CAIRO, Egypt — President Bush doesn’t need to capture Osama bin Laden, he needs to talk to him, the terrorist leader’s son, Omar bin Laden, told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Tuesday.
Wearing a black, leather biker jacket, black polo shirt and faded blue jeans and with his long hair pulled back in tightly braided dreadlocks, Omar bin Laden, 26, spoke via satellite from Cairo with his 52-year-old British wife at his side. The fourth-oldest son of the world’s most wanted man has recently been in the media, saying he wants to use his name to be an “ambassador for peace” between Islam and the West. While he has renounced his father’s methods, he does not call him a terrorist.
“They do some meeting and talk together,” he said in heavily accented English of Bush and Osama bin Laden, suggesting that a meeting could be facilitated by other world political and religious leaders. “Find the middle ground between everybody – that’s my goal, to find it for every civilian people,” he said.
Lauer expressed profound doubt that George Bush would ever sit down at a conference table with the man who inspired the 9/11 attacks. But Omar bin Laden’s wife of one year, the former Jane Felix-Browne who is now known as Zaina Alsabah, compared the world’s most wanted man to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who over the course of 30 years went from a man held without trial by England to a member of Parliament.
“Gerry Adams was classed as a terrorist,” she said. “The IRA killed an awful lot of people. Yet, they talked. They sat down at a table and now Gerry Adams is an MP. Why can’t we get something like that with Osama?”
It is an imperfect analogy. Adams was a political leader of Irish Republicans; Osama bin Laden is an open sponsor of terrorism. And Adams has been involved in the political process for decades.
‘Peace isn’t going to come with bombs’
But, Zaina and Omar bin Laden said, the world would not necessarily be safer if Osama bin Laden were dead. At the same time, they do not know for sure that he is alive, Omar bin Laden last having seen or spoken to his father eight years ago, when he left an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan to pursue a career in business.
“There’s not going to be any peace unless people talk,” Zaina said. “Peace isn’t going to come with bombs. Peace isn’t going to come with fighting. To arrest Osama, it’s not going to solve anything. You take Osama bin Laden away, and what are you going to get? You might get something a hell of a lot worse. That’s what we’re afraid of.”
“The world has chance now to find new solution, to find new chance for peace because still my father alive,” Omar bin Laden said. “If my father die, there will be a lot of people say, ‘Now I am head of al-Qaida.’ You will find thousands of al-Qaida everywhere.”
He said he has been moved to speak out, “not for my father, not for President Bush, just for civilian people dying every day, some in Palestine, some in Iraq, some in Afghanistan. Why, why, why should civilian people die?”
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, he said there is a better way to defend Islam than al-Qaida’s militancy. He’s trying to organize 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 AP last Friday at a cafe in one of Cairo’s new shopping malls.
Trained at al-Qaida camp
Omar, the fourth eldest of Osama bin Laden’s 19 children, lived with his father in Sudan, then moved with him to Afghanistan when Khartoum forced out the al-Qaida leader in 1996.
Omar says he trained in Afghanistan at an al-Qaida camp, but in 2000 he decided there must be another way and he left his father, returning to his homeland 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. He suggested his father did not oppose his leaving — and Alsabah interjected that Omar was courageous in breaking away, but neither elaborated.
He 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.”
Sees father as defender of Muslims
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.
“My father is asking for a truce, but I don’t think there is any government (that) respects him. At the same time they do not respect him, why everywhere in the world, they want to fight him? There is a contradiction,” he said.
Osama bin Laden, believed to be in hiding in the Pakistan-Afghan border region, offered a truce to Europe in a 2004 audiotape and a conditional truce to the United States in a 2006 message. In November, he called on European nations to pull out of Afghanistan in a message seen by some experts as an effort to reach out to Europe.
But in a series of messages since last fall, he has also been calling for Muslims to rally around jihad, or “holy war,” encouraging fighters in Iraq in particular to continue their battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
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 operating in the Pakistan-Afghan border zone and Saad thought to be in Iran, perhaps in Iranian custody.
But most of his 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 a large and wealthy one — Osama bin Laden’s billionaire father Mohammed, who died in 1967, had more than 50 children and founded the Binladen Group, a sprawling construction conglomerate that is given many major building contracts in the kingdom.
Runs contracting company
Since leaving his father’s side, Omar has lived in Saudi Arabia, where he runs a contracting company connected with the Binladen Group, and he spends much of his time in Egypt. It was during a desert horseback ride at the Pyramids of Giza that he met his wife. The couple insist that they have had no problems with Egyptian security services. Egyptian security officials did not immediately respond for comment.
Their marriage in April made them tabloid fodder, particularly in Britain, where headlines touted the “granny who married Osama bin Laden’s son” — Alsabah, who has married five times, has five grandchildren. She and Omar had interviews with the British Broadcasting Corp. and other British media.
Now they have applied for a visa to Britain. And they are planning their endurance horse race across North Africa, which they hope to start in March. They admit they are still in the planning stages, seeking approval of governments along the route. They are also looking for sponsors to help pay for the event and raise money for child victims of war.
Doesn’t anticipate al-Qaida threats
Omar said they plan to ride 30 miles a day, with periodic weeklong rests in each country.
Teams from around the world will be encouraged to join in what the couple envision as an equine version of the famous Paris-Dakar car rally.
That rally was canceled this year because of fears over terrorist threats made by al-Qaida-affiliated groups in North Africa.
Omar, however, said he isn’t worried.
“I heard the rally was stopped because of al-Qaida,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to stop me.”
TODAY show contributor Mike Celizic and The Associated Press contributed to this article.