One day in Afghanistan in the late 1990s Osama bin Laden gathered several of his sons and told them he had pinned up a note at a mosque seeking volunteers to be suicide bombers.
With anticipation “shining in his eyes,” one of the sons later wrote, he seemed to be suggesting his children should add their own names to the list of the willing.
When the son, Omar, protested, the quietly spoken al-Qaeda leader replied: “You should know you hold no more of a place in my heart than any other man or boy in the entire country.”
The incident, told in a memoir by Omar and his mother, Najwa, is hard to corroborate for obvious reasons. However, it chimes with other accounts of bin Laden’s obsession with self-sacrifice and of his devotion to his men, a loyalty fiercely reciprocated.
In the wake of his death in a US raid in Pakistan, those loyalties are more than ever an international security concern, with many nations now on alert for revenge attacks by al-Qaeda activists enraged by the loss of their inspirational figurehead.
While many of the men who once fought for him are now dead or in captivity, others remain at large, some occupying senior positions in the organization.
And however hard it is for outsiders to understand the appeal of a leader who spoke so readily of his desire to kill those who did not share his religion or ideas, bin Laden had personal qualities that will continue to inspire his closest followers and by implication continue to menace the West.
Those qualities seem to have included a record of good manners, piety, generosity with his inherited wealth and a perceived disdain for luxury — qualities experts say he cultivated in imitation of the humility and austerity practiced by the Prophet Mohammed.
As a son growing up in an al--Qaeda camp, Omar was frustrated by the limits his father’s devotion to his fighters imposed on his family responsibilities, according to last year’s memoir, Growing up Bin Laden, written by US author Jean Sasson.
“Gaining private time with my father was difficult, for he was always surrounded by his loyal men, men who reeked with desire to hover closely,” he wrote.
US officials have sought to challenge some of the elements of the bin Laden image that had such appeal for some fellow Muslims by suggesting, for example, that he lived in some luxury and died a less than heroic death.
Bin Laden’s fourth-eldest son, Omar bin Laden, broke with his father in early 2001 on leaving Afghanistan for the last time.
One measure of the depth of al-Qaeda loyalties is available on the online chat rooms where a small but passionate community of militant sympathizers issues anguished calls for vengeance.
Another is to speak to former bin Laden associates who detest the violence al-Qaeda perpetrated, but are nonetheless somewhat conflicted about his death on a human level.
One is Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who visited bin Laden in a mud hut in 2000 where, with some of bin Laden’s children playing barefoot nearby, he made a failed attempt to persuade bin Laden to give up his campaign.
“It’s a mixture of feelings. Any loss of human life is significant,” he said of his reaction to bin Laden’s death.
“Bin Laden’s lifestyle, his humility, form part of the core of the al-Qaeda narrative. ‘He gave up his life for the cause.’ He will become a jihadi saint for the 21st century.”