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How Osama bin Laden's family grew rich, powerful and divided.

Reviewed by Milton Viorst
Sunday, March 30, 2008

THE BIN LADENS

An Arabian Family in the American Century

By Steve Coll

Penguin Press. 671 pp. $35

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, who has covered the Middle East for 40 years, has written a half-dozen books on the region. The most recent is "Storm from the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West."

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