[ExI] bin Laden's background
thespike at satx.rr.com
Sat Apr 12 03:05:04 UTC 2008
Crashed planes and family members... hmmm... J. G. Ballard could have
invented this guy.
Cameron Stewart, | April 12, 2008
THERE is a black sheep in most families but few can hold a candle to
the bin Ladens.
While the scions of this wealthy Saudi Arabian dynasty cavort across
the globe in corporate jets, chasing women and oil profits in equal
measure, one of their siblings is thought to be hiding in a remote
cave in central Asia and is the world's most wanted terrorist.
It is the ultimate family schism, but one which is often overlooked
in the West's quest to understand the forces that shaped Osama bin
Laden. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll, this is
largely because the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals have tried
hard to safeguard the family's colourful history.
Coll has sought to unlock the secrets of the bin Laden dynasty and
shed light on the more personal aspects of Osama's life.
"After September 11, it became commonplace to trace the sources of
Osama's radicalism to the Islamic political revival that swept the
Middle East after 1979 and also to his experiences as a jihad fighter
and organiser during the anti-Soviet Afghan war," writes Coll in his
new book, The Bin Ladens: The Story of a Family and itsFortune.
"These were crucial influences on him, but to focus on them
exclusively is to risk passing over the complexity of Osama's
relationship with his family and his country, the sources of
attraction and repulsion these ties created in his life, and their
influence on his character and ideas."
Coll reveals how the young Osama found himself caught between two
worlds - growing up amid a wealthy family that embraced the excesses
of Western-style capitalism - and his own religious studies, which
preached the polar opposite. What's more, Osama grew up in a family
that embraced, commercially and culturally, the "infidel enemy", the US.
"Until Osama announced himself as an international terrorist, his
family was much more heavily invested in the US than has generally
been understood," writes Coll. "His brothers and sisters owned
American shopping centres, apartment complexes, condominiums, luxury
estates, privatised prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an
airport and much else.
"They attended American universities, maintained friendships and
business partnerships with Americans, and sought American passports
for their children.
"They financed Hollywood movies, traded thoroughbred horses with
country singer Kenny Rogers, and negotiated real estate deals with
"In both a literal and a cultural sense, the bin Laden family owned
an impressive share of the America upon which Osama declared war."
To explain how this occurred, Coll goes back to Osama's father, a
young illiterate Yemeni called Mohammed bin Laden.
Mohammed was in his late 20s and blind in one eye when he moved from
Yemen to Saudi Arabia and worked as a bricklayer at a time when the
Saudi oil boom was beginning.
He was soon recognised for his organisational skills, and within a
few years he had started a construction business.
The fast-rising bin Laden patriarch assiduously cultivated the Saudi
royal family, winning key building contracts that would underpin the
family fortune. As his wealth grew, so did his appetite for women - a
lust that would infect the dynasty, including Osama.
Mohammed gathered wives at whim, marrying at least nine times between
1943 and 1953 and fathering 54 children from numerous partners. Seven
of his children were delivered in 1958 alone, one of which was Osama,
whose mother was a 15-year-old Syrian who split with his father soon
Mohammed was religious, impressing on his children the rituals and
glory of Islam. But he was not an extremist. "The boys knew their
father as a distant, stern, even regal figure," writes Coll. "Bin
Laden placed a heavy emphasis on frugality, work, religious piety and
When Osama was seven, his father died in a plane crash, a loss that
deeply hurt the young boy. "He was affected by the death of his
father, he was very solitary," recalls Suleiman al-Kateb, a woman
from his village.
Osama idolised his father and saw him as a role model. He was told
that his father died as a result of a mistake by an American pilot.
"Osama absorbed the idea that his father was not a person who sits
down behind a desk and gives orders. Rather, Mohammed bin Laden
worked with his own hands in the desert, offering direct leadership
to his ethnically diverse employees. This, of course, would become
Osama's style of leadership as well."
Mohammed's death left control of the family business in the hands of
his eldest son, Salem.
His wealth also meant that each of his children, including Osama, was
left a substantial sum of money. Salem and Mohammed's many other sons
were not imbued with their father's notions of Islamic frugality, and
quickly embraced Western tastes, from fashionable clothes to
expensive cars and aeroplanes.
The odd one out was Osama. He was a shy and polite boy who showed no
obvious penchant for material possessions. "Relatives remember Osama
as calm and extremely quiet, almost to the point of timidity. He
preferred to be alone," writes Coll. He lived separately from his
half-brothers and with his mother and step-father, but was very much
considered a part of the bin Laden family and business.
He was by all accounts an average student, but during his teens Osama
began to embrace religious instruction and moved into a Muslim
brotherhood group that espoused traditional fundamentalist Muslim values.
"Osama and his group openly adopted the styles and convictions of
teenage Islamic activists. They let their young beards grow,
shortened their trouser legs and lectured or debated other students
about the urgent need to restore pure Islamic law across the Arab world."
Outside of religion, Osama was passionate about outdoor activities
such as swimming, hunting and horse riding, and he had a weakness for
action movies and westerns.
"He seemed particularly drawn to teachings that a righteous Muslim
should imitate the dress and customs that prevailed during the
By the time he was 17, Osama was "notably attracted to girls" and
decided to marry so he could have legitimate sex. He married his
first cousin, Najwa, and she soon gave birth to a son, the first of
at least 23 children from different wives. "The marriage bed seems
only to have sharpened Osama's conviction that a righteous Muslim man
should not cast his eyes even in passing on women other than his
legal wives and mother. He did not permit his wife to meet strangers.
He averted his eyes from the family maid. When he made social calls
on his brothers he would back away and cover his eyes if an unveiled
woman opened the door."
He banned most television and music and would not let his children
drink out of a straw because these had been unknown in the prophet's lifetime.
"His only conspicuous pleasures were sex, cars, work and the outdoors."
Despite this, Coll says there is not much evidence that Osama was
especially political during his teenage years.
Until at least 1979 there was "hardly any evidence that Osama was
willing to take significant personal risks in the name of rebellion."
Yet at the same time as Osama embraced hardline Islam, his many
relatives were doing precisely the opposite.
As head of the family business, Salem bin Laden embraced America,
using it to accumulate cars and consumer goods for the Saudi royals.
He sent home 5000 cases of Tabasco sauce because he liked the taste,
and even shipped hundreds of American cactuses and other desert
plants back to Saudi Arabia.
The US also became a place of parties and excessive indulgence for
the bin Ladens, who frequented Las Vegas and its Roman-themed casino
"America became a place for singing, flying and, above all,
shopping." Despite this, the increasingly disparate secular and
religious wings of the sprawling bin Laden family held together.
The frugal fundamentalist Osama maintained a close relationship with
his jetsetting family and accepted his share of the profits of the
family business regardless of how and where these were generated. In
the early 1980s, Salem bin Laden sent Osama to Pakistan to oversee
the distribution of funding to the Afghan resistance, which was
fighting the Soviet invaders.
By dispatching Osama, the bin Ladens were supporting the Saudi
Government's clandestine foreign policy of helping the Islamic resistance.
It proved to be the beginning of the end of the family unit.
Osama revelled in his role. He soon moved into supplying arms to the
Afghan rebels, the mujaheddin, and gained a taste for Islamic-style
armed resistance. With Salem providing substantial financial backing,
Osama soon became a hero to the mujaheddin.
The bin Ladens used publicists and the media to market Osama,
promoting him as a fearless rich man who lived among the poor and who
was willing to sacrifice everything for his religion.
Salem bin Laden did much to make Osama's reputation, and when he died
in a plane crash in 1988 Osama was deeply affected, overlooking his
half-brother's hedonistic ways.
When Osama returned to Saudi Arabia in late 1989 he saw himself as a
international guerilla leader who worked in the service of his king.
But within a year he fell out with the royal family over its plans to
employ American-led troops in a war to oust Saddam Hussein's Iraqi
forces from Kuwait.
Disgusted, Osama moved to Sudan in 1991. He also became disappointed
in his family, especially its new head, Bakr bin Laden, who refused
to criticise the Saudi royals, whose patronage was so important to
the family business.
It was not until 1993, when a bomb went off in the World Trade
Centre, killing six people, that the international media began to
focus on Osama's financing of Islamic resistance. He had become a
public embarrassment to the Saudi royals, who publicly disowned him
and pressured the bin Laden family to do likewise. The family agreed,
cutting Osama from the business and publicly repudiating him.
By this time Osama's fledgling al-Qa'ida was flourishing, with groups
of jihad fighters sent to Somalia, Yemen, Bosnia, Libya and
Tajikistan, among other places.
Osama spent much of his time in Sudan penning long essays expressing
fury at Saudi Arabia, which he claimed was waging a war against Islam.
In 1996, under pressure from the US, Sudan expelled Osama and he
moved with his family to Afghanistan. Once there he became
increasingly preoccupied with the US, reading books about America,
including long tomes on Washington's foreign and defence policy
towards Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
One of his former wives says he became increasingly quiet and
withdrawn. There were periods when he "did not like anyone to talk to
him" and that he "used to sit and think for a long time and sleep very late".
At the same time he craved connections with the outside world,
placing hundreds of calls to terror cell leaders and financiers
across the world. It was these phone calls that would implicate Osama
in the bomb attacks on US embassies in east Africa in August 1998,
which killed 225 people. Those attacks, and the retaliatory US
missile strike against Osama's camps several weeks later, gave the
terrorist leader an instant global profile.
The bin Laden family was both stunned and embarrassed by Osama's
rapid descent into terrorism. His brothers worried about the impact
on the family business and about the shame it brought to the family name.
Family members agreed to help US authorities find Osama, but said
they had no idea where he was. In the US, the dozens of bin Ladens
living there laid low. But far worse was to come. When the terror
attacks of September 11 occurred, the family knew it had to flee the
US. Days after the attacks, a chartered 727 criss-crossed America
picking up dozens of bin Ladens and flying them back to their homeland.
The family publicly denounced Osama once again, but also found that
he had won a cult following among many in Saudi Arabia.
The 9/11 attacks directly hurt family business interests in the US,
where the bin Ladens were abandoned by universities and corporations
that had courted them in the past. But the empire has since recovered
and is now a thriving multi-billion-dollar global enterprise.
Osama's brothers and sisters seem surprised, puzzled and embarrassed
by their half-brother and at what he has become. They have repudiated
him but have rarely expressed open anger. Similarly, Osama has
refused to condemn his own siblings, despite that they embrace much
of what the terrorist leader despises.
Writes Coll: "(Osama) has never denounced or openly repudiated his
own family, and he has explained their occasional statements
repudiating him as merely the product of heavy pressure brought to
bear by the Saudi Government."
Osama, the black sheep of the bin Ladens, has not completely
abandoned his flock.
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