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Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the national bestseller Ghost Wars, Steve Coll presents the story of the Bin Laden family’s rise to power and privilege, revealing new information to show how American influences changed the family and how one member’s rebellion changed America.
The rise and rise of the Bin Laden family is one of the great stories of the twentieth century; its repercussions have already deeply marked the twenty-first. Until now, however, it is a story that has never been fully told, as the Bin Ladens have successfully fended off attempts to understand the family circles from which Osama sprang. In this the family has been abetted by the kingdom it calls home, Saudi Arabia, one of the most closed societies on earth.
Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century is the groundbreaking history of a family and its fortune. It chronicles a young illiterate Yemeni bricklayer, Mohamed Bin Laden, who went to the new, oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia and quickly became a vital figure in its development, building great mosques and highways and making himself and many of his children millionaires. It is also a story of the Saudi royal family, whom the Bin Ladens served loyally and without whose capricious favor they would have been nothing. And it is a story of tensions and contradictions in a country founded on extreme religious purity, which then became awash in oil money and dazzled by the temptations of the West. In only two generations the Bin Ladens moved from a famine-stricken desert canyon to luxury jets, yachts, and private compounds around the world, even going into business with Hollywood celebrities. These religious and cultural gyrations resulted in everything from enthusiasm for America -- exemplified by Osama’s free-living pilot brother Salem -- to an overwhelming determination to destroy it.
The Bin Ladens is a meticulously researched, colorful, shocking, entertaining, and disturbing narrative of global integration and its limitations. It encapsulates the unsettling contradictions of globalization in the story of a single family who has used money, mobility, and technology to dramatically varied ends.
Saturday, Mar. 15, 2008
A sprawling, fascinating account of America’s declared No. 1 enemy, his far-flung family and the astonishing number of influential Americans who live within that family’s orbit.
Salem Bin Laden loved American pop music and films. For many years he kept a kind of “rolling intercontinental party” that would be interrupted only when he called up one of his fleet of jets and ran off to do business, whether meeting with Brooke Shields in Hollywood or the king of Saudi Arabia at home or in some foreign venue. So writes New Yorker staff writer and two-time Pulitzer winner Coll (Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, 2004, etc.), who finds Salem involved in countless other ventures around the world, from telecommunications to construction to arms-dealing (at least enough of the last to get tangled up in the Iran-Contra Affair). In addition, Salem’s siblings owned real estate across America, from apartment complexes to an airport; funded presidential races, favoring the GOP; and enjoyed friendships with British royalty and the American elite. “In both a literal and a cultural sense,” Coll observes, “the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama declared war.” Even so, the relationship was shaded and complex. The über-patriarch of the family was a Yemeni who worked doggedly to build a fortune in Saudi Arabia. He then branched into Palestine, only to be displaced by the victorious Israeli government at the time of the 1967 war, which surely contributed to then-ten-year-old Osama’s later views. Mohamed Bin Laden returned from East Jerusalem to find himself in a strained relationship with the Saudi royal family, perhaps because he was glacially slow to deliver on huge public-works contracts. This, too, may have led to his offspring’s views, and it cannot have helped that Salem died in a plane crash in America, just as Mohamed died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot. “Bush’s ill-considered use of the word ‘Crusade’ to describe America’s response to September 11” couldn’t have helped either.
The makings of a villain, shaped in many ways by the culture he came to revile. Urgent and important reading. -- Melanie Jackson
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2008
One of the many conspiracy theories surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, is some inchoate suspicion about the request the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., made to fly out Saudi citizens and members of the Bin Laden family in the days after the attack. That Osama Bin Laden’s relatives were among those asking to get out of the United States and that the government let them go is seen as some sort of indicator of a hidden hand, secrets, evil deeds. Who let them go?
I did. When the embassy request came to me as the White House crisis manager, it seemed understandable that these people might think themselves at risk after disclosures that almost all of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis. I had arranged evacuation flights for Americans from crisis zones many times when I thought they might be at risk. So I approved the request on condition that the FBI sign off on the Saudi flights and everyone on them. The FBI did not want to interview any of the passengers then and has not asked to interview them since. Why wouldn’t the bureau want to investigate what the Bin Ladens were doing here?
Perhaps, because they already knew. The US government did not learn of their presence here only after 9/11. In fact, Bin Ladens had been in the United States for decades, not plotting to blow things up, but usually trying to buy things up.
As Steve Coll describes in detail in ‘‘The Bin Ladens,’’ it is one really big family. And a fascinating one. The leader, Osama’s father, has well over 100 direct descendants, including 54 children and an ever-growing number of grandchildren. Before we conclude that the father was some sort of deviant, we need to place the family in context. On the Arabian peninsula in that generation, it was common for a successful Muslim man to have four wives at a time, and perhaps twice that number in a lifetime. An Arab friend admitted to me sheepishly that he could not name and identify all of his 20 brothers at a recent family gathering. ‘‘You tend to really know only your full siblings, the ones who grew up in your house with your mother.’’ Many Americans with many stepbrothers and half sisters, products of divorces, likely can identify.
Thus, it is not really surprising that Coll finds most of Osama Bin Laden’s siblings never really knew him. They were too busy trying to make and spend large sums of money.
The story of this family is one of hard work, resulting eventually in vast wealth and a very different lifestyle than patriarch Mohamed Bin Laden knew growing up in the hardscrabble land of Yemen. Mohamed left his native land as a young man to seek work in neighboring Saudi Arabia. What he stumbled on to, then nurtured, was a role as the builder for the royal family. His little construction company did well at projects for them, and they rewarded him with more. When the Al-Saud family became cash strapped at one point before the great oil wealth, Mohamed amazingly loaned them money. When later the Al-Sauds became among the wealthiest people on earth, they rewarded Bin Laden Construction with endless no-bid projects to build infrastructure in a country that had almost none. Soon there were airports and highways and shopping malls, and rich profits for the builder.
Most of Mohamed’s children bought in to capitalism in a big way, studying law and business at American universities, starting companies, doing deals. Many studied at Boston-area colleges. Coll recounts how one Harvard Law School student was getting a latte at a Cambridge Starbucks when he learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. He was Osama’s brother Abdullah. Another brother, Khalid, had invested in buying correctional facilities in the Commonwealth as part of a privatization push. Other siblings owned condos in Cambridge and on the harbor.
Coll’s account of this family reflects what happened to a whole transitional generation of elites on the Arabian peninsula. Suddenly oil rich, most of them embraced Western values. They studied in America, became talented businessmen and entrepreneurs at a young age, and significantly increased their inherited wealth. But others rejected that path and sought to find meaning for their lives in their cultural past, through religion, and in the fringe politics of pseudo-religious cults. Osama Bin Laden obviously chose this course and was not steered away by a distant father. Nor did the eldest half brother, whom Osama admired, succeed in correcting his ways. The leader of the Bin Laden siblings died young in an ultra-light-aircraft crash in Texas.
Airplanes and their role in the life of the family Bin Laden form a leitmotif in Coll’s account. He seems fascinated that so many of Osama’s brothers and sisters were pilots, but draws no conclusions. He also notes that growing up in a construction firm, Osama saw a lot of older buildings destroyed, but leaves that thought hanging. He tells us of the frustrating work that I and others did tracing the family’s money, but does not add to what was already publicly known from such sources as a book by Osama’s former sister-in-law. Nor does Coll clear up the rumors that the Bin Ladens had indirectly invested in a venture run at the time by the man who is now president of the United States. In sum, there are no really new insights in Steve Coll’s many details, but there is a window into the two very different paths that a generation of Gulf Arab families have to choose between. We need to understand that tension in their families because the path they select can greatly affect the future of our families.
-- Richard A. Clarke
The Washington Post
Sunday, Mar. 30, 2008
Change the names and locations, and Steve Coll's marvelous book about the bin Laden family would begin like a familiar American saga. An illiterate youth arrives in a land of opportunity from his impoverished homeland and, by dint of ambition, talent and hard work, becomes immensely rich and powerful. He collects properties, airplanes, luxury cars and women -- tastes he passes on to his sons. He earns a niche in the pantheon of great builders of his adopted country.
The youth is Mohamed bin Laden, justly venerated in Saudi Arabia. But collective memory plays funny tricks, and in the West he will be permanently remembered as the father of Osama. The bin Ladens, though their Horatio Alger story overlaps Western experience, emerge as unmistakably Middle Eastern -- to the point of being torn asunder by today's religious struggles. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former Washington Post managing editor, leaves the psychology to his readers. He prefers writing on economics and politics, leavening them with anecdotes and gossip; the result is a fascinating panorama of a great family, presented within the context of the 9/11 drama.
Blind in one eye, not quite 30, Mohamed bin Laden emigrated from Yemen between the world wars, just as the Saudi oil boom was getting underway, and found a job as a bricklayer with Aramco, the Arabian American oil company. More than a good worker, he was an organizer, with an innate sense of business and engineering, and in 1935 he was helped by his employer to set up his own firm. Successful in building homes for princes, he won the notice of the king and erected one of the first royal residences. From there he advanced to the luxury palaces for which the ruling House of Saud is known, then to creation of the country's road network. He renovated the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, and went off to restore Jerusalem's Mosque of Omar. He also built military installations to assure the Saud dynasty's security.
Like the Saudi royals, Mohamed bin Laden was rigorous in prayer but liberal in interpreting the Koran's sexual strictures. He married countless times, occasionally for business reasons, often out of whimsy, sometimes to women he kept with him, usually to women he legally divorced. In 1958 alone, his wives gave birth to seven children, among them Osama, whose mother was a 15-year-old Syrian from whom Mohamed quickly split. He fathered at least 54 offspring before he died in 1967, in a plane crash during the inspection of a construction site in the desert.
Although he acquired his children casually, Mohamed took his responsibility to them seriously. It was impossible to calculate his net worth, Coll writes, given the indifference to financial management in Saudi Arabia; the royal family alone may have owed him $100 million, which it would pay at its pleasure. But, following Islamic law, he willed each of his 25 sons 2.7 percent of his company's assets, while each daughter received 1 percent. These bequests assured them the means to finish their education and live comfortably, with a small surplus to help out their divorced mothers, who under Islamic law received nothing.
Still, contrary to popular notions, the bin Laden heirs were not born hugely rich. Most of the males went to work in the family company, where they gradually built fortunes. Osama, Coll writes, was an exception in dedicating much of his money to Islamic political causes. But even his personal wealth, Coll says, fell far short of paying for the terrorist network he later founded. For that, he had to raise funds among true believers within the wider Islamic world.
Though never estranged from his family, Osama grew up in a separate household in Jeddah, with a stepfather whom Mohamed chose. From time to time, he journeyed to Syria for visits with his mother's kin. Coll's interviews with family members and classmates paint him as an unusually timid boy, but otherwise quite average. After Mohamed's death, he was enrolled in a good private school -- English in academics, Saudi in religious orientation. In his teens, he supplemented his studies with religious instruction and gravitated to membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that was then spreading through Arab society, promoting fundamentalist values. At 17, he married a 14-year-old cousin, who quickly bore him a son; he kept her in strict Islamic seclusion. Though increasingly religious, he had done well at school in commerce and technology, and after graduation he joined his half-brothers in the family construction firm.
The year 1979, when he was 21, marked a turning point for Osama and for Saudi Arabia. It was the year of the Iranian revolution, which ignited widespread religious militancy. Islamic radicals struck at royal power in a wild attack on the Holy Mosque in Mecca, and, though suppressed in bloody battle, the assault left the state badly shaken. The Sauds solicited help from the United States to preserve their status, and authorized construction of a major American base on Saudi soil. Osama made clear his disapproval of the infidel presence, generating tensions within the bin Laden family, which stood to profit handsomely from the project. The next year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The bin Ladens rallied to make major contributions to the Afghan resistance, preponderantly Islamic, and sent Osama to Pakistan to oversee the distribution of funds. His work, being anti-communist, pasted over the family rift and delayed his own break with the Sauds and their American allies.
By the mid-'80s, bin Laden moved beyond money matters to supplying arms to the Afghan irregulars, the mujaheddin, then to recruiting and training Arab militants to fight alongside them. Arms were now cheap. The United States was flooding the market, chiefly with Stingers, the anti-aircraft missiles that assured the Russians' defeat. Coll found no record of CIA meetings with bin Laden. The agency knew who he was but showed no special interest in him or awareness of the danger his militancy represented.
Osama founded al-Qaeda soon after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. He then returned to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind his followers to support the fundamentalist Taliban in the post-war struggle among Afghan factions. But he never reconciled with the Sauds, and he broke with them openly when they invited U.S. troops onto their soil for the looming war against Iraq. His offer to send al-Qaeda to fight Iraq if the invitation was revoked brought only laughter. The confrontation created a dilemma for the bin Laden family: Much as it loved the profits of building for the Americans, it had no stomach for fraternal schism. Finally, the king put his foot down, and the family cut off the wayward brother from his company stipends. Osama, with three wives (a fourth had recently left him), 11 sons and an unrecorded number of daughters, chose exile in Sudan, then was informed he could not stay. In 1996, he flew back to a warm reception among his sympathizers in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, where he presumably remains to this day.
Coll dwells only in passing on the violence later attributed to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. He charts Osama's rising anger at the Sauds and at America. He leaves no doubt that Osama's organizational and fund-raising talents remained sharp; he even credits Osama's engineering with making the caves of Tora Bora, where he took refuge, impregnable to U.S. forces. As for bin Laden's kin, Coll suggests that, though most retain warm feelings for him, after 9/11 necessity forced them to distance themselves from his actions. Taken together, they seem more bewildered than angered by the course he has chosen. Responsible for what is now a global company, the brothers have been particularly stringent; the sisters appear to be more sympathetic. Whether any of them secretly sends him money remains uncertain. As for the 9/11 conspiracy, Coll repeats little of what we already know. Instead, he has chosen to write about a man and his family, enriching our understanding of the powerful impact they have made on our times. -- Milton Viorst
The Washington Times
Sunday, Mar. 30, 2008
Close to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, more than seven years after those hijacked airliners crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center and the mighty Pentagon, ignorance of the internal realities and complexities of Saudi Arabia remains almost total among the American public and U.S. policymakers alike. Steve Coll's massive new volume, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century" is therefore an urgent and most welcome contribution towards lifting this veil of darkness.
The Al-Saud royal family and the circle of families who have been their intimate allies and loyal retainers over the past century are among the wealthiest and therefore most reclusive groups on earth, but this aversion to publicity has not served them well. Absurd over-simplifications and the most lurid of conspiracy theories have thrived in the darkness.
Steve Coll, a former Pultizer Prize-winning author who is now the president of the New America Foundation, has performed a notable public service in shining a massively researched but sober and balanced searchlight on this darkness. In so doing, he has also produced one of the most important biographical works yet written on Osama bin Laden.
Drawing heavily -- and with full acknowledgement -- on the extremely important pioneering work done by Peter Bergen, Mr. Coll charts Osama bin Laden's personal path within his society and within his family. He was long overshadowed by brothers who were vastly more successful businessmen, more confident, more outgoing, and vastly more successful with the ladies. Osama was devout and shy. He finally found a cause, and one that won widespread popular, family and even state approval, in supporting the mujaheddin guerrillas fighting the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan.
Mr. Coll correctly recognizes that the paradoxes and problems of 21st-century Saudi society lie in its rapid transformation from one of the poorest, most traditional and un-modernized societies on earth to one of the most wealthy, sophisticated and pivotal, while retaining its austere Wahabi Islamic structure.
"The Bin Ladens" is a story of a dynasty of fabulously wealthy international magnates and entrepreneurs that rivaled the Rothschilds, not just in their incomparable wealth but in the brilliantly visionary and innovative businessmen they have produced in generation after generation. Even estranged wives and daughters have shown this remarkable entrepreneurial gene.
Mr. Coll documents how so many prominent members of the family have far preferred the exhilaration, tolerance and opportunity of life in America, where satisfying achievement was to be had, preferring only to use Europe as sites for their parties.
Mohammed bin Laden made his family the Bechtel of Saudi Arabia, the construction colossus of the Desert Kingdom. His son Salem was been a towering figure in developing telecommunications across the Middle East and appears to have been more of a father figure and stabilizing influence to Osama bin Laden than Mohammed himself was. This was not so difficult as Mohammed had not less than 54 children.
On top of its other virtues, Mr. Coll's book offers an extraordinary insight into the freewheeling global creativity of Middle East entrepreneurs over the past 30 years. Among its many virtues, it easily gives the lie to the oft-cited slanders that Arabs "can't do" free enterprise, entrepreneurial capitalism or high tech business ventures.
The way Salem bin Laden met Rupert Armitage, his exceptionally successful first managing director for Bin Laden Telecommunications is a caser in point. They met at a Rome nightclub where Rupert was partying with the son of Lord Carrington, who was then foreign secretary of Britain. "They jammed with their guitars that night" and six months later, Salem asked Rupert to come to Jeddah to give him additional lessons."
"The Bin Ladens" is a sobering lesson in the stresses and dangers that the rapid transition of a society from medieval feudal culture to global wealth, technology, confidence and power can produce when it is concentrated over only a couple of generations. The parallel with the stresses of late-19th century modernization in Czarist Russia that produced Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution is sobering.
It is deeply ironic that as late as 1988, Osama bin Laden still enjoyed the confidence and trust of the Saudi Royal family. This was not because of some gigantic, sinister Islamist conspiracy, as so many know-nothing pundits utterly ignorant of the Saudi reality have claimed, but because Osama's brother Salem had strongly uprooted his genuine humanitarian work among Afghans in their long eight-year struggle against the Soviet Union.
Salem's death in a tragic light plane accident in San Antonio, Texas in 1988 cast Osama adrift existentially. The decision of the Saudi royal family to permit the assembling of a gigantic, 700,000 -strong U.S.-led and dominated army in its territory in the winter of 1990-91triggered Osama's fateful final transformation into the revolutionary monster, that the world now knows only too well. As Prince Turki Al-Feisal, the long-time and exceptionally able head of Saudi intelligence said, "This shy retiring and seemingly very innocent person had changed."
Saudi Arabia is not in any way a uniform totalitarian society of America-hating fanatics. Dangerous hatreds and haters certainly exist there in significant numbers. But they sit cheek by jowl with a deep-rooted sense of westernization among the middle class as well as the ruling al-Saud. Saudi Arabia has the largest middle class as a percentage of its population of any significantly-sized Arab nation. It is simultaneously one of the most traditional societies on earth and one being wrenched at breakneck speed into pulsing heart of modern high tech globalism.
The bin Laden family lies at the heart of both these forces. The intense magnetic fields those contrasting polar opposites set up have generated astonishing achievements. They have also created the monstrous mutations of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Yet al-Qaeda hates the society of and monarchy of Saudi Arabia with as much intense hatred as it does the United States. Mr. Coll charts Osama bin Laden's personal path within his society and within his family.
Today, Mr. Coll concludes, the bin Laden family's fortunes stand higher than ever. Neither the long-ailing King Fahd, who had done so much to further the fortunes of Mohammed bin Laden and his more than 50 sons, nor current King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz, have held the family collectively responsible for Osama and his notorious deeds.
The bin Laden family remains a loyal pillar of the Saudi establishment. And with global oil prices now fluctuating around an unheard of $100 a barrel, Mr. Coll concludes, "the Al-Saud needed the Bin Ladens' expertise... New condominium and office skyscrapers, shopping malls, freeways, mosque and airports were announced one after another... The Bin Ladens were particularly well-placed to profit."
After two years of probing the complexities and rich ironies of bin Laden family history following the attacks of Sept. 11, an FBI analyst cited by Mr. Coll concluded that "there were 'millions' of Bin Ladens 'running around' and '99.999999 percent of them are of the non-evil variety.'" After reading Mr. Coll's outstanding book, it is impossible to disagree with this assessment. -- Martin Sieff
The New York Times
Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2008
Steve Coll’s riveting new book not only gives us the most psychologically detailed portrait of the brutal 9/11 mastermind yet, but in telling the epic story of Osama bin Laden’s extended family, it also reveals the crucial role that his relatives and their relationship with the royal house of Saud played in shaping his thinking, his ambitions, his technological expertise and his tactics.
“The Bin Ladens” uses the prism of one family to examine the mind-boggling, culture-rocking effects that sudden oil wealth had on Saudi Arabia, while shedding new light on the “troubled, compulsive, greed-inflected, secret-burdened” relationship that developed between that desert nation and the United States, and the conflicts many Saudis felt, pulled between the traditional pieties of their ancestors and the glittering temptations of the West.
It is a book that possesses the novelistic energy of a rags-to-riches family epic, following its sprawling cast of characters as they travel from Mecca and Medina to Las Vegas and Disney World, and yet, at the same time, it is a book that, in tracing the connections between the public and the private, the political and the personal, stands as a substantive bookend to Mr. Coll’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2004 book, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the C.I.A., Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001.”
That earlier work focused on the rise of Islamic extremism during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where Mr. bin Laden first emerged as a leader, while this volume looks at the familial, cultural and political forces that shaped him as he came of age in Saudi Arabia.
Parts of Mr. Coll’s narrative are heavily indebted to other reporters’ pioneering work on this subject -- most notably, Peter Bergen’s two books on Mr. bin Laden, and “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright’s searing book about Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. But by focusing on Mr. bin Laden’s conflicted relationship with his family and that family’s complicated relationship with the West, Mr. Coll, a staff writer for The New Yorker who also worked for many years at The Washington Post, has added fascinating new details to our understanding of how Mr. bin Laden evolved from a loyal family adjutant into an angry black sheep, intent on lashing out at the very people -- the Saudi royal family and the United States of America -- that his father and brothers had cultivated in their business dealings for years.
Just as recent books like Jacob Weisberg’s “Bush Tragedy” have underscored the role Oedipal rivalries may have played in George W. Bush’s presidency and his decision to go to war against Iraq, so this volume underscores the role that Freudian family dynamics may have played in Mr. bin Laden’s radicalization and his declaration of war against America.
Mr. Coll traces how Osama -- who was still a boy when his father, Muhammad, was killed in an airplane accident in 1967 -- found a succession of father figures in a series of radical mentors, including a high school gym teacher who involved him in an after-school Islamic study group and Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic scholar who introduced the young Osama to “the concept of transnational jihad.”
Mr. Coll’s book also traces a host of bizarre connections among its dramatis personae, suggesting that there are often less than six degrees of separation when it comes to the new globalized world of international finance. We learn, for instance, that Muhammad bin Laden began his rise by working as a bricklayer and mason for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, which had been formed to manage the oil rights of the Standard Oil Company of California, and that the huge international company that the bin Ladens built would come to do business with well-known American firms like General Electric, and draw on advice from the law firm Baker Botts, headed by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Bush family adviser.
We also learn that Jim Bath, a former reserve pilot with the Texas Air National Guard who used to carouse with George W. Bush, later became a business partner in Houston with Salem bin Laden, Osama’s half-brother.
The ultimate self-made man, the family patriarch Muhammad bin Laden left an impoverished and deeply religious canyon village to seek his fortune (during an early interlude in the pilgrim city of Jeddah, he was so poor that he reportedly slept in a ditch he dug in the sand) and through a combination of skill, acumen and the assiduous cultivation of the royal family, became the king’s principal builder, overseeing renovations of sacred sites in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. He would bequeath to his children not just a fortune, but also what Mr. Coll calls a “transforming vision of ambition and religious faith in a borderless world.” His British-educated son, Salem, who took over the company after his death, would expand its international reach, and he would also embrace a Westernized, jet-set existence that allowed him to indulge his eccentricities to the fullest.
In fact, Salem emerges from this volume as a compelling, larger-than-life figure, a picaresque playboy, at once guileless, brilliant and self-indulgent, who held together the increasingly fractious bin Laden clan through sheer force of will and charisma. Salem, who dressed in jeans, loved airplanes and liked to play the harmonica, reportedly “paid a bandleader at an Academy Awards party in Los Angeles hundreds of dollars to let him sing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in seven languages.”
Mr. Coll reports that Salem organized family expeditions to Las Vegas, shipped thousands of cases of Tabasco sauce back to Saudi Arabia and dreamed of marrying four women from four Western nations: his estate, he imagined, would resemble the United Nations, with four houses, one flying an American flag, one a German flag, one a French flag and one the Union Jack. Salem died in 1988 in a plane accident in Texas.
As for Osama bin Laden, Mr. Coll, like Mr. Wright in “The Looming Tower,” suggests that the Qaeda founder’s turn to international war against the United States was not inevitable. Mr. Coll writes that when the Saudi royal family agreed in the summer of 1990 to the arrival of American troops in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Mr. bin Laden “offered no public dissent” at the time, but “moved quickly with the rest of his family to protect his personal fortune against the possibility that the Al-Saud regime might collapse.” Although he had come to see himself as an “international Islamic guerrilla leader,” his views at the time, Mr. Coll writes, were still “nuanced, changeable and laced with contradictions.”
Increasingly at odds with the Saudi royal family, Mr. bin Laden left the kingdom in 1991 for the Sudan, where he bought a farm and raised horses and sunflowers while training jihadis (whom he sent to places like Bosnia). “Osama seemed to believe during this period,” Mr. Coll writes, “that he could have it all in Sudan -- wives, children, business, horticulture, horse breeding, leisure, pious devotion and jihad -- all of it buoyed by the deference and public reputation due a proper sheikh. He did not yet seem to grasp that his enterprise, particularly in its support for violence against governments friendly to or dependent upon the Al-Saud, might prove difficult to reconcile with the interests of his family in Jeddah.”
In June 1993, Mr. Coll reports, the family, most likely under pressure from the Saudi government, moved to expel Osama as a shareholder of the Muhammad bin Laden Company and the Saudi bin Laden Group. The following year the family publicly repudiated him, the Ministry of Interior announced that he had been formally stripped of his Saudi citizenship, and Mr. bin Laden began writing lengthy essays denouncing the royal family, which he circulated by fax.
By 1995, Mr. Coll writes, there was “a hint of King Lear in the wilderness” to his exile: he was out of money, one of his wives had divorced him, and his eldest son had left him to return to Saudi Arabia. Isolation fueled Mr. bin Laden’s self-righteousness, however, and his wrath increasingly focused on the United States, particularly after Washington put pressure on Sudan’s government to expel him from Khartoum, leading to his exile in 1996 back to the harsh lands of Afghanistan.
While he careered toward violence, other members of his family moved to strengthen their ties with the West. There were family investments in enterprises ranging from Iridium, a satellite communications network, to the Hard Rock Cafe franchise in the Middle East.
In the days after 9/11 Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington -- who met with President Bush on the evening of September 13 -- helped arrange (with F.B.I. permission) a special chartered plane flight to carry more than a dozen bin Ladens, some of whom had been living in the United States for years, back home to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent F.B.I. investigations “turned up no evidence of complicity by the bin Laden family in terrorist violence,” Mr. Coll writes, and a decision seems to have been made at the White House sometime early in 2002 that, barring the emergence of new evidence, “the U.S. government would not sanction the bin Laden family in any way because of its history with Osama.”
One F.B.I. analyst summed up the bureau’s assessment this way: there were “millions” of bin Ladens “running around” and “99.999999 percent of them are of the non-evil variety.” -- Michiko Kakutani
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2008
Life, as Kierkegaard pointed out, can only be understood retrospectively, but we must live it prospectively.
It's a disjunctive paradox, as true for the lives of nations as it is for those of individuals. Steve Coll's stunningly researched and grippingly told new book, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century," is the kind of history that naturally gives rise to such large thoughts.
In essence, it proposes not so much an alternate history of the 20th century but an account of one that occurred simultaneous to our usual collective recollection of the last 100 years. While the great struggles of the American Century -- world wars, depression, imperialism, the fights with right- and left-wing totalitarianisms -- were preoccupying us, out of sight and beyond our Western and essentially secular understanding, men, ideas and appetites born of a desert waste were conjoining in ways that created the first great challenge of this new era, the confrontation with Islamic jihadism.
Could this have been foreseen? Could something different have been done? It's possible, though not likely. One can't realistically imagine the degree of disinterested foresight and wisdom that would have made the difference. History as good as the sort Coll has written here sobers as well as enlightens. The author brings formidable credentials to his task. He's the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret operations in Afghanistan -- "Ghost Wars" -- and won another Pulitzer for explanatory journalism while a reporter for The Washington Post, where he later served as a foreign correspondent and managing editor.
"The Bin Ladens" now joins Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" and Mary Habeck's too-often overlooked "Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror" as the books that ought to be read by anyone who really wants to understand the origins of the current crisis.
Coll's book is important because -- the title notwithstanding -- it's really a history of two families, the Bin Laden and Al-Saud, whose patriarch Abdulaziz Ibn Saud "walked out of Kuwait in 1902 with a sword, some camels and a small band of followers to reclaim, in his family's name, the mud-walled town of Riyadh in the central Arabian plateau, and the paltry realm it oversaw." Thirty blood-soaked years later, he "announced at last the formation of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." A few years after Abdulaziz stormed out of Kuwait, an impoverished, one-eyed teenage boy named Mohammed Bin Laden walked north out of his native Yemen to the Arabian port city of Jeddah in search of work. Eventually, he would found a construction and trading company that would become Saudi Arabia's largest, with holdings that, today, extend around the globe -- including the United States.
There are hundreds of Bin Ladens -- survivors from among Mohammed's more than 50 children and their descendents -- and Coll's book gives ample attention to the most infamous of the patriarch's progeny, Osama.
Careful readers of the torrent of post-9/11 journalism and book-length studies won't find too much that's new or surprising here, though a couple of very important facts about Al Qaeda's co-founder are nailed down conclusively. One has to do with precisely when and how he became radicalized. Coll reports that it occurred while he was attending an elite high school in Jeddah and came under the profound influence of an Egyptian instructor, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama apparently joined the brotherhood as a teenager. Given the way he ultimately turned on the Sauds, it's ironic that the teacher was one of a large number of Egyptian and Syrian exiles to whom the Saudi royal family had given shelter, believing that their religious ideology might be used as a counterweight to the secularism of Nasser and the Baathists. (Thus, the Saudis have suffered from "blowback" no less than the Americans did in Afghanistan or as did those elements of the Israeli Likud who thought Hamas could be encouraged as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Radical Islam turns out to be a tiger nobody can safely ride.)
Osama bin Laden was predisposed to accept such influence, a shy and deeply religious boy who moved somewhat on the fringes of his family because his mother -- whom his father quickly divorced -- was herself a Syrian, whose family may have had ties to that country's heterodox Alawite sect. (Osama was but one of seven sons born to Mohammed and his various wives in one year.) The very orthodox Bin Ladens looked down on Alawites, just as the Sauds -- natives of the geneology-obsessed Nejaz region -- always have looked down on the Bin Ladens, as Yemenites.
Still, the families were bound together by a mutual belief in the strict Wahabi brand of Salafist -- which is to say, ultra-puritanical -- Islam and mutually beneficial financial ties. Coll's exhaustive, but cautious reconstruction of the Bin Ladens' finances also clears up one of the enduring myths about Osama. He never was particularly wealthy by international standards, and, when his family cut him off from their business under pressure from the Sauds, he essentially lost everything. Coll carefully recounts the FBI's and CIA's attempts to figure out what sort of financing he still receives from various Islamic charities, and there's suspicion that some of his sisters still may be passing him money. The aura of great wealth was one of the many myths the very public relations-conscious Osama carefully cultivated. (Some of the best estimates of Bin Laden family finances actually come from court files in the United States, where several family members wound up in divorce proceedings.)
What's most striking about Coll's book is its undidactic but unflinching account of just how rancidly dysfunctional the Saudi royals' governance has been and of how the Bin Ladens -- canny, but in so many essential ways incompetent -- have benefited from their patrons' venality through a breathtakingly supine sycophancy and simply bribery. Corrupt, hypocritical, frightened and inept at everything but self-preservation, the Sauds have essentially looted their country's foreign-developed oil riches, using the Bin Ladens to dole out development only when it was absolutely necessary to placate a restive populace.
The results have been particularly appalling in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where Saudi-financed construction projects undertaken by the Bin Ladens essentially have eradicated the historic pilgrimage sites. Not too many years ago, the remains of the Prophet Mohammed's house in Mecca were bulldozed to construct a public toilet. These projects not only allow the Saudis to profit more from the hajj, which religious Muslims are obliged to make at least once, but also have imposed a Wahabi straitjacket on the pilgrimage. Formerly, Shia and sufic pilgrims observed the hajj with all sorts of individual rituals and visits to shrines and tombs they referred. Now, thanks to the Bin Ladens' demolition and construction projects only a Wahabi version of the pilgrimage is possible.
Finally, Coll's book makes an important contribution to the contemporary debate by putting to rest the myth that Jihadism is fueled by a passion to see justice for the Palestinians. In fact, garden-variety anti-Semitism of the most repellant kind has been part of the Saud/Bin Laden axis from the start. Abdulaziz was a rabid anti-Semite, though he'd never met a Jew nor heard of Zionism. Faisel, apparently the best of the Saudi kings because he stole the least, nonetheless peddled every sort of outlandish anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, along with copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Today, the son of one of Osama's half-brothers runs a group called the World Assembly of Muslim Youth out of Falls Church, Va. He has a Saudi diplomatic passport and the special mission of reaching out to American Muslims with Wahabi religious materials, including one that says:
"The Jews are enemies of the faithful, God and the angels; the Jews are humanity's enemies; they foment immorality in this world." -- Tim Rutten