Book World: 'The Bin Ladens'

"The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century" ((Penguin Press))
Steve Coll
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 3:00 PM

"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."

Steve Coll, author and president of the New America Foundation, was online Tuesday, April 1, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, "The Bin Ladens," which was reviewed in Book World.

Coll is a former managing editor of The Washington Post, and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His previous book, 'Ghost Wars,' won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2005.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

The transcript follows.


Steve Coll: Hello everyone. Steve Coll here to answer questions and take comments about my book, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century." There are a few questions in the queue but keep 'em coming.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Keeping in mind that the Bin Laden family is extensive and diverse, how well did any of the Bush family know any of the Bin Laden family? After all, George W. Bush's oil partner had earlier partnered with Bin Laden investments, so the name perhaps was at least familiar to Bush. How was it arranged so quickly that the Bin Laden family were allowed to leave the United States so soon as their one relative's attack on us? Did the Bin Ladens initiate the move for their safety, or did our government make that decision? Finally, while the Bin Laden family was being moved, do we know if they were questioned about Osama Bin Laden while being transported?

Steve Coll: There's no reason to think they had an intimate relationship. They had some common business interests. James Baker, the former secretary of state, and a longtime Bush family adviser, seems to have known the Bin Ladens better than the Bushes themselves.

After 9/11, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Bandar bin Sultan, requested help from the White House and the F.B.I. to evacuate three groups of Saudi elite then in the U.S. Bandar feared they might be subjected to revenge attacks. One group, including some members of the Saudi royal family, was in California and Las Vegas on vacation. Another group had come in to by thoroughbred horses at an auction in Kentucky. The third group were scattered members of the Bin Laden family who were residents, students and visitors in the U.S. at the time of the attacks. The initiative for their evacuation seems to have been taken by the family and Bandar alike. The F.B.I. questioned almost all if not all of the family members as they boarded their charter plane to leave the country.


Virginia: Hello. James Adams wrote in his book 'The Financing of Terror' that Saudi Arabia paid millions of petrodollars to the PLO and as a result there was never a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia until 2-3 years ago. Did the Bin Ladens pay protection money too?

Steve Coll: I don't have any reason to think that the Bin Laden family did that. Certainly there were charities and religious groups in Saudi Arabia that supported the Taliban during the late 1990s, when Osama was in exile in Afghanistan. Perhaps such support was a factor in Al Qaeda's decision not to directly target the Saudi kingdom until 2003. But there's not much evidence one way or another.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Mr. Coll, Your book sounds interesting and I am planning on reading it. My question is did the Bin Laden family really invest in George Bush's oil business during the 1970's and 1980's? If so, is anyone but Michael Moore planning on asking him about the relationship and its records?

Steve Coll: The Bin Ladens and George W. Bush had a common business partner during the 1970s. That partner invested money into Bush's oil partnerships but has said in the past that the money he invested was his own and did not come from the Bin Ladens or other Arab investors. (He declined to talk to me about it.) No document or testimony has yet surfaced to contradict him.


Westchester, New York: In Tim Rutten's review in in this morning's LA Times, he states that your book puts "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 repellent kind has been part of the Saud/Bin Laden axis from the start".

Can you explain why the Pew Survey of Muslim Attitudes shows that Christians (A.K.A. Crusaders) are so much better regarded by Muslims than Jews? For example, in Jordan, a 58% favorable rate for Muslims while a 0% favorable rate for Jews. If it is not Zionism, what is it?

Steve Coll: Arab governments, including the Saudi government, have published and-or tolerated anti-Semitic tracts of the worst kind for decades. Even King Faisal, who was an otherwise progressive and admirable leader of Saudi Arabia, handed out to visiting guests the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that was also cited by Hitler. By comparison, propaganda about Christians has always been somewhat milder, and at least until recent jihadi times, was not so much bound up with armed conflict, as was the case after Israel came into being.


New Smyrna Beach, Fla.: According to "The Post" today, your book reports that Salem bin Laden participated in arranging an arms deal in 1986 together with his half brother Osama. Is this the same Salem bin Laden who was a major investor in the Bush family's oil business, Arbusto Energy? Bin Laden Took Part in 1986 Arms Deal, Book Says (Washington Post, April 1)

Steve Coll: The same Salem, but as in the answer to an earlier question, it's not clear that he was an investor in Arbusto. The business partner who made that investment has said the money was his own and did not belong to Salem.


The Next Generation: What do we know about Osama Bin Laden's children? How many, where are they, do they support him?

Steve Coll: We know he has well over a dozen children. His eldest son, Abdullah, returned to Jeddah more than a decade ago and now runs a marketing firm in Saudi Arabia called Fame Advertising. I visited the offices once. There were chrome chairs and pictures of San Francisco on the walls. He turned up at a U.S. Consulate Fourth of July Party in 2002 wearing a baseball cap, which some of the diplomats at the party found slightly offensive. More recently, some other children who lived with him in Afghanistan have returned to Saudi Arabia. Others appear to have stayed abroad to participate in his jihad. His son Saad is believed to be in Iran under house arrest or something of that sort. Other sons such as Mohammed and Laden may be hiding along the Afghan border.


Teaneck, N.J.: To what extent were the British involved in supporting the Afghan fight against the Russians? Was the meeting in London at which Bin Laden arranged for the Russian missiles known to MI-5? Bin Laden Took Part in 1986 Arms Deal, Book Says (Washington Post, April 1)

Steve Coll: The British intelligence service joined the C.I.A. in supporting the Afghan fight against the Russians, although the size of their contribution was not so large. I have no idea what the British government knew about this arms transaction, but based on my research, I would say that it's likely they did know something about it, at least after the fact.


Overseas: Steve: I read Ghost Wars -- having returned from Gardez, Paktia Province in late 2003, your book added historical & political dimension not known previously when published a year or so later.

My question: Can you explain the chain of events leading up to post 9/11; whereas the Taliban controlled government in Afghanistan alleged refused to cooperate with both the Saudi's and US request to "give up" UBL. Did the US ever have face to face negotiations with the Taliban? And, do you think if the fractured Taliban government at that time had known the consequences , would the Taliban have considered a negotiated surrender of UBL?

And lastly, did the US make mistakes during this process?

A lot of people do not understand these very gray and under-published facts.

Randy Hampton

LTC, US Army (ret)

Currently in Southern Sudan


Steve Coll: Thanks. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban then (and now) refused to meet face-to-face with non-Muslims. He did talk to U.S. diplomats by satellite telephone. It's hard to say whether he regrets his decision to stand firm. He seems not to have known that 9/11 was coming and certainly would not have anticipated the U.S.-led invasion and the Taliban's defeat. And yet, like Osama, he was a stubborn character who refused many offers to compromise. He would explain his decisions to Pakistani and other negotiators at times by saying that he had to make his decision based upon what he would say to God on Judgment Day. And he decided that protecting Osama was the better policy.


Freising, Germany: It's interesting that Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. I'd thought that al-Qaeda was founded originally to fight the Soviets.

What was Osama bin Laden's original intention with al-Qaeda? Had it been intended to be built up together with the Taliban movement?

Steve Coll: The minutes of Al Qaeda's first meetings in the summer of 1988 have been found and translated. You can find English versions if you search around the Web a little. They're very interesting documents. Basically the idea was to carry on the fight against other adversaries now that the Soviets were out of the way.


Washington, D.C.: If you had the chance to interview Bin Laden what would you ask him?

Steve Coll: I will spare you all of the dreams I have had about talking to Osama during the long life of this project - somehow it doesn't seem quite professional. (By the way apropos of nothing, I was doing a radio interview today and the host told me there is actually a web site where people go and post the contents of their dreams about the presidential candidates. Maybe the crack staff can track that down from my description.)

Anyway...the answer is that I wish he were more reflective about his own biography and his own family. I've read carefully everything he's ever written or said that I can locate and it's a voluminous archive but the amount of self available in it is frustratingly small and allusive as a proportion of the whole. He's always been shy and reticent about himself which is too bad from a biographer's point of view. Not that any of us are are the most trustworthy sources about ourselves, but it would be a helpful baseline to work with.


Fairfax, Va.: Where do you think Osama bin Laden is? Do you think he's alive?

Steve Coll: Yes, I think he's alive. I think he's almost certainly in Pakistan. He seems to have access to news - either the Internet or satellite TV or both - and books. He could be in an urban area but it's more likely hunkered down in a walled compound in a remote area along the Afghan border.

Lately I've suggested a parlor game to fellow Bin Laden nerds. The question is, suppose somebody walked in the room right now and said, "Osama's been found/captured/killed." But they didn't tell you where. There's a map on the wall. Take a pin and put it where you think he was. Closest to the hole wins. I would probably put my pin near Miran Shah in North Waziristan. Some other qualified players of this game say they would put their pins in the Bajaur agency of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas. But these are big places full of people who don't like outsiders, so that's not a very precise guess in either case.

_______________________ Report your dreams about presidential candidates here! (


Arlington, Va.: I understand your book covers Osama Bin Laden's time in Sudan and I am curious about that. Why did he go there and what did he do there?

Steve Coll: He went there in the early 1990s because his increasingly radical views and his questioning of the Saudi government made Saudi Arabia an uncomfortable place for him to stay. In Sudan he set himself up as a businessman, a farmer, a horseman, a family man a dissenting pamphleteer who concentrated mainly on Saudi politics, and also as a financier and organizer of violent jihadi campaigns in far-flung places, from Bosnia to the Horn of Africa. Eventually the Sudanese, under American pressure, forced him to leave - in May 1996.


Falls Church, Va.: I'm listening to your interview on NPR's Fresh Air. I thought maybe this was NPR's April Fool segment. I was laughing at how seriously you and Terry Gross were discussing some of the family's escapades and thinking "This is brilliant." Oh, well, the joke's on me, I guess.

Steve Coll: Hmmm. Yes, this is a danger of releasing a book on April Fool's Day. But what can you do.


Washington, D.C.: The videotapes that are released from time to time -- and the last one had English titles on the screen -- do you think they're legit? The messages always make the news but no one seems to know if they're truly bogus or not. What do you think?

Steve Coll: I think they're legit.


Annapolis, Md.: Do you miss everyday journalism that you worked in at The Washington Post and The New Yorker or do you like longer form writing? You were managing editor at The Post and now, it seems, you're on the other end of it. Which role(s) do you prefer?

Steve Coll: I loved being the Post's managing editor and I love doing longer form writing. I'm very aware that I am one of the luckiest people ever to walk the planet - lots of choices, lots of privileges, and very happy along the way. The only time I didn't feel that way at the Pot was when I was in windowless rooms attending meetings about zoning strategies. :)


Alexandria, Va.: I am curious as to why you are refusing to reveal the name of the mysterious investor in Arbusto, the Bush family oil venture that is deeply connected to the Bin Laden family.

Have you been threatened, or bought off? Your silence speaks volumes, and what is said does not bode well for your credibility. Many Thanks!

Steve Coll: Yikes. Jim Bath is his name. Just trying to keep it simple. No threats or bribes!


Rockville, Md.: Why is Osama Bin Laden so focused on attacking Americans, and not members of his own family? They seem just as Westernized and corrupt as us. Isn't there a certain hypocrisy to his actions?

Steve Coll: You could say so, but he actually has spoken about this once or twice. Osama has a view of sin among otherwise faithful Muslims that is generally forgiving - that is a matter for God on Judgment Day, not man in the here and now. He is not so forgiving about non-Muslims, however. I suppose that's the difference. Plus he has always been very careful not to criticize his family in any circumstance. There are one or two very rare occasions where has done so in his essays, but only very obliquely.


Omaha, Neb.: Mr. Coll:

Is there any animosity toward the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia for the worldwide negative attention that he has brought to a Saudi family? Additionally, what does the Saudi "Person-on-the-Street" think of UBL?


Steve Coll: I don't think most Saudis blame the Bin Laden family for what Osama became, although you do hear some mild criticisms here and there about how they played their hand. Big families with black sheep are not so unusual in Saudi Arabia - it's just that the black sheep are usually not so notorious. On the street, UBL's popularity has fluctuated. Many saw him as a folk hero after 9/11 - even if they did not approve of his methods, they were proud that someone had delivered a blow against America, which they viewed as arrogant. After Al Qaeda declared war inside Saudi Arabia in 2003, attitudes soured. Polling suggests that Osama's popularity has lately declined a lot.


Anonymous: OK, I'll bite. In the midst of a serious discussion on terrorism and foreign policy, there was something posted about dreaming about Presidential candidates from Was that a mistake, an April Fool's joke, or what was that? Steve asked for it - see his response to the question about what he would ask Osama Bin Laden about.

Steve Coll: In fact, Leonard Lopate, the WNYC radio host who told me about it this morning, said he was assuming that HIS audience would think that it was an April Fool's joke - but that it's real. So now we're getting into some deep epistomology - or we would be, if I knew how to spell that word.


Washington, D.C.: How would you go about capturing/killing Osama bin Laden if you were the commander in chief?

Steve Coll: Hard to know what's actually been attempted, what's worked and what hasn't, since it's all super-secret. So I suppose I would try to saturate myself in the details of the failed hunt so far and then try to construct a way ahead. It's all about Pakistan; the cultural and political terrain along the border; and creating the right incentives among Pakistanis for the result you want. There's also a question about how nimble the U.S. is when it has information that might be actionable.


New York, N.Y.: Chances of ever catching Bin Laden? Zero or less than zero?

Steve Coll: I think the chances are better now than they have been for a while. His popularity in Pakistan has fallen dramatically because he is seen as responsible for a wave of suicide bombings on Pakistani soil. These hunts in Pakistan have ended in the past usually because somebody drops a dime on the fugitive. That seems more likely now, because of his falling popularity, but of course, you can't predict these things with any great confidence.


Washington D.C.: Biggest Bush mistake re: Osama?

Steve Coll: Giving Osama the narrative of total global war that Osama wanted.


Steve Coll: Well, I have to chug along to the next stop on the book tour express. Thanks a lot for the questions and thanks to the Post and for having me.


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