The Truth About The Woman Who Raised Osama Bin Laden

History has its villains, and some of them are so wicked we forget that they're people. The details of their life dissolve. In their place, our imagination creates an operetta villain or an abstraction. So Jack the Ripper, a man of nauseating perversion and misogyny, becomes the dashing, elegant Edwardian of movies, twirling his cane around Whitechapel; Hitler becomes a rhetorical device; middle-class, millennial women have created a kind of fandom around serial killers and other criminals in the form of true crime podcasts (per Vogue India).

Osama Bin Laden, founder of the terrorist group al-Qaeda and architect of the September 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center, inspired so much fear and hatred that when the U.S. Navy finally killed him in a raid, the New York Daily News ran a full-page headline: "ROT IN HELL!"

It's hard to imagine Bin Laden as more than a menacing, turbaned face in the newspaper. It's even harder to imagine his personal life: his fondness for horses, his love of soccer (an Arsenal fan and a natural center-forward, according to The Week), his complicated family life. This last aspect of his life, his family, is the most obscure. Who raised Osama Bin Laden? When did the child become a mass murderer?

The mother of a mass killer

Osama Bin Laden was born in 1957 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, according to the BBC. Around 1960 his parents separated — his dad would go on to father 54 children between his various wives. Osama remained with his mother, Alia Ghanem. Ghanem, who sat for a Guardian profile in 2018, remarried one Muhammad al-Attas, who raised her three boys with her. 

Ghanem had married into the Bin Laden family, a pillar of the Saudi upper class. But she was not Saudi by origin. She was a Syrian, from the port of Latakia. Curiously, she had been brought up as an Alawite, described in Britannica as a Levantine, Shia Muslim sect whose secret rites would make them heretics in the eyes of radical Salafi Muslims like her son. That religious dispute seems not to have troubled Osama, who invited her and their family to Kandahar, Afghanistan in the 1990s, where he took them on tours of the city and hosted banquets in their honor. 

The good boy and the jihadist

Ghanem told The Guardian that she "was shocked, stunned," when news of September 11 broke. "It was a very strange feeling. We knew from the beginning [that it was Osama], within the first 48 hours. From the youngest to the eldest, we all felt ashamed of him."

But a mother's love is stubborn. "My life was very difficult because he was so far away from me," she told The Guardian. "He was a very good kid and he loved me so much."

Ghanem blamed radical Islamists at Jeddah University, where Osama studied economics, for turning her son from a shy, good kid into a murderer. She apparently told him time and again to stay away from figures like Abdullah Azzam, a member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Ghanem said she felt like her son, an impressionable student, was being "brainwashed." According to Ghanem, Osama could never bring himself to admit to her what he was getting up to with his new friends. In 1979, when he was 22, he would fly to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets as a volunteer. The familiar grim, turbaned Bin Laden emerged from that war.

One of Bin Laden's brothers would tell The Guardian that Ghanem "remains in denial about Osama ... She loved him so much and refuses to blame him. Instead, she blames those around him. She only knows the good boy side, the side we all saw. She never got to know the jihadist side."