When Omar bin Laden feels depressed, he watches Unforgiven, that classic American Western film about a reformed outlaw, played by Clint Eastwood, who gives up the serenity of farming life for one last foray into his violent past. Otherwise he paints. Landscapes, mostly: desert scenes of the Nile by moonlight or the untamed American West; dead trees and cattle skulls and high, bald mesas.
The fourth-eldest son and heir apparent of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is the spitting image of his father. Even down the barrel of a smartphone camera, it’s easy to see that Omar inherited his dad’s powerful nose and his bold, swarthy eyes. But his artistic bent? That he got from his mother.
“Some of my mum's side of the family are very artistic,” Omar explains over WhatsApp. “My mum loves painting, and so does one of my sisters. My uncle was also a very good artist. So the need to draw and paint runs in my blood.”
Over the past 12 months he has painted more than a dozen original works, all of them completed in the style of art naif, with vibrant colours and flat, expressionistic brushstrokes. In one painting, he recreates the spiny mountains of Tora Bora, where his father went to hide in the wake of September 11, 2001. The peaks are jagged, like the teeth of a saw, and rendered in shades of furious red. In another, Omar’s favourite painting, he depicts the Arizona desert—some seven and a half thousand miles from his father’s mountaintop hideout—where a rustic cottage and stands of pale green cactus gather under a star-pinned sky.
All of his paintings carry a childlike simplicity, and perhaps unsurprisingly so. Speaking to Omar, one gets the impression that his work is a way to tap into the long lost tranquility of his distant youth, to go back to the beginning, before all the violence and bloodshed.
“I miss the fun times I had, the times when I was too young to know and too innocent to see the world around me,” he says, tellingly. “I miss the vast stretches of desert dunes and rolling seas. I miss the peace of childhood.”
The desert dunes and rolling seas of Omar’s childhood are to be found in Jeddah, a port city studding Saudi Arabia’s western coast. As a boy, he spent his early years ricocheting between a tiny apartment in the city’s centre and the wide-open country of the bin Laden family farm, where his father kept horses, goats, and gazelles. It was from a young age that he demonstrated a penchant for painting.
Omar remembers that when he was 7 he would draw “beautiful pictures” of Osama’s horses, and holds on to one particularly cherished memory of the time his school decided to hang one of his pictures on the wall of the classroom—what he describes as “the only happy moment” he can recall.
But the nostalgia belongs to just a wrinkle in time. Within two years, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and Osama, convinced that he would need to protect Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi forces, had converted the family farm into a military base. Within three years, after falling out with the Saudis themselves, the bin Laden family had migrated to Sudan.
It was in the spider-webbing crossfire of geopolitical conflict that Omar grew into adolescence, spending his early teenage years shadowing his father around the Sudanese city of Khartoum and his later teenage years shadowing his father through the valleys, foothills, and war zones of Afghanistan. Omar was 15 when he was taken to al Qaeda’s training camps near Tora Bora to prepare for battle against the infidel armies of the West; 16 when he was taken to the bullet-riddled front lines of the Afghan civil war.
He admits, and not without a pang of sadness, that he was never particularly close to his father. Far from a paragon of parenthood, Osama was an austere patriarch who deprived his sons of toys, beat them regularly, and would later try to persuade them to volunteer for suicide missions. His troops subjected the children’s pets to fatal poison gas experiments, and if Omar or any of his siblings complained about symptoms of asthma, they’d be told to suck on a piece of honeycomb or an onion. But it was in the fiery crucible of his adolescence that Omar’s steadfast support of his father truly began to yield.
He remembers a pivotal turning point, during the civil war, when he was pinned down by sniper fire on a mountain trail in Afghanistan. Territorial skirmishes between the Taliban and the country’s Northern Alliance had become messy and confused, and each side had at different turns fired on their own ranks when their soldiers failed to distinguish between friend and foe. There seemed to be no clearly discernible difference—and at one point, a friendly soldier told Omar over the radio that if he saw him on the disputed land, he would not hesitate to follow orders and gun him down. It was there, on that mountain trail, with the sniper’s bullets smacking into the hillside around him, that Omar realised the folly of war.
He was 18 when he finally decided to abandon the al Qaeda mission and travel with his mother to Syria. The last time he saw Osama was at his compound in Afghanistan in 2001. Omar was 20 and living back in Saudi Arabia when two passenger airliners crashed into the North and South towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. And shortly after the events of the September 11 attacks, Osama fled to his military base in the cave-sieved mountains of Tora Bora—those same rugged peaks that his son would daub onto a piece of canvas, in blood-red acrylic, almost two decades later.
Omar, now 39, has repeatedly condemned the September 11 attacks over the past 20 years—expressing a terrible sorrow for the thousands of victims who lost their lives and denouncing Al Qaeda for the wanton slaughter of innocent civilians. He rejects his father’s violent ideologies, and though he has never shied away from his family name, he has long since sought to distance himself from its savage implications.
“A lot of people think Arabs—especially the bin Ladens, especially the sons of Osama—are all terrorists,” Omar told The Associated Press in 2008. “This is not the truth.”
He wanted to become an “ambassador for peace”, he added, and try to make up for what he called his father’s “big mistake”. A colossal undertaking, to be sure. But even though he may never fully rid himself of Osama bin Laden’s blood-soaked legacy—even as he wrestles with PTSS, bipolar disorder and the psychological scars of his upbringing—Omar now claims to have finally achieved some semblance of peace within himself.
A peace that comes, in no small part, from painting.
“I want the world to learn that I have grown; that I am comfortable within myself for the first time in my life; that the past is the past and one must learn to live with what has gone by,” he says. “One must forgive if not forget, so that one may be at peace with one’s emotions.”
Omar lives in Normandy now, where the French countryside fringes the English Channel, with his wife Zaina Mohamed Al-Sabah and a small team of horses. These are his loves: his wife, his steeds and his newly-discovered artistic streak.
Zaina too has a passion for art. Omar recalls that shortly after they met in 2006, the two of them would spend hours drawing and playing around with Photoshop, creating images on the computer. Such hobbies gradually fell by the wayside as other things took priority in their lives. But when COVID-19 plunged Europe into state-sanctioned lockdown, Zaina staved off boredom in the same way as countless others around the world: by reengaging her creative side. She started drawing buildings and houses to pass the time and, eventually, she suggested that Omar should try painting.
“We trawled art shops for supplies and, although sparse because of isolation, we managed to find all I needed,” he recalls. “From that day I sat in my art studio and painted from my heart.”
Omar bin Laden’s artistic inspiration is drawn from his surroundings: his wife and friends; the peace he feels when riding on horseback or watching the river as it sidles past his home. It’s clear from his work that Omar has an abiding appreciation for nature. But while the pastoral country scenes apparently remind him of “the beautiful place” where he now lives, others invoke something less bucolic.
When asked about the melancholia on display in some of his paintings, and where that comes from, Omar says “I am sad at the way the world has changed since I was a child; I see the sadness in the eyes of others; I feel the pain that they feel … I see the loneliness and distress caused by famine and war; I see and feel the hurt caused by violence.”
This is the dual function of Omar’s art: a way for him to crystallise the serenity of his childhood in Saudi Arabia and his new life in France, while at the same time grappling with the trauma of everything that happened in between. Notably, this struggle is often backdropped against the scenery of the American West—an ironic flourish, given Osama’s acrimony towards that particular part of the world.
Omar has never been to the United States of America, and growing up his perception of that distant country must have undoubtedly been shaped by his father, who once described America as “the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind”. Seeing Omar’s paintings and hearing him talk, though, it’s clear that his understanding has also been informed by other things: the romantic warblings of country and western music, for example, which he first heard as a teenager in Afghanistan while scanning the radio for sounds of the outside world; or the fanciful imaginings of his favourite Hollywood movies.
“I like old Western films,” he says, and then elaborates: “I respect cowboys. I love cowboy dignity.”
The myth of the cowboy is a quintessentially American one, although it must surely resonate with the son of Osama bin Laden—the story of the “noble” renegade who takes what he wants and uses violence as a means to accomplish his own ends. There is no better archetype for it than Omar’s beloved Clint Eastwood. But Unforgiven, one of his favourite Western films, is also a subversion of that myth: a film that sets out to delegitimize “cowboy dignity” and challenge the stories we tell ourselves about the glory of violence and war.
As film critic Brian Eggert points out: “everything about Unforgiven’s plot … reflects a reverse image of classical Western tropes … Rugged gunslingers are exposed as cowards and weaklings and liars, while others find they have outlived any desire to take another man’s life … Our self-reflecting protagonist resists his once violent ways only to become a cold-blooded killer again, suggesting that a Western hero is not necessarily ‘the good guy’, rather just the one who survived.”
The same could be said of Omar: the one who survived; the horse-loving cowboy who strives against the tides of history to be the “good guy”; the retired gunslinger who keeps returning, obsessively, to the transient dream of a wild American west, where men have dignity and are free to carve out their own destinies. Or it could be said of Osama: the cold-blooded killer with whom Omar’s actual destiny is irrevocably entangled.
Omar will always be his father’s son. The past is the past, as he put it, and one must learn to live with what has gone by. Art has helped him do that. Painting, he says, helps him gain peace within and transports him into “the world of dreams and imagination”. It offers not only a means of escape—to the innocence of his childhood; to the wide American plains of his dreams—but also a process for healing.
In one artwork, titled ‘The Light’, he has painted a black highway that plunges off toward an illuminated horizon. The median lines draw the eye towards that horizon, over the hill where the road disappears and a radiant white light emanates from an unseen source. It is perhaps Omar’s darkest work. It is also his most symbolic.
“I think I’m trying to find some light at the end of this dark road,” he says, ponderously. “I hope painting will open the light in my life again.”