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The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Centuryby Steve Coll
"To read Coll's book is to enter a universe of perpetual movement and deal-making, but one in which little, if anything, is recorded or written down, where power and money are distributed by means of kin networks, informal gatherings of influential Saudi males, and the mobile phone. The Bin Ladens is not so much a book about Osama bin Laden himself, or his terrorist network and political aspirations, as about the power structures of modern Saudi Arabia. And in this it is most informative." Fred Halliday, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the national bestseller Ghost Wars, Steve Coll presents the story of the Bin Laden famil‛s rise to power and privilege, revealing new information to show how American influences changed the family and how one membe‛s rebellion changed America
The Bin Ladens rose from poverty to privilege; they loyally served the Saudi royal family for generations¬—and then one of their number changed history on September 11, 2001. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll tells the epic story of the rise of the Bin Laden family and of the wildly diverse lifestyles of the generation to which Osama bin Laden belongs, and against whom he rebelled. Starting with the famil‛s escape from famine at the beginning of the twentieth century through its jet-set era in America after the 1970s oil boom, and finally to the famil‛s attempts to recover from September 11, The Bin Ladens unearths extensive new material about the family and its relationship with the United States, and provides a richly revealing and emblematic narrative of our globally interconnected times.
To a much greater extent than has been previously understood, the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama ultimately declared war¬—shopping centers, apartment complexes, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much more. They financed Hollywood movies and negotiated over real estate with Donald Trump. They came to regard George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family. And yet, as was true of the larger relationship between the Saudi and American governments, when tested by Osam‛s violence, the famil‛s involvement in the United States proved to be narrow and brittle.
Among the many memorable figures that cross these pages is Osam‛s older brother, Salem¬—a free-living, chainsmoking, guitar-strumming pilot, adventurer, and businessman who cavorted across America and Europe and once proposed marriage to four American and European girlfriends simultaneously, attempting to win a bet with the king of Saudi Arabia. Osama and Sale‛s father, Mohamed bin Laden, is another force in the narrative¬—an illiterate bricklayer who created the family fortune through perspicacity and wit, until his sudden death in an airplane crash in 1967, an accident caused by an error by his American pilot.
At the stor‛s heart lies an immigrant famil‛s attempt to adapt simultaneously to Saudi Arabi‛s puritanism and Americ‛s myriad temptations. The family generation to which Osama belonged¬—twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters¬—had to cope with intense change. Most of them were born into a poor society where religion dominated public life. Yet by the time they became young adults, these Bin Ladens found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and changing sexual mores¬—a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, because they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. How they navigated these demands is an authentic, humanizing story of Saudi Arabia, America, and the sources of attraction and repulsion still present in the countrie‛ awkward embrace.
"The bin Ladens are famous for spawning the world's foremost terrorist and building one of the Middle East's foremost corporate dynasties. Pulitzer Prize — winner Coll (Ghost Wars) delivers a sprawling history of the multifaceted clan, paying special attention to its two most emblematic members. Patriarch Mohamed's eldest son, Salem, was a caricature of the self-indulgent plutocrat: a flamboyant jet-setter dependent on the Saudi monarchy, obsessed with all things motorized (he died crashing his plane after a day's joy-riding atop motorcycle and dune-buggy) and forever tormenting his entourage with off-key karaoke. Coll presents quite a contrast with an unusually nuanced profile of Salem's half-brother Osama, a shy, austere, devout man who nonetheless shares Salem's egomania. Other bin Ladens crowd Coll's narrative with the eye-glazing details of their murky business deals, messy divorces and ill-advised perfume lines and pop CDs. Beneath the clutter one discerns an engrossing portrait of a family torn between tradition and modernity, conformism and self-actualization, and desperately in search of its soul. (April 1)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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. The bin Ladens, though their Horatio Alger story overlaps Western experience, emerge as unmistakably Middle Eastern — to the point of being torn asunder by today's religious struggles. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former Washington Post managing editor, leaves the psychology to his readers. He prefers writing on economics and politics, leavening them with anecdotes and gossip; the result is a fascinating panorama of a great family, presented within the context of the 9/11 drama. Blind in one eye, not quite 30, Mohamed bin Laden emigrated from Yemen between the world wars, just as the Saudi oil boom was getting underway, and found a job as a bricklayer with Aramco, the Arabian American oil company. More than a good worker, he was an organizer, with an innate sense of business and engineering, and in 1935 he was helped by his employer to set up his own firm. Successful in building homes for princes, he won the notice of the king and erected one of the first royal residences. From there he advanced to the luxury palaces for which the ruling House of Saud is known, then to creation of the country's road network. He renovated the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, and went off to restore Jerusalem's Mosque of Omar. He also built military installations to assure the Saud dynasty's security. Like the Saudi royals, Mohamed bin Laden was rigorous in prayer but liberal in interpreting the Koran's sexual strictures. He married countless times, occasionally for business reasons, often out of whimsy, sometimes to women he kept with him, usually to women he legally divorced. In 1958 alone, his wives gave birth to seven children, among them Osama, whose mother was a 15-year-old Syrian from whom Mohamed quickly split. He fathered at least 54 offspring before he died in 1967, in a plane crash during the inspection of a construction site in the desert. Although he acquired his children casually, Mohamed took his responsibility to them seriously. It was impossible to calculate his net worth, Coll writes, given the indifference to financial management in Saudi Arabia; the royal family alone may have owed him $100 million, which it would pay at its pleasure. But, following Islamic law, he willed each of his 25 sons 2.7 percent of his company's assets, while each daughter received 1 percent. These bequests assured them the means to finish their education and live comfortably, with a small surplus to help out their divorced mothers, who under Islamic law received nothing. Still, contrary to popular notions, the bin Laden heirs were not born hugely rich. Most of the males went to work in the family company, where they gradually built fortunes. Osama, Coll writes, was an exception in dedicating much of his money to Islamic political causes. But even his personal wealth, Coll says, fell far short of paying for the terrorist network he later founded. For that, he had to raise funds among true believers within the wider Islamic world. Though never estranged from his family, Osama grew up in a separate household in Jeddah, with a stepfather whom Mohamed chose. From time to time, he journeyed to Syria for visits with his mother's kin. Coll's interviews with family members and classmates paint him as an unusually timid boy, but otherwise quite average. After Mohamed's death, he was enrolled in a good private school — English in academics, Saudi in religious orientation. In his teens, he supplemented his studies with religious instruction and gravitated to membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that was then spreading through Arab society, promoting fundamentalist values. At 17, he married a 14-year-old cousin, who quickly bore him a son; he kept her in strict Islamic seclusion. Though increasingly religious, he had done well at school in commerce and technology, and after graduation he joined his half brothers in the family construction firm. The year 1979, when he was 21, marked a turning point for Osama and for Saudi Arabia. It was the year of the Iranian revolution, which ignited widespread religious militancy. Islamic radicals struck at royal power in a wild attack on the Holy Mosque in Mecca, and, though suppressed in bloody battle, the assault left the state badly shaken. The Sauds solicited help from the United States to preserve their status, and authorized construction of a major American base on Saudi soil. Osama made clear his disapproval of the infidel presence, generating tensions within the bin Laden family, which stood to profit handsomely from the project. The next year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The bin Ladens rallied to make major contributions to the Afghan resistance, preponderantly Islamic, and sent Osama to Pakistan to oversee the distribution of funds. His work, being anti-communist, pasted over the family rift and delayed his own break with the Sauds and their American allies. By the mid-'80s, bin Laden moved beyond money matters to supplying arms to the Afghan irregulars, the mujaheddin, then to recruiting and training Arab militants to fight alongside them. Arms were now cheap. The United States was flooding the market, chiefly with Stingers, the anti-aircraft missiles that assured the Russians' defeat. Coll found no record of CIA meetings with bin Laden. The agency knew who he was but showed no special interest in him or awareness of the danger his militancy represented. Osama founded al-Qaeda soon after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. He then returned to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind his followers to support the fundamentalist Taliban in the postwar struggle among Afghan factions. But he never reconciled with the Sauds, and he broke with them openly when they invited U.S. troops onto their soil for the looming war against Iraq. His offer to send al-Qaeda to fight Iraq if the invitation was revoked brought only laughter. The confrontation created a dilemma for the bin Laden family: Much as it loved the profits of building for the Americans, it had no stomach for fraternal schism. Finally, the king put his foot down, and the family cut off the wayward brother from his company stipends. Osama, with three wives (a fourth had recently left him), 11 sons and an unrecorded number of daughters, chose exile in Sudan, then was informed he could not stay. In 1996, he flew back to a warm reception among his sympathizers in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, where he presumably remains to this day. Coll dwells only in passing on the violence later attributed to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. He charts Osama's rising anger at the Sauds and at America. He leaves no doubt that Osama's organizational and fundraising talents remained sharp; he even credits Osama's engineering with making the caves of Tora Bora, where he took refuge, impregnable to U.S. forces. As for bin Laden's kin, Coll suggests that, though most retain warm feelings for him, after 9/11 necessity forced them to distance themselves from his actions. Taken together, they seem more bewildered than angered by the course he has chosen. Responsible for what is now a global company, the brothers have been particularly stringent; the sisters appear to be more sympathetic. Whether any of them secretly sends him money remains uncertain. As for the 9/11 conspiracy, Coll repeats little of what we already know. Instead, he has chosen to write about a man and his family, enriching our understanding of the powerful impact they have made on our times. Milton Viorst, who has covered the Middle East for 40 years, has written a half-dozen books on the region. The most recent is 'Storm from the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West.'" Reviewed by Milton Viorst, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
In The Bin Ladens, two- time Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll continues where Ghost Wars left off, shedding new light on one of the most elusive families of the twenty-first century. Rising from a famine-stricken desert into luxury, private compounds, and even business deals with Hollywood celebrities, the Bin Ladens have benefited from the tensions and contradictions in a country founded on extreme religious purity, suddenly thrust into a world awash in oil, money, and the temptations of the West. But what do these incongruities mean for globalization, the War on Terror, and America's place in the Middle East? Meticulously researched, The Bin Ladens is the story of a remarkably varied and often dangerous family that has used money, mobility, and technology to dramatically different ends.
The rise and rise of the Bin Laden family is one of the great stories of the twentieth century; its repercussions have already deeply marked the twenty-first. Until now, however, it is a story that has never been fully told, as the Bin Ladens have successfully fended off attempts to understand the family circles from which Osama sprang. In this the family has been abetted by the kingdom it calls home, Saudi Arabia, one of the most closed societies on earth.
Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century is the groundbreaking history of a family and its fortune. It chronicles a young illiterate Yemeni bricklayer, Mohamed Bin Laden, who went to the new, oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia and quickly became a vital figure in its development, building great mosques and highways and making himself and many of his children millionaires. It is also a story of the Saudi royal family, whom the Bin Ladens served loyally and without whose capricious favor they would have been nothing. And it is a story of tensions and contradictions in a country founded on extreme religious purity, which then became awash in oil money and dazzled by the temptations of the West. In only two generations the Bin Ladens moved from a famine- stricken desert canyon to luxury jets, yachts, and private compounds around the world, even going into business with Hollywood celebrities. These religious and cultural gyrations resulted in everything from enthusiasm for America—exemplified by Osama’s free-living pilot brother Salem—to an overwhelming determination to destroy it.
The Bin Ladens is a meticulously researched, colorful, shocking, entertaining, and disturbing narrative of global integration and its limitations. It encapsulates the unsettling contradictions of globalization in the story of a single family who has used money, mobility, and technology to dramatically varied ends.
About the Author
Steve Coll is a writer for The New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. He is president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. Previously he served, for more than twenty years, as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and ultimately as managing editor of The Washington Post. He is also the author of On the Grand Trunk Road, The Deal of the Century, and The Taking of Getty Oil. Coll received a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism and the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for outstanding international print reporting and the 2000 Overseas Press Club Award for best magazine reporting from abroad. Ghost Wars, published in 2004, received the Pulitzer for general nonfiction and the Arthur Ross award for the best book on international affairs.
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