Jedda, Saudi Arabia | If a more robust after-school football program had been in place during Osama bin Laden‘s formative years, would violent jihad have seemed so attractive? The query poses itself in Steve Coll‘s New Yorker profile of the young Osama (Dec 12 cover date, also available online) as bin Laden gathers in the early 1970s with like-minded youth in an afternoon Islamic study group at Al Thagher Model School in Jedda. One of bin Laden’s schoolmates, who asked not to be identified, tells Coll that the attraction of the newly formed group—led by a Syrian physical-education teacher—was the prospect of playing organized football. “We’d sit down, read a few verses of the Koran, translate or discuss how it should be interpreted, and many points of view would be offered,” the classmate says, explaining how the group functioned in its early days.
Then he’d send us out to the field. He had the key to the goodies—the lockers where the balls and athletic equipment were kept. But it turned out that the athletic part of it was just disorganized, an add-on. There was no organized soccer. I ended up playing a lot of one-on-one soccer, which is not very much fun.
Bin Laden’s affection for football apparently was strong, demonstrated by his interest in London’s Arsenal (see Aug 5) and his involvement in youth soccer. Khaled Batarfi, a journalist and neighbor of bin Laden’s beginning in 1971, tells Coll that the two were teammates. “When he could, Batarfi said, he encouraged bin Laden to play forward, so that the tall youth could use his head to send balls into the opposing team’s goal.” Bin Laden graduated from Al Thagher in 1976, and his interest in playing football seems to have been replaced by other pursuits.