Osama bin Laden, former leader of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, was one of the most recognizable people in the world before his death in 2011. After the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, most Americans knew all about this Islamic extremist’s beliefs… but what about where he came from? Who were the people close to him, and what kind of lives did they lead?
Bin Laden had a large family, and the experiences they’ve shared in the years since his death reveal a side of him that the public never knew. Their stories—and details of what happened to them since the September 11 attacks—are nothing short of shocking.
Osama bin Laden was one of the most recognizable terrorists in recent history—especially after his involvement in coordinating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, most people would be stunned to learn that this public enemy was more than a face on the FBI’s most-wanted list: he was the patriarch of a large and dysfunctional family.
Since the September 11 attacks, bin Laden’s family experienced drastic changes—and terrible tragedies. In 2015, for instance, three of his family members died when a private jet, en route to England from Italy, plowed into dozens of cars at the Blackbushe Airport in Surrey.
Osama bin Laden’s half-sister, Sana; his brother-in-law (and Sana’s husband), Zuhair Hasim; and his stepmother, Rajaa Hashim were the only three passengers on board. Reports indicated they died in the fire that broke out after the impact.
It’s no surprise there was always interest in bin Laden’s family. He was reported to have had as many as 50 siblings and numerous wives. Bin Laden wed his first wife (and cousin), Najwa Ghanem, in 1974 when he was 17 and she was 15. Problems quickly arose. She grew up wealthy and found it difficult to adjust to his restrictive lifestyle in the small stone hut where they lived. (Sometime around the September 11 attacks, she fled, possibly to Syria.)
Most people don’t know that Najwa gave birth to several children with developmental issues. One of them, a boy named Sa’ad, was said to have autism. He was rumored to have been confined to a remote estate after the family fled Pakistan for Iran in 2002.
According to family members, Sa’ad eventually escaped confinement and joined his father on the frontlines of the war. He was then groomed to inherit his father’s position as the leader of al-Qaeda, but before that could happen, he was killed in a drone strike in 2009.
Sa’ad wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s only son—nor was he the only one who showed promise to take after his father. After bin Laden’s death, one of his other sons, Hamza bin Laden, actually assumed his father’s role as the leader of al-Qaeda.
In 2018, al-Qaeda released a video from an undisclosed location calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. Hamza bin Laden was sitting front and center in the unsettling footage. It looked like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree…
However, Hamza wasn’t the one that bin Laden reportedly had the highest hopes for. That would have been Omar (pictured). Omar fled Tora Bora (bin Laden’s home) several months prior to the attacks on September 11. The reason? He desperately wanted to cut all ties with his father.
Omar had been open about his reasons for fleeing. He claimed his father was physically abusive, even forcing him to fight in the Afghan civil war. There, Omar claimed he witnessed disturbing violence by Muslims against members of their own religion.
All of bin Laden’s children had a tough time growing up. He didn’t allow them to indulge in fun activities like other kids, and he actually forbade them from playing with toys or using modern technology.
Bin Laden reportedly believed in corporal punishment, and from an early age, he would regularly try to toughen up his kids using extreme measures—like dragging them out into the desert and denying them water.
Bin Laden also strongly encouraged his children to volunteer as suicide bombers when they were old enough. He wanted them to invest as much of their time and effort into his extremist ideology as they could.
Bin Laden’s daughters didn’t have it any easier. As soon as they hit puberty, they were all married off to his allies. Some of their new husbands were two or three times their age! Of course, the girls had absolutely no choice in the matter.
This treatment carried on all throughout their lives. Prior to the September 11 attacks, bin Laden apparently lead his family into the mountains of Sudan and forced them to sleep in rock trenches without any access to food or water. He told them a war was coming and they needed to prepare for any worst case scenario.
Even on the day before September 11, bin Laden instructed his wives and most of his children to board a vehicle traveling to Najm al-Jihad, a military camp near the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The women did their best to make the camp their home while they took in the news of the devastating attacks shortly after.
It may seem surprising considering how much time bin Laden’s family spent around him, but his wives apparently knew very little about his plans for the devastation he caused on September 11, 2001.
He wives were vaguely aware of something called “Planes Operation,” but bin Laden forbade them from talking to his male guards about any other details surrounding the secret mission.
Bin Laden’s sixth and youngest wife, Amal, was actually with him on the night he was killed. Even though bin Laden suggested she move to a safe location, she insisted on staying by his side.
During the raid on bin Laden’s compound, Amal was shot in the leg and she passed out. By the time she regained consciousness, bin Laden had been killed by the team of Navy SEALs who stormed in. His reign of terror was over.
Many of these stories are chilling reminders of the dangers bin Laden’s extreme beliefs posed—not only to the world, but to those he cared for the most. How little we really knew about this very public figure…
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