CAIRO, Egypt – Omar Osama bin Laden bears a striking resemblance to his notorious father – except for the dreadlocks that dangle halfway down his back. Then there’s the black leather biker jacket.
The 26-year-old does not renounce his father, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, but in an interview with the Associated Press, he said there is better way to defend Islam than militancy: Omar wants to be an “ambassador for peace” between Muslims and the West.
Omar – one of bin Laden’s 19 children – raised a tabloid storm last year when he married a 52-year-old British woman, Jane Felix-Browne, who took the name Zaina Alsabah. Now the couple say they want to be advocates, planning a 3,000-mile horse race across North Africa to draw attention to the cause of peace.
“It’s about changing the ideas of the Western mind. A lot of people think Arabs – especially the bin Ladens, especially the sons of Osama – are all terrorists. This is not the truth,” Omar told the AP last week at a cafe in a Cairo shopping mall.
Of course, many may have a hard time getting their mind around the idea of “bin Laden: peacenik.”
“Omar thinks he can be a negotiator,” said Alsabah, who is trying to bring her husband to Britain. “He’s one of the only people who can do this in the world.”
Omar lived with the al-Qaida leader in Sudan, then moved with him to Afghanistan in 1996.
There, Omar says he trained at an al-Qaida camp, but in 2000 he decided there must be another way, and he left his father, returning to his homeland of Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t want to be in that situation, to just fight. I like to find another way, and this other way may be like we do now, talking,” he said in English.
Although there is no way to confirm the details he describes of his childhood and upbringing, the strong family resemblance and Omar’s knowledge of Osama’s family life have convinced many of his lineage.
“Omar Bin Laden is the son of Osama bin Laden and his first wife, Najwa,” a U.S. intelligence official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The official confirmed Omar was raised in Sudan and Afghanistan after his father was forced out of Saudi Arabia.
Omar said he hasn’t seen or been in contact with his father since leaving Afghanistan. “He doesn’t have e-mail,” Omar said. “He doesn’t take a telephone … if he had something like this, they will find him through satellites.”
Omar doesn’t criticize his father and says Osama bin Laden is just trying to defend the Islamic world.
“My father thinks he will be good for defending the Arab people and stop anyone from hurting the Arab or Muslim people any place in the world,” he said, noting that the West didn’t have a problem with his father when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Omar is convinced a truce between the West and al-Qaida is possible.
At least two of Osama bin Laden’s sons, Hamza and Saad, are believed to have an active role in al-Qaida – with Hamza believed to be in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border zone and Saad thought to be in Iran, perhaps in Iranian custody.
But most of the al-Qaida leader’s children, like Omar, live as legitimate businessmen. The family as a whole disowned Osama in 1994 when Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship because of his militant activities.
The family is wealthy: Osama bin Laden’s billionaire father Mohammed, who died in 1967, had more than 50 children and founded the Binladen Group, a construction conglomerate that gets many major building contracts in the kingdom.
Since leaving his father’s side, Omar has lived in Saudi Arabia, where he runs a contracting company connected with the Binladen Group, but he spends much of his time in Egypt.