May 20 2009

The Bin Ladens – An Arabian Family in the American Century

Published by at 1:29 pm under Books

by Steve Coll

A while ago, I listened to a podcast of a lecture given by the author of this book which was interesting enough to make me want to read it. Sure, that was the purpose of the lecture, and it worked. While reading, it soon became apparent that there are too many Bin Ladens for me to keep track of.
The patriarch of the family, Mohamed, had 53 children by a bunch of wives. As he was a scrupulous and devout Muslim so he had no more than 4 wives at a time, but women (really young girls) seem to be the way deals or alliances are confirmed in that culture. To keep within the acceptable limit of 4 wives, he had a number of short term wives some of whom provided him with children. As appropriate under his version of Islam, Mohamed took care of all his wifes and children even after he ‘divorced’ them. Osama was the only son of one such short term marriage. He and his mother were sort of transferred to a respectable employee who married the mother. They both continued to be included in the extended Bin Laden family; especially Osama. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
The book is about the family and not just Osama though he eventually dominates the narrative. Mohammed and Abdullah Bin Laden where penniless young boys from Yemen who emigrated to Saudi Arabia soon after that Kingdom had been created by the Al Saud tribe. They were clever, worked hard, took on any project, and most of all, were successful in cultivating the king and his extended family. Both the Saudis and the Bin Ladens were beneficiaries of excellent timing; the start of major oil explorationb and development in the Arabian Peninsula.
In telling the family’s story, the book focuses on the three patriarchs plus Osama. Mohammed is the founder and initial focus. He worked the system and ingratiated himself with the Al Saud family by taking on construction projects as they attempted, and succeeded at, spending their new found oil wealth. He was an interesting mix of conservative Islam and modernity. Uneducated but clever and bright. A conservative Muslim who selectively sought out and adopted aspects of western technology. Especially, airplanes and construction technology.
When Mohamed died in a crash of one of his airplanes while traveling to a construction site, his son, Salem, became the patriarch. Salam was a western educated playboy with a love of flying and other high speed games. He roamed around the world with a ever changing bunch of mostly western friends, but he took his family role seriously and knew how to act like a responsible Saudi when necessary. He too died in an airplane crash but this time in an ultralight he was playing in Texas.
The patriarch role then fell to a brother Bakr who was an executive in the Ben Laden Organization which is their main holding company. Almost a bureaucrat by style and much less of a world traveler, he has kept their relationship to the royal family and their construction empire together and growing.
As described in this book, the family has quite a range of characters from very liberal and westernized to very parochial and conservatively Muslim. The family officially disowned Osama, the extreme right wing, and the author seems to believe that they really did cut him off from his money in the mid 90’s. Not just announced they did. But, Osama has friends in the family and among the Saudi population. The recruiting and development of Osama’s radical opinions and actions is outlined sufficiently.
There is a lot of detail in the book about the family and Saudi society. Not all of it flattering. Worth reading.
Incidentally, both the CIA and the FBI are panned for handling of research on Osama Bin Laden and his family before 9/11. Just didn’t do a decent analysis. They accepted false information on the Bin Ladens at face value without any real verification and then kept repeating it.

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