'Osama’s not as complicated as some of his siblings. If he had been, he wouldn’t have become so violent and stubborn.’


April 14 2008

'Osama’s not as complicated as some of his siblings. If he had been, he wouldn’t have become so violent and stubborn.’


April 14 2008

'Osama’s not as complicated as some of his siblings. If he had been, he wouldn’t have become so violent and stubborn.’


Q Your biography, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, describes an epic, rags-to-riches trajectory. How did Osama’s father, Mohamed, an illiterate peasant from Yemen, become the go-to guy for the Saudi Arabian royal family?

A: He arrived in Jeddah at the age of 14 or so, and initially, he just husded. He slept on the ground and learned how to become a mason and bricklayer. After the Second World War, with the birth of the oil age in Saudi Arabia, this very young society found itself awash in cash and the royal family began to spend it, first on themselves, and then on national infrastructure. Mohamed bin Laden was ambitious, and he seized the opportunity.

Q: But how did he succeed when international companies had failed?

A: The Saudi princes would commission something like a road from Jeddah to Mecca so pilgrims could travel more easily, and big companies like Bechtel would come in with bulldozers and trained engineers. But then o they’d get a phone call from a prince who’d ^ say, “My air conditioner needs repair, please of come over.” You had to be a full-service con^ cierge, and there were instances where bull</) dozers and grading equipment were diverted ^ to palaces to dig gardens. As the international ¡¡j companies became frustrated, Mohamed bin ^ Laden persuaded the royal family that he’d Z do business their way.

Q: Was he as skilled at managing down?

A: He was a great manager of diversity. Saudi Arabia is a notably xenophobic culture, yet he succeeded by leading an extraordinarily pluralistic workforce—Africans, Pakistanis, Indians, Palestinians, Lebanese—as well as European and American engineers. Also, he led from the front. He was on the job sites all the time, driving the machinery and inserting the dynamite in the cliff wall if need be.

Q: He had many wives and 54 children, and relatively little contact with any one of them. How much influence did he have on Osama?

A: As a child, Osama would have seen enough of his father’s style of leadership to have understood it. Most Islamists, and even secular nationalist radical groups in the Arab world, have failed because of their tendencies toward factionalism. Like his father, Osama is notable for his ability to attract and hold followers not just from all over the Arab world—which is exceptional enough—but also the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, India. The other way his father influenced him was in his interest in the technologies of modernization—his father was, for example, the first owner of private aircraft in Saudi Arabia—and new ways of doing things.

Q: Osama comes off in your book as something of a mama’s boy. Was that because his mother was only 14 or 15 when she had him, so they were relatively close in age?

A: She was taken away from her family in Syria in circumstances that appear to have been transactional: her family bequeathed

her to a wealthy businessman three times her age, who divorced her after she had a child. Mohamed did arrange for her remarriage to a manager in his company, but those circumstances—a young mother and her only child, alone in a new place—meant they clung to one another. And later, as the male heir to Mohamed bin Laden, Osama had the wealth and status that would define his stepfamily’s privilege, so he was really the golden child in that family. You can imagine what kind of dynamic that might have created.

Q: Until he was 15, Osama was a middling student and not really a standout for anything aside from good manners. But then, you discovered he was recruited into a special study group, and everything changed.

A: He was attending a day school in Jeddah where the boys wore grey flannel slacks and blue blazers, when a Syrian gym teacher recruited him into an after-school study group. This teacher was a member of and recruiter for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood began as an anti-colonial movement, and it has always had both violent and peaceful aspects, both political and proselytizing aspects. When Osama was recruited, there was an emphasis on pure religious study, but those who were in the study group with him stress the political nature of what was taught. There was an emphasis on political action and breaking with your parents.

Q: Did his increasing piety have an antiAmerican component?

A: Not really. As a boy, he watched Bon-

anza and various westerns on TV, and when he was briefly at boarding school in Lebanon, he went to kung fu movies. Later, he drove American and German cars, and seems always to have been open to technology and gadgets from the West. He was never the sort of anti-modern Islamist that the Taliban later represented.

Q: Was his strict observance of Islam seen as normal by the bin Ladens, or was he an outlier?

A: Both. On one hand, through the early ’90s he was entirely mainstream, a junior executive in good standing at the family company. Even when he went to the war in Afghanistan, in the anti-Soviet years, he was acting in an entirely orthodox way: furthering Saudi royal family policy. His family’s company had become by then sort of the Haliburton of Saudi Arabia, and he was just managing that particular field project. But in another way, he was an outlier: many of his brothers and sisters became Westernized.

Q: Salem, the eldest son and leader of the family after Mohamed’s death in 1967, had a house near Disney World and loved rock music. Why didn’t any ofthat rub off on Osama?

A: Partly it was that Salem died prematurely, in 1988, and partly it was that Osama turns out to be an incredibly stubborn personality. His followers would call him righteous and unshakeable in his faith; to an outsider, he looks like an unimaginative and not very complex personality who found a way of thinking and living at a young age, and decided never to change course. He’s not as complicated and interesting as some of his siblings— if he had been, he probably wouldn’t have become so violent and stubborn. I have come to share the view of a lot of people who knew the bin Ladens that if Salem had lived, 9/11 might well never have happened.

Q: He would’ve cut Osama off financially?

A Yes. But even if he’d had to go into Sudan and bundle Osama into a burlap sack and stick him in the Medina office under house arrest, you have the feeling Salem would’ve done that. He was such a forceful personality.

Q: You write about a comical girlfriend summit Salem convened, when he tried to convince four of his Western girlfriends to marry him and live together in a Saudi compound. How did you unearth these kinds of stories?

A: I went to places in the U.S. where I knew the bin Ladens had been, and started looking through public records. In the case of the girlfriends, and a lot of the people who cooperated, they really loved Salem and wanted him to be remembered in all his fullness. A lot of them said, “What took you so long?”

With George Harrington, the ultralight [aircraft] salesman who knew Salem and met Osama, I knocked on his door in Houston at nine in the morning—I couldn’t find a phone number, and it’s usually better to go in person anyway—and he said, “I’ve been waiting since 9/11 for someone to turn up.”

Q: Many bin Ladens, including some of Osama’s sisters, know how to fly, and his father and Salem were both killed in aviation accidents. Is it just a coincidence that Osama used planes as weapons?

A: The pattern of aviation disasters involving Americans was prominent enough that it seems likely that in conscious and unconscious ways, it influenced his ability to visualize and embrace such a plan of attack. The error of an American pilot led to the death of his father. His brother, who was supplying him weapons and money [to support the antiSoviet cause in Afghanistan], died mysteriously—though I do believe it was an accident, it was one without much explication, for such an experienced pilot. In fact, his brothers went to Texas after Salem’s death with the belief that there could have been a plot to kill him. Osama, as the most prominent recipient of Salem’s support, would’ve been a very unusual person if he hadn’t entertained such a theory. That Salem’s death occurred right at the time he was forming al-Qaeda is all the more suggestive.

Q: Would Osama have become a leader if he hadn’t come from such a wealthy family?

A: Probably not. The portrait of Osama is one of an incredibly shy, timid and orthodox personality. He grew very slowly into leadership, and then he’s a leader in circumstances created by his wealth and resources, not his own transforming talent or energy.

Q: How strong were the family’s links to Western political figures?

A: There were ties to the Bush family and president Carter, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a number of congressman. Not intimate, let’sgo-duck-hunting ties, but not light ties, either. Certainly the bin Ladens’ ties to the U.S. government and military during the first Gulf War were substantial and involved exchanges of commendations and active collaboration. Osama feared that the deepening ties between the U.S. and Saudi governments would create a subtle shift in the character of Saudi Arabia and make the country more secular.

Q: How extensive were the family’s American holdings on 9hi ?

A: They began to unwind them in the late ’90s, when Osama—who was divested of his shareholdings in the two main family companies in 1994—became an open and violent adversary of the U.S. At their peak, various bin Ladens owned homes in a number of states, and had business investments in shop-

ping centres and warehouses, an aircraft company and a retirement community, even a privatized prison. At one point, one of the brothers had a share in an Arabian horse owned by country singer Kenny Rogers.

Q: Is Osama an ongoing terrorist threat?

A: Al-Qaeda has revived itself along the Afghan border, and it’s clear in cases like the attack on the London subways and in some aborted attacks in Britain, Germany and Denmark that they are being run directly by al Qaeda. Osama’s significance is probably not so much as an operator but as a communicator. The al-Qaeda media arm runs unmolested. They’ve obviously got a lot of laptops and they put out an extraordinary array of audiotapes and videotapes. His ability to continue to speak to global audiences and to define the cause and who the enemy is—it’s still important, though I think his moment has

'He’s a leader in circumstances created by his wealth, not his own talent or energy’

passed as a galvanizing figure for broaderbased resentments in the Arab world.

Q: Has the entire family repudiated him?

A: They’ve issued statements repudiating him, and the family’s belief is that’s enough. I think many people in the U.S. might wish to hear more. But the family feels it’s caught between anger and repulsion in the West toward Osama, and residual support in the Arab world for his defiance of the U.S. And finally, the bin Ladens fear becoming a target of al-Qaeda if they make themselves too prominent an opponent of Osama. M