Sons of a self- made man
THEY descend from a patriarch who made a fortune in the wild west of early 20th- century capitalism. Their family history is haunted by aircraft crashes, illegitimate children and the expectations of public life. Many of them were educated at elite prep schools and America’s best universities. They are not the Kennedys, but another dynasty, the bin Ladens.
In this fascinating, well- told new book, Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll paints a vivid portrait of Saudia Arabia’s most visible merchant class family. The Western world became aware of them only after one of Mohammed bin Laden’s 54 ( legitimate) children, Osama, launched a war on the West when he masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But their name would not be news to anyone in the Middle East.
In Saudia Arabia, the bin Laden name was synonymous with building. An illiterate Mohammed left the desert wilds of Yemen, went to Saudi Arabia and earned a fortune as a foreman, at first through sweat, labour and talent, and later by skilfully manipulating his connections to the royal family.
If the king needed a power station, bin Laden would underbid the contract and build it, even if he had no experience in the realm. His small army of workers built roads, dams and even, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, Saudi military bases. Ultimately, bin Laden’s company helped renovate and restore some of the holiest sites in Islam.
Coll never allows the stain that Osama bin Laden has brought to this family to colour his writing. Instead, The Bin Ladens , subtitled An Arabian Family in the American Century in its US edition, spins a straightforward family tale of intrigue and close connections to the royal family, and in so doing tells us more about the man behind al- Qa’ida than any other book published to date.
Given how many children he sired, Mohammed was an aloof, out- of- touch father. But he wasn’t uninvolved. He met his children annually, brought them to his construction sites, encouraged them to go to the best schools in the Middle East and to travel abroad.
One of the key figures to emerge from the portrait is not Osama, but his eldest half- brother Salem, a fast- living prankster educated in Britain, who became the family hub after his father’s death in a plane crash in 1967. Unlike the quiet Osama, he had the stamina and gregarious desire to please to keep the large family together.
But he has apparently done it his own way. Salem branched out into US real estate, buying up tracts of land outside Orlando, taking relatives to Disney World. After haemorrhoid surgery in the US, he liked to show pictures of his rear to the royal family. He dated Western women, collected small aircraft and doled out family allowances, which can run towards $ US300,000 ($ 330,000) a year for heirs.
He’s a striking contrast to Osama, for he has managed being Saudi in the American century differently, even though he and his brothers were educated in cosmopolitan settings.
Coll has done some serious digging and turns up new information about Osama’s adolescence, which wasn’t as wild and playboy as has been assumed. Like Craig Unger in House of Bush, House of Saud , Coll correctly places bin Laden at the distinguished Quaker Brummana High School in Lebanon, which several bin Ladens attended, but gets some of the information about Osama’s classmates incorrect. It’s a minor quibble in a large narrative, but it caused this reader to question what other small but telling details might be slightly off base.
Like Coll’s previous book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 , The Bin Ladens relies on such details to make his story tangible. Many of them here point to the importance of family in bin Laden’s life, of revenge, of the inherited ambition to achieve something for the kingdom. Here’s one, though, that will be hard to forget. Five of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/ 11 were recruited from the Saudi village where bin Laden’s father’s plane crashed. The pilot of that plane was American. John Freeman is president of the US National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.
On the road to 9/ 11: Osama bin Laden with one of his children at his compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2001