In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an extraordinary photo came to light. Taken in 1971, it’s a holiday snapshot showing the Saudi bin Laden family on vacation in Sweden. There they are, twenty-two of them, with a healthy complement of brothers and sisters ranging from toddlers to tweens to twenty-somethings, posing in front of a big pink car, grinning and laughing, resplendent in crazy-patterned bell-bottoms and loud shirts. How could this family, looking so characteristic of its ’70s heyday—so Westernized, so likable, so much like us—have spawned the most virulent anti-American terrorist on earth?
Steve Coll sheds much light on the answer in The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. This absorbing book is something of a companion to Coll’s Ghost Wars (2004), which dissects the long history of US intelligence miscues in Afghanistan, the country that would become Osama bin Laden’s, and al-Qaeda’s, main operating base in the late ’90s. But where the earlier book chronicles the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, The Bin Ladens furnishes an invaluable psychobiographical background to the al-Qaeda leader’s life and career. And since the story of the bin Laden family parallels some of the leading currents of change then convulsing the global oil economy, the Islamic encounter with modernity, and the regional politics of the Middle East, Coll also ranges well beyond the story of one privileged and powerful Saudi Arabian clan.
When the photo of the Swedish holiday first surfaced after 9/11, Osama was mistakenly identified among his siblings, but it turns out he wasn’t there. And probably with good reason: At roughly the same time, Osama, then about thirteen, had gravitated into the orbit of an Islamist group run by a Syrian gym teacher at his private high school in Jidda. Always a shy, withdrawn child, a both “excluded and essential” figure in his family, Osama resisted the affinities that his more secular relatives shared for Western prosperity and pop culture, and sought comfort in the radical piety of the Islamist movement. However, as Coll shows, Osama’s eventual path in some ways also mirrored his family’s odyssey through the oil-rich world of postwar Saudi Arabia. In style, at least, the bin Ladens showed a strong penchant for extremismembracing extremes of wealth, procreation, ambition, entrepreneurial savvy, charisma, and stubbornness. Osama shares many of these traits. He’s the father of twenty-three children with at least four wives, and al-Qaeda under his leadership is a striking model of destructive entrepreneurship, carried out in a network of leaderless cells and sustained through the devotion of a young, fanatical following across the globe. As Coll suggests, Osama’s general skill set would likely have borne great success had it been harnessed to serve the bin Laden business empire.
At the same time, however, Coll dispels one stubborn myth about Osama’s career as a terrorist: the notion that he possessed vast personal wealth. Coll effectively demolishes this impression created in no small part by Osama himself— and rectifies some long-standing US confusion in both the press and the intelligence world regarding “basic questions about Osama’s supposed riches.” Those riches were first amassed by the clan’s patriarch, Mohamed bin Laden, who embodied a sort of Arab version of the American dream: Born into poverty in a Yemeni village, he left his home during a famine and crossed the border into Saudi Arabia. There this virtually illiterate one-eyed villager began work as a bricklayer and ultimately made a fortune in the construction business in the two decades following World War II, becoming the Saudi royal family’s most trusted contractor. His fortunes rose along with Saudi Arabia’s. Known as “a good-natured practical joker,” Mohamed was a devout Muslim, though certainly not a fanatic. Osama was just nine when his father died in a plane crash (the pilot was American) in early September 1967.
With the loss of Mohamed, his free-spirited eldest son, Salem, became both the family’s business leader and a father figure to his siblings. Salem was in many ways Osama’s polar opposite, a fun-loving and expansive British-educated bon vivant who chose to live large in America, a country he adored. His Western ties—if not always his fanciful temperament—helped him take the family business global. He developed important partnerships with companies like General Electric and paved the way for his family’s friendly ties with powerful Westerners, including former secretary of state James Baker, the first President Bush, even Prince Charles.
The bin Ladens tolerated Osama’s piety and aversion to the West, though most did not share his zeal. In such a huge family, having an extra-devout brother was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it was a point of pride. “Osama’s idealism and commitment were respected, even when he grated,” Coll observes. He suggests that after the family formally severed its ties with Osama in 1993 (at the behest of the Saudi government, which objected to his agitation against the state), some of his half sisters (whose identities and sympathies are not as traceable as those of the family’s higher-profile male members) may have discreetly channeled money to him.
Curiously, though, Osama and Salem got along fine, in part because they found their interests converging over time. For instance, they were both keen to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—as was the Saudi government. The Saudis and the bin Ladens rallied behind the Afghan Islamist mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union—together with covert commitments from the United States. Osama had settled in Peshawar, Pakistan, near the Afghan border, where he was fund-raising, building roads and tunnels, and providing arms to the Afghan fighters. Salem, wanting to support his kid brother and the Saudi royals to whom the family fortunes were tied, provided construction equipment and helped Osama buy weapons. Despite many rumors to the contrary, Coll finds no evidence that Osama ever had formal ties to the CIA during this period, though he was linked to the Saudi intelligence world.
Around the time the Afghan war ended, things started changing for Osama. Salem was killed in 1988, while piloting a light plane in Texas. Osama drifted back home to Jidda and took part in the family construction business, but his anger flared when American troops arrived on Saudi soil in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War. From there, his troubles mounted. The louder he voiced outrage at the infidels’ presence, the more uncomfortable Saudi leaders grew. He was stripped of his citizenship three years after he settled in Sudan in 1991, and lived there in relative comfort until 1996, when the Khartoum government threw him out. His old Afghan stomping ground proved to be his only haven, and from there, he fulminated and plotted attacks against the United States. After al-Qaeda’s deadly 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the unsuccessful retaliatory strikes that followed, cassettes praising Osama went on sale in Pakistan. One song included the refrain “You’ve seen one Osama. You’ll soon see a million.” But The Bin Ladens makes abundantly clear that there’s really only one Osama—and though he shares the ideology and outlook of many others, he is very much the peculiar, singular product of his exceptional family.
Coll argues that Osama’s main contributions to al-Qaeda “all derived from his experience as a Bin Laden: his emphasis on diversity and inclusion, his confidence about money and administration, and his attraction to the technologies of global integration . . . these family-derived strengths of Osama’s would become more important to Al Qaeda’s potency than its underlying Islamic ideology, which was commonplace among militant groups.” That’s a vital insight, providing much-needed depth and context to our understanding of Osama and the movement he leads. But other questions remain unanswered. Coll effectively pinpoints when and where Osama became radicalized, but it’s still not clear exactly why he diverged so violently from the rest of his mainstream Saudi family. What made him succumb to the influence of the gym teacher who ran the after-school Islamist meetings? Why did that particular father figure, and other similarly radical ones after him, fill the void left by Mohamed’s death more than Osama’s own “mild, reliable” stepfather could? And why did Osama’s anger at the United States, common to so many Arabs of his generation, mutate into outright hatred and the need to kill? Osama’s anti-US grievances—apart from his resentment of Washington for apparently pressuring Sudan to expel him in 1996—are political rather than personal. But as Coll emphasizes, Osama often felt isolated, victimized, and persecuted.
Even so, when his relatives faced personal trouble, they coped by making more money, going out horseback riding, or designing watches or perfumes. So the question remains: How did Osama’s specific set of emotional troubles morph into such large-scale murderous rage? We may never arrive at definitive answers to these questions. Still, Coll has brought us to the point where we can imagine such explanations taking shape—and in the confused, contentious litany of Western reckonings with al-Qaeda, that alone renders The Bin Ladens a remarkable and crucial achievement.
Hannah Bloch was Time magazine's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1996 to 2002.