The question of whether Osama bin Laden has ever visited the United States, a subject on which I have expended an unhealthy amount of energy in the course of various journalistic and biographical research, has now seemingly been settled. Osama was here for two weeks in 1979, it seems, and he visited Indiana and Los Angeles, among other places. He had a favorable encounter with an American medical doctor; he also reportedly met in Los Angeles with his spiritual mentor of the time, the Palestinian radical Abdullah Azzam. All this is according to a forthcoming book by Osama’s first wife, Najwa Bin Laden, and his son Omar Bin Laden, to be published in the autumn by St. Martin’s Press.
First, some context for the book’s disclosures:
In the autumn of 2005, while conducting research in Saudi Arabia for the book that became “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century,” I met a Saudi journalist named Khaled Batarfi, who had been a neighbor and friend of Osama Bin Laden in their teenage years. During one of our interviews, Batarfi offered an account of Osama’s early travels—to London, to Africa on Safari, and to the United States—that was suggestive of a young man who had more direct experience of the West than was generally understood. Batarfi’s account of Osama’s American trip was particularly striking. In December of that year, I wrote a story for this magazine about the private high school Osama had attended in Jedda, and how he was first introduced to the tenets of radical Islamic politics. In that story, I also reported Batarfi’s on-the-record but unconfirmed account of Osama’s visit to America; Batarfi believed the travel had occurred not long before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979. U.S. customs and immigration records from the relevant period had been routinely destroyed—and so the question of whether Osama had personal experience of America, and what that experience might have been, remained elusive. (Bin Laden has never referred to any trip to this country in his writings or statements.) While I found Batarfi to be credible, a single-source account, based on hearsay, could hardly be regarded as satisfactory.
Over the next several years, I came across several other fragments suggesting that Batarfi was essentially correct—these bits of evidence included a published account by one of Osama’s workplace supervisors in Saudi Arabia reporting that Osama had once traveled to the United States, and more recently, an interview with Yassin Kadi in the Times in which Kadi recalled meeting Osama during the nineteen seventies in Chicago.
After the original 2005 interviews with Batarfi, I reported that
only one aspect of the journey made a particularly strong impression on bin Laden: On the way home, Osama and his wife were sitting in an airport lounge, waiting for their connecting flight. In keeping with their strict religious observance, his wife was dressed in a black abaya, a draping gown, as well as the full head covering often referred to as hijab. Other passengers in the airport “were staring at them,” Batarfi said, “and taking pictures.” When bin Laden returned to Jedda, he told people that the experience was like “being in a show.” By Batarfi’s account, bin Laden was not particularly bitter about all the stares and the photographs; rather, “he was joking about it.”
Batarfi had it right, it now seems. Here is Najwa’s forthcoming account of their journey, according to a bound galley of “Growing Up Bin Laden” provided by St. Martin’s Press.
One evening he [Osama] arrived home with a surprise announcement: ’Najwa, We are going to travel to the United States. Our boys are going with us.’I was shocked, to tell you the truth…Pregnant, and busy with two babies, I remember few details of our travel, other than we passed through London before flying to a place I had never heard of, a state in America called Indiana. Osama told me that he was meeting with a man by the name of Abdullah Azzam. Since my husband’s business was not my business, I did not ask questions.
I was worried about Abdul Rahman because he had become quite ill on the trip and was even suffering with a high fever. Osama arranged for us to see a doctor in Indianapolis. I relaxed after that kindly physician assured us that Abdul Rahman would soon be fine.
…I am sometimes questioned about my personal opinion of the country and its people. This is surprisingly difficult to answer. We were there for only two weeks, and for one of those weeks, Osama was away in Los Angeles to meet with some men in that city. The boys and I were left behind in Indiana with a girlfriend whom I would rather not name…
My girlfriend was gracious and guided me on short trips…We even went into a big shopping mall in Indianapolis…
I came to believe that Americans were gentle and nice, people easy to deal with. As far as the country itself goes, my husband and I did not hate America, yet we did not love it.
There was one incident that reminded me that some Americans are unaware of other cultures. When the time came for us to leave America, Osama and I, along with our two boys, waited for our departure at the airport in Indiana. I was sitting quietly in my chair, relaxing, grateful that our boys were quiet….
I saw an American man gawking at me. I knew without asking that his unwelcome attention had been snagged by my black Saudi costume…
I took a side glance at Osama and saw that he was intently studying the curious man. I knew that my husband would never allow the man to approach me…
When my husband and I discussed the incident, we were both more amused than offended. That man gave us a good laugh, as it was clear he had no knowledge of veiled women…
We returned to Saudi Arabia none the worse for our experiences.
Not a particularly consequential experience, perhaps, but surely one that has a life in Osama’s memory and imagination—and another indication, among many available in his life, that he should be understood not only as a self-isolating radical imbued with millenarian religious narratives, but also as a modern and globalized figure whose experiences and outlook belong very much to our age.