It’s a familiar tale. A workaholic, over-achieving, Alpha-male father neglects his young son who in adulthood falls into a pattern of failed marriages, fraught relationships, and dead-end careers. The saving grace is that the 29 year-old progeny in this instance hasn’t moved back into his parents’ home. But that was never an option here since his name is Omar bin Laden and the whereabouts of his father, Osama, is not only unknown but moreover is likely to be some singularly unappealing cave or simple mud hut somewhere in the hinterlands of Pakistan’s FATA.
In an interview published recently in England’s venerable tabloid, The Sun, Omar described the ambivalent relationship he had growing up with his infamous father. Born in Saudi Arabia to Osama's first wife, Najwa, as a young boy Omar was forced to move with his family to the Sudan after his father’s Saudi citizenship was revoked. He was nearly 16 years-old when his father was subsequently expelled from the Sudan. Alone among Osama’s two dozen or so children, Omar was selected by his father to accompany him to Afghanistan. "I was his chosen son” and initial heir apparent, Omar told The Sun. He accompanied Osama as the al Qaeda leader established terrorist training camps across Afghanistan, progressing from his father’s personal tea boy, cum lackey to proficiency with an AK-47 assault rifle and the ability to drive a Russian tank. His life in Afghanistan was vastly different from his luxurious early childhood in Saudi Arabia and comfortable existence in the Sudan. Omar recalled how he and his father lived in freezing huts and subsisted on meager rations. "I've had a heavy life,” he explained. “It's been crazy at times. It was a very difficult childhood——far from normal. Sometimes we had everything. Other times we were hiding in the mountains and had nothing."
Eventually Omar’s mother and siblings joined them and they settled down outside of Kandahar. Among his fondest memories of that time was the puppy he was given by some of his father’s followers. Omar loved that dog, who he named “Bobby.” But then one day some men came and took Bobby away. When Omar protested, he was told that his father had ordered the men to use the dog to test al Qaeda’s experimental chemical weapons. The final break with his father, however, did not come until just a few months before the September 11th 2001 attacks. Al Qaeda was actively recruiting “martyrs” to engage in suicide terrorist attacks. According to Omar, his father “said if we wanted to take part there was a piece of paper we could write our names on. He was laughing. I was surprised and angry."
In the preface to the first edition of my book, Inside Terrorism , I wrote how I was always struck when I interviewed terrorists how normal they seemed. Indeed, this is borne out by the numerous psychiatric and psychological studies of terrorists——among them by such renowned terrorist scholars as Professor Ariel Merari and Drs. Jerrold Post and the late Franco Ferracuti. Yet, reading the interview with Omar and imagining the cruelty of a puppy snatched from a boy’s protective embrace and even more so the counter-intuitive inclination of a parent to sacrifice rather than succor one’s progeny, it’s difficult to equate any concept of normality to Osama bin Laden in particular and perhaps to terrorists in general.
But, at the same time, Omar’s poignant discussion of his relationship with his father uncomfortably reminds one, however invidiously, that terrorists are people, too. While we rightly see them as monsters, nearly ten years into the war on terrorism we still lack a clear understanding of how and why persons become terrorists or——in the au courant argot——how and why persons become “radicalized.” At a time when an albeit small, but growing, number of young Americans are increasingly heeding the clarion call to jihad and decamping for terrorist training camps in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, there is perhaps no more pressing question.
As I wrote in my article, “ American Jihad ,” published in the May-2010 issue of The National Interest, the U.S. missed a critical opportunity to better understand this phenomenon when House Resolution 1955, the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” proposed by Representative Jane Harman easily passed the House of Representatives, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have established a national commission to study terrorist radicalization and recruitment processes, and make policy recommendations about how to counter them by drawing on a comprehensive survey of the experiences and best practices of other countries.
Three years later, after terrorist plots directed against the New York City subway system and Times Square respectively by an Afghan-born green card holder and a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani heritage, fortuitously were foiled, we still critically lack this knowledge. Even worse, we have no policy to counter radicalization or any clarity on whose responsibility in the U.S. government it is to develop and implement such a policy.
Omar bin Laden deliberately chose a distinctly different path in his life than his father. Perhaps it was because of the rebellious streak inherent in some children who reflexively spurn their parents’ grand plans for them. Perhaps it was because of the loss of his beloved pet. Regardless, the trajectory to terrorism is neither pre- nor divinely ordained. Understanding why one bin Laden embraced and reveled in it while another rejected it is what makes the study of terrorism not only endlessly compelling but vitally important.