[ExI] bin Laden's background

Damien Broderick 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 
Donald Trump.

"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 
prophet's lifetime."

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 
Caesar's Palace.

"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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