JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA—With rumors swirling about Osama bin Laden's possible death from typhoid fever in Pakistan, Hamida al-Attas, the al-Qaeda leader's mother, said she is "worried sick" about her son and wished that he would send "some sort of sign" that he is alive.
"I can't sleep at night not knowing where he is," said al-Attas, clutching a framed eighth-grade school portrait of bin Laden in the living room of her Jeddah home.
"He could be dead in a ditch somewhere and I would have no idea," al-Attas added.
The fact that al-Qaeda has not staged a major attack in over a year, coupled with the new rumors of bin Laden's death, have increased al-Attas's anxiety over the whereabouts and welfare of her son.
"It's like he disappeared off the face of the earth," al-Attas said. "All I ever see of him is the occasional grainy videotape, and he looks so skinny, I'd hardly recognize my own son if it weren't verified by the CIA. I just hope he's taking care of himself."
Saying "it's a mother's right" to know her child's whereabouts, al-Attas admitted the only time her mind is put at ease is when her son occasionlly checks in with acts of terror such as the Bali nightclub bombing, the Madrid train bombings, and last year's London subway attacks. "I wish [Osama] would understand the pain he causes me, the worry," al-Attas said. "Doesn't he know that his actions can affect others?"
"For his dear mother's sake, I wish he'd carry out an attack," al-Attas continued. "Just so I know he's all right."
Instead, al-Attas said she is left to torment herself with dozens of conceivable scenarios of bin Laden's fate. "What if an elite group of Delta Force assassins ambushed him in a remote Pakistani mountain pass?" said al-Attas, wringing her hands at her kitchen table. "What if some unscrupulous local informant revealed his hidden location? What if he slept in one of those dirty hotel comforters I saw on the news that are covered in germs? No mother should have to go through this with her son."
Even if bin Laden is alive, his "neglectful" appearance gives al-Attas no less reason to worry about his state. "If I know my Osama, his [cave] is a shambles," said al-Attas, who noted that his beard was "getting a little out of hand" in the last photos she saw of him, and that his fatigues and Afghan-style headdress "didn't look warm enough." "When he's on his own, he doesn't look after himself properly. I can't tell you how many times his father and I have gotten on him about that. But I guess he's always been stubborn."
"It's only because I love him so much," she added.
Admitting that bin Laden was no longer "the nice boy who'd come home from al-Thager Model School all eager to tell me about his day," al-Attas said she regretted the fact that he has not been a part of the extended family in so long. "Since he never gets to the yearly reunions, I bet he doesn't even know that his 14th half-sister [Iftikar] just had a baby," al-Attas said. "His younger cousins would love to spend some time with him, but they wouldn't even know what he looked like if it wasn't for all those propaganda posters."
Although al-Attas said she realizes bin Laden is busy, and understands his line of work requires focus and constant travel, the fretful mother said, "I just wish he would pick up a phone every once in a while" between meetings to let her know he is all right.
"My friends tell me that he's a big boy, and that he can take care of himself," al-Attas said. "But it's all I can do not to rush out and scour the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan myself."
"He could be Allah knows where doing Allah knows what," she added.
Al-Attas has even contemplated releasing a videotape of her own urging bin Laden to let her know he's alive, and to tell her whether he is wearing the mukluks she sent him in 2002.
But whatever trouble he may be in, al-Attas said she hoped bin Laden knew that he would "always be my baby" and that "he can always come home."
"I can't imagine a world without him," al-Attas added.