The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century
10. Young Osama
Al-Thaghr sat on several dozen arid acres lined by eucalyptus trees, whose branches were twisted by winds from the Red Sea. The campus spread north from the Old Mecca Road, near downtown Jeddah. The school’s main building was a two-story rectangle constructed from concrete and fieldstone in a featureless modern style. Inside, hallways connected two wings of classrooms; there was a wing for middle-school students, where Osama began, and another for the high school. Between them was a spacious interior courtyard, and from the second floor, students could lean over balcony railings and shout at their classmates below, or pelt them with wads of paper. Like Osama, most Al-Thaghr students were commuters, but there were a few boarders; they lived on the second floor, as did some of the school’s foreign teachers.10
The Saudi government funded and staffed Al-Thaghr, and during the 1960s and early 1970s, the school had the reputation of a private enclave for the sons of businessmen and the royal family. Mohamed Bin Laden had periodically visited the school during the mid-1960s when it was a site for fundraisers to help found Jeddah’s first university, which became King Abdulaziz University, where Osama later enrolled. Al-Thaghr offered rigorous entrance exams that any Saudi could take, and some working-class students who managed to pass attended the school along with the wealthier boys.11
Al-Thaghr—the name means, roughly, “The Haven”—was founded in the early 1950s in Taif by Faisal, but the school came into its own when he established its large campus in Jeddah, in 1964, and began to fund it annually with several million riyals from the national budget. Faisal’s Turkish father-in-law, Kamal Adham, took an interest in the project and traveled to Britain, where he met with government officials to seek support; he told them that he thought the school should be modeled on the British-influenced Victoria College in Khartoum, Sudan. By the time Osama arrived, Al-Thaghr Model School, as it was formally called, was a showcase for Faisal’s modernization drive, and particularly for his interest in science and Western methods of education. It was the only school in Jeddah with air-conditioning during the 1960s, and it hosted some of the kingdom’s first classroom computers in later years. Students did not wear the national dress of a thobe and cloth headdress, but, rather, a uniform that imitated the styles of English and American prep schools: white button-down shirts with ties, gray slacks, black shoes and socks, and, in the winter months, charcoal blazers.12
Each year’s graduating class numbered about sixty boys. Every morning, the students would assemble in rows for a military-style call to order; on a stool to one side sat a schoolmaster with a cane, ready to discipline boys who misbehaved by beating them on the soles of their bare feet. The school’s curriculum included English-language instruction given by teachers from Ireland and England, and demanding courses in mathematics. At the same time, as with all institutions in Saudi Arabia, Al-Thaghr adhered to Islamic ritual and included religion as an essential aspect of instruction. At midday, students would kneel together for the zuhr, or noon prayer.13
When Osama entered the school, he stood out because he was unusually tall, but he was a reticent personality. He sat by a window in a back corner of the classroom, overlooking the playground. In an intermediate-English class, recalled Brian Fyfield-Shayler, a Briton who taught at the school, “I was trying to push the spoken aspects of the language. To succeed, the student needs to be prepared to make mistakes. They need to make a bit of an exhibition of themselves, and Osama was rather shy and reserved and perhaps a little afraid of making mistakes.” He was also “extraordinarily courteous . . . more courteous than the average student, probably partly because he was a bit shyer than most of the other students.” Seamus O’Brien, an Irishman who taught English at Al-Thaghr, remembered Osama as “a nice fellow and a good student. There were no problems with him . . . He was a quiet lad. I suppose silent waters run deep.” Another teacher, Ahmed Badeeb, remembered Osama as “in the middle” academically, an assessment that accords with the account of Osama’s mother.14
Around 1971 or 1972, when Osama was in the eighth or ninth grade, he was invited to join an after-school Islamic study group led by one of Al-Thaghr’s Syrian physical-education teachers, who lived on the second floor above the courtyard. In that period at Saudi high schools and universities, it was common to find Syrian and Egyptian teachers, many of whom had become involved with dissident Islamist political groups in their home countries. Some of these teachers were members of, or were influenced by, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher, Hassan Al-Banna. The Brotherhood was initially a religious-minded movement opposed to British colonial rule in Egypt; later, its leaders continued their struggle against Nasser. In his approach to the Brotherhood, Nasser alternated between periods of accommodation and brutal crackdowns. Some of the Brotherhood’s organizers were forced into exile, and they began to form new chapters across the Muslim world. Their aim was to replace secular and nationalist Arab leaders with Islamic governments, and they often operated clandestinely. The movement typically recruited its members from elite, well-educated families. Its goals included the imposition throughout Muslim societies of Koranic law and the empowerment of Islamic scholars as cultural arbiters and dispensers of justice. Over the years, the Brotherhood operated both in the open and in secret, through peaceful political campaigning and through support for violence.
King Faisal regarded the Brotherhood with some suspicion; certainly, he and others in the royal family were wary of its penchant for political organizing across national boundaries. Still, in his campaign to outflank Nasser through appeals to Islam, Faisal found the Brotherhood’s exiled teachers a useful resource. He wished to see the Saudi population educated as rapidly as possible, and he had no indigenous teachers to rely upon. Brotherhood-influenced teachers were a significant grouping, particularly among those educators from Syria and Egypt.15
In recruiting candidates for his after-school Islamic study group, the Syrian physical-education teacher at Al-Thaghr appealed to five or six boys, enticing them with promises of extra credit and organized sports. The teacher was “tall, young, in his late twenties, very fit,” recalled a schoolmate of Osama’s who was also a member of the study group. “He had a beard—not a long beard like a mullah, however. He didn’t look like he was religious . . . He walked like an athlete, upright and confident. He was very popular. He was charismatic. He used humor, but it was planned humor, very reserved. He would plan some jokes to break the ice with us.16
“Some of us were athletes, some of us were not,” the schoolmate recalled of the group’s initial membership, which, besides Bin Laden, included the sons of several prominent Jeddah families. The Syrian “promised that if we stayed we could be part of a sports club, play soccer. I very much wanted to play soccer. So we began to stay after school with him from two o’clock until five. When it began, he explained that at the beginning of the session we would spend a little bit of time indoors at first, memorizing a few verses from the Koran each day, and then we would go play soccer. The idea was that if we memorized a few verses each day before soccer, by the time we finished high school we would have memorized the entire Koran, a special distinction.
“Osama was an honorable student,” the schoolmate remembered. “He kept to himself, but he was honest. If you brought a sandwich to school, people would often steal it as a joke and eat it for themselves if you left it on your desk. This was a common thing. We used to leave our valuables with Osama because he never cheated. He was sober, serious. He didn’t cheat or copy from others, but he didn’t hide his paper, either, if others wanted to look over his shoulder.”
At first, the study group proceeded as the teacher had promised. “We’d sit down, read a few verses of the Koran, translate or discuss how it should be interpreted, and many points of view would be offered. Then he’d send us out to the field. He had the key to the goodies—the lockers where the balls and athletic equipment were kept. But it turned out that the athletic part was just disorganized, an add-on. There was no organized soccer… I ended up playing a lot of one-on-one soccer, which is not very much fun.”
As time passed, the group spent more and more time inside. After about a year, Bin Laden’s schoolmate said, he began to feel trapped and bored, but by then the group had developed a sense of camaraderie, with Bin Laden emerging as one of its committed participants. Gradually, the teenagers stopped memorizing the Koran and began to read and discuss hadiths, interpretive stories of the life of the Prophet Mohamed, of varied provenance, which are normally studied to help illuminate the ideas imparted by the Koran. The after-school study sessions took place in the Syrian gym teacher’s room; he would light a candle on a table in the middle of the room, and the boys, including Osama, would sit on the floor and listen. The stories that the Syrian told were ambiguous as to time and place, the schoolmate recalled, and they were not explicitly set in the time of the Prophet, as are traditional hadiths. Increasingly the Syrian teacher told them “stories that were really violent,” the schoolmate remembered. “It was mesmerizing.”
The schoolmate said he could remember one in particular: It was a story “about a boy who found God—exactly like us, our age. He wanted to please God and he found that his father was standing in his way. The father was pulling the rug out from under him when he went to pray.” The Syrian “told the story slowly, but he was referring to ‘this brave boy’ or ‘this righteous boy’ as he moved toward the story’s climax. He explained that the father had a gun. He went through twenty minutes of the boy’s preparation, step by step—the bullets, loading the gun, making a plan. Finally, the boy shot the father.” As he recounted this climax, the Syrian declared, “Lord be praised—Islam was released in that home.” As the schoolmate recounted it, “I watched the other boys, fourteen-year-old boys, their mouths open. By the grace of God, I said ‘No’ to myself I had a feeling of anxiety. I began immediately to think of excuses and how I could avoid coming back.”
The next day, he stopped attending. But during the next several years, he watched as Osama and the others in his former group, who continued to study with the gym teacher, openly adopted the styles and convictions of teenage Islamic activists. They let their young beards grow, shortened their trouser legs, and declined to iron their shirts (ostensibly to imitate the style of the Prophet’s dress), and increasingly, they lectured or debated other students at Al-Thaghr about the urgent need to restore pure Islamic law across the Arab world.
10. The author visited Al-Thaghr twice, including once in the company of Osama’s schoolmate, who described in detail the school’s layout during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The schoolmate’s descriptions of the school were corroborated by the accounts of Fyfield-Shayler and Seamus O’Brien, two teachers there during this period.
11. Saudi funding DOS 59/906 Jeddah to Washington, November 17, 1966, reports on the Saudi national budget and cites a line item of 2.9 million riyals for “subsidy” to Al-Thaghr. Mohamed’s appearance at the school for fundraisers: Interview with Brian Fyfield-Shayler, February 23, 2007 (RS).
12. Kamal Adham’s discussions about the school with British authorities are described in DOS 59/2813 Jeddah to Washington, November 7,1962. The school uniform is from photographs and the memories of several former students.
13. These details and many that follow are drawn from a series of interviews with the schoolmate of Osama, who joined his after-school Islamic study group, and who asked not to be identified. The author conducted many discussions and interviews with the schoolmate over the course of two years, and is very grateful for his contributions. The authenticity of the schoolmate’s recollections, in the author’s judgment, is beyond reasonable doubt.
14. “I was trying . . . making mistakes”: Fyfield-Shayler quoted in Meeting Osama Bin Laden, WGBH, 2004. “extraordinarily courteous . . . other students”: The Osama Bin Laden I Know, pp. 8-9. “a nice fellow . . . run deep”: Interview with Seamus O’Brien, November 28, 2005. “in the middle”: From an interview with Ahmed Badeeb by Orbit Television in early 2002; a tape of the interview was provided by Badeeb to the author, who had it translated by a private firm, The Language Doctors, in Washington, D.C. From his unlikely beginnings as a biology teacher at Al-Thaghr, Badeeb became chief of staff to the director of Saudi intelligence, Turki Al-Faisal, a position that brought him into regular contact with Osama during the war in Afghanistan.
15. The Brotherhood’s influence in Saudi Arabia: Interviews with several Saudi analysts who asked not to be identified, and Saudi government consultant Khalil A. Khalil, February 10, 2005. Faisal’s skepticism: DOS 59/4944 Jeddah to Washington, May 5, 1959, reports on a meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Mecca and notes, “King Saud looks with favor upon the Brotherhood, but Crown Prince Faisal does not.” A dispatch the following day on the same subject reported that Saud “possibly contributes to its coffers” and that “Members of the Brotherhood are permitted to travel freely in and out of
16. See note 13. All quotations here and following are from the same schoolmate.