Media Literacy: Osama bin Laden not pictured

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TLDRUpFront: A commonly circulated photo purports to show a young Osama bin Laden vacationing in Sweden. By digging into the provenance and biographical details disputing this claim we learn more about him, about media literacy, and crayons.


Left: Badly colorized image of bin Laden family. Right: Original sans crayola effects.


Ever see this picture before? Ever read the caption that astonishingly asserts that this is a picture of the Bin-Laden family vacationing in 1971 and that, second on the right in the blue pants with the green shirt is a smiling Osama bin Laden?

Well don’t worry. It’s not him.

Although there are many sites that go over the provenance of the photograph itself, where it was taken, and who took it, when you dig deep enough all the assertions come from a single source, a hotel worker at the Astoria where the Bin Laden’s visited. That hotel worker asserts that Mohammed bin Laden brought his family to vacation on a business trip while he visited a Volvo plant and she swears, 30 years after the fact, that that one on the far right is in fact Osama bin Laden. The problems with this story?

First – the picture has been colorized after it was taken. I’ve attached the black and white original so we know the funky colors are not authentic.

Second – Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, so in 1971 he’d be 14-15. Now maybe OBL was a late bloomer, but as an adult he was always noted as being the “tall Arab”, standing at somewhere between 6’2″ and 6’4″. In which case he’d probably at that age be noticeably towering over that car as well as his relatives.

Third – Mohamed bin Laden had many wives, and they were grouped in order of prominence as Saudi wives, Syrian wives, Egyptian wives, and Lebanese wives. Osama bin Laden’s mother Hamida was a Syrian, so not in the prominent circle of Saudi wives, and Osama was the 17th child, so not exceptionally notable in family rankings. Hamida was divorced by Mohammed bin Laden shortly after Osama’s birth. She remarried (given away technically) to Mohammed al-Atas, a business associate of Mohammed bin Laden. Osama was raised with step-brothers and sisters, not his original biological family. That doesn’t preclude him from traveling with the bin-Laded brood except…

Fourth – Osama had been accepted into the prestigious Al-Thager model school and while there was beginning to become radicalized: “At the age of 14, Osama…received a personal invitation to join a small Islamic study group with the promise of earning extra credit…The teacher who educated the children, influenced in part by a sect of Islam called The Brotherhood, began instructing his pupils in the importance of instituting a pure, Islamic law around the Arab world. Using parables with often-violent endings, their teacher explained that the most loyal observers of Islam would institute the holy word—even if it meant supporting death and destruction. By the second year of their studies, Osama and his friends had openly adopted the attitude and styles of teen Islamic activists. They preached the importance of instituting a pure Islamic law at Al Thagher; grew untrimmed beards; and wore shorter pants and wrinkled shirts in imitation of the Prophet’s dress.”

Now it’s possible that this picture could’ve been taken before Osama changed his dress and facial hair, the dating of the two incidents are not precise enough to say for sure. But it seems unlikely that a radicalized Osama would shave his face and don hipster 70’s clothing to pose in a very westernized consumption-focused picture in front of a Cadillac.

And fifth – the assertion that Mohammed bin Laden had brought his family to Sweden? Problem? Mohammed bin Laden died in a plane crash in 1967, 4 years before this was taken. Instead, it is more likely that Salem bin Laden (Mohammed’s eldest son, half-brother of Osama, and executor of his father’s holdings) was the one who went to Volvo and brought his immediate biological brothers, sisters, and/or children – and not half-brothers (which at this point numbered in the several dozen).

So although it’s possible that Osama, whom had never been raised with the bin Ladin children and was the son of a lesser-ranked already divorced wife joined his half-brother Salem bin Laden on a trip to a Volvo plant in Sweden, and its possible he was ridiculously short for his age and grew 2′ 6″ in his late adolescence and that despite being radicalized and changing both his facial hair and dress to appear in western garb…possible…but not very likely.