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Osama bin Laden in the United States

When the Future Terrorist Visited Indiana and Los Angeles in 1978

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Years before bombing the city, when he was a young newlywed, Osama bin Laden may have transited through a New York airport during a 1978 visit to the United States, when he visited Indiana and Los Angeles.

Carlos Latuff / Wikemedia Commons
In December 2005 The New Yorker's Steve Coll (one of the least flashy and best informed reporters on the Middle East) wrote a tantalizing article about Osama bin Laden's visit to the United States in 1978. Coll wasn't absolutely certain that bin Laden had visited. He based his account on an interview with Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi journalist who, Coll wrote recently, "had been a neighbor and friend of Osama Bin Laden in their teenage years."

A Medical Necessity?

According to Batarfi, the trip to America came about

because bin Laden’s first child, a son named Abdullah, who was born in about 1976, had a medical problem—apparently cosmetic. Bin Laden, his wife, and his toddler son traveled together to the United States for treatment, Batarfi said, although he is not certain where the procedure took place. By his account, 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.”
This would have been immediately before bin Laden went to Afghanistan to join, then lead, the Arab jihad against the Soviet occupation. It could very well be that the trip to the United States had some influence on his decision, now that Coll's original reporting is being confirmed, with additional details, in a book written by bin Laden's first wife, Najwa bin Laden, who accompanied him on the trip to the United States. Najwa bin Laden married Osama when she was 15. The couple had seven daughters and four sons together before she divorced him. The book, Growing Up bin Laden, is to be published in October by St. Martins Press.

The Azzam-Afghanistan Connection

Najwa bin laden confirms that Osama traveled to Indiana and to Los Angeles. She was with him in Indiana, where he left her to go to Los Angeles "to meet with some men in that city."

Some men: Among them was Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian "warrior priest," in Lawrence Wright's phrase, whose slogan was "Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogue." What Azzam was doing in Los Angeles is not clear.

But it was Azzam who almost single-handedly institutionalized the Arab resistance movement in Afghanistan (as opposed to the more authentic but more fragmented Afghan resistance movement) after moving to Pakistan in 1981. Azzam was a close friend of Osama's, who considered Azzam a mentor. Azzam welcomed bin Laden's money and wide network of wealth and influence. Azzam took advantage of it all, eventually drawing bin Laden to join him. Azzam was assassinated on Nov. 24, 1989, not long after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Not Quite Loving America

As for the bin Ladens in the United States? "I came to believe that Americans were gentle and nice," Najwa writes, "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." She does not give a hint about Osama's whereabouts.

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