy. When Iman arrived at the embassy, she informed Saudi government officials of her identity. The startled officials allowed a phone call to Najwa. Iman remained at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran while Najwa and Omar talked to many Iranian and Saudi officials about the family and how to secure their passage out of the country. In a surprising move, the Iranian government booked sixteen-year-old Ladin on a flight to Syria. The teenager arrived unexpectedly at his mother's home in Syria, and they were finally reunited after a separation of almost nine frightening years. Now desperate to see her young daughter Iman, Najwa was invited to travel to Iran to collect her. Their reunion brought boundless joy.
A few months later, Mohammed, his wife and children joined Najwa in Syria, bringing home that perhaps Najwa might one day be reunited with all her children.
At the time of this update, Najwa is living in Syria with six of her eleven children, including sons: Abdul Rahman, Ladin,Mohammed, and daughters: Iman, Rukhaiya and Nour. All of her eleven children are accounted for other than Sa'ad, who may or may not be with the family in Iran. Omar, Najwa, and other family members continue to work tirelessly to find a country who might extend an invitation for the remaining family members to permanently settle. At that time Najwa can be reunited with Osman and eldest daughter Fatima, and their children and, hopefully, with Sa'ad.
Belief in innocence and hope for justice are alive in my writer's heart. While I pray for justice for the victims of terrorism all over the world, it is my belief that the wives and children of Osama bin Laden are innocent of any wrong doing. It is my hope that the world agrees that no innocent person should be punished for acts they did not commit.
Most amazingly to this author, Osama bin Laden failed to produce a single son who embraced his belief that violence is the answer to disagreements between governments or individuals. And so may these women and children live peacefully in the world, becoming a force for good despite the efforts of Osama bin Laden to persuade his family to embrace evil.
- Jean Sasson