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'The Bin Ladens,' A Complicated Family Tree

Author Steve Coll details the complicated family history of Osama bin Laden, one of 54 children born to Mohamed bin Laden. The elder bin Laden transformed himself from an illiterate bricklayer into an immensely wealthy and powerful businessman.

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Transcript

DATE April 1, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Journalist Steve Coll, author of "The Bin Ladens," on
Osama bin Laden and his family's fortune and exploits
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As Osama bin Laden continues to release threatening messages, we're going to
take a look at the privileged family he comes from and the different ways
inherited wealth and exposure to Western culture affected him and his
siblings: that's 25 brothers and 29 sisters. They were the first bin Laden
generation born in Saudi Arabia. Their father, Mohamed, emigrated from a
remote town in Yemen and made his fortune as the royal family's contractor.

My guest, Steve Coll, is the author of the new book "The Bin Ladens: An
Arabian Family in the American Century." He won a Pulitzer Prize for his
previous book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and
bin Laden." Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter
and managing editor at The Washington Post. He's president of The New America
Foundation, a public policy institute.

Steve Coll, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, one of the many things that
emerges in your book is that the father who built the bin Laden fortune, or
his children who are involved in business, or his son Osama, who is the
world's most famous terrorist, they were all global in their own way. I mean,
his father's business was global, Osama's brother Salem's business was global,
and Osama was a global terrorist. I mean, he has drawn on Islamists from
around the Arab world.

Mr. STEVE COLL: I think that's exactly right; and that was, as I got into
the research, the most striking theme. And what was remarkable was how early
that pattern is visible in their experience over the course of the 20th
century. The father who created this fortune, he was a migrant to Saudi
Arabia from a remote part of Yemen, belonged to a diaspora that traveled
widely, even in the era of sailing ships and colonial empires. And as early
as the 1950s he had agents in New York, he had engineers from Italy,
consultants from the United States; he led groups of workers from all over the
Arab and Islamic world. And one of his gifts was that he was a great leader
of diverse followers, diverse workers, diverse executives, but always in the
context of a unifying culture of Islam as defined by orthodoxy in Saudi
Arabia. And I think a lot of that is visible in Osama's own career, though he
employed these gifts for much different ends.

GROSS: Well, and we talk about globalism, I mean, one of my favorite examples
is one of Osama's brothers, Hassan bin Laden, who was heavily invested in the
franchise the Hard Rock Cafe Middle East.

Mr. COLL: Yeah.

GROSS: It's just like such an amazing story.

Mr. COLL: The extent to which these brothers, this generation of 25 brothers
to which Osama belonged, made such varied choices simultaneously, is just
striking over and over again, and of course of their narrative. And Hassan
ends up buying the right to develop Hard Rock Cafe franchises in Kuwait and
Beirut and Turkey; and you end up with these juxtapositions in the mid-'90s
where Hassan is opening a new Hard Rock Cafe in Beirut and he's plastered the
walls with John Lennon lyrics from songs like "Imagine" and rock 'n' roll
paraphernalia. And at the same time, just a few hundred miles away, his
half-brother is collecting people and ideas to wage war against the very
values that his brother is celebrating with fireworks and rock 'n' roll. So
that range of identities and choices within that generation, to which Osama
belonged, that's the real fascination, I think, of the larger story of the
family.

GROSS: And I think one of the more interesting members of the bin Laden
family is the oldest of the sons, Salem. And he studied in London. He loved
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He wanted to sing. A friend of his, in a
band that he often sat in on, married Emmylou Harris. And you write that
Salem had a lot of business interests, but he really wanted to sing, and he'd
often like pay to be able to sing at parties, including an Academy Award
party. Can you talk a little bit about how Salem figures in to the bin Laden
family?

Mr. COLL: Well, he was as enthusiastic about the West as Osama later proved
hostile to it, and there's a streak of charisma in the bin Laden family. It's
present in the father, it's very much present in Salem. He, for me, as a
researcher and a writer, proved to be such a gift. I had no idea that such a
character resided in the bin Laden family. He was a pilot, an adventurer, a
musician, a deceptively serious man; deceptive because his way of living was
so full of fun and travel. He was a man who thought nothing of getting in one
of his private planes and flying from Paris to New York to Texas to California
and then back across the Pacific. And he organized around him a sort of
entourage of like-minded aviators and rock 'n' roll musicians, mechanics. He
was a very egalitarian character. He had no time for snobs or for social
status. He was somebody who liked to play and do business, and in many ways
he seemed very American in spirit, and he adapted to the American ethos with
great ease.

And he died in 1988, two months before al-Qaeda was formed. And he was a very
important influence in Osama's life. In fact, a collaborator with Osama
during the anti-Soviet war. And many people today close to the family believe
that if Salem had lived, 9/11 would never have happened because he was such a
forceful personality; and he had the kind of relationship with Osama, these
people speculate, that would've led him eventually to intervene as Osama
became increasingly radicalized and somehow prevent the history that did
unfold from unfolding.

GROSS: Osama and his oldest brother, Salem, are such interesting contrasts.
You know, Salem's passions included business, music and women. Did he have a
lot of extramarital relationships?

Mr. COLL: Salem did, though he was also divorced during some of the periods
of his cavorting; but, you know, he was not someone who collected women in
some pathological way. All of the women I was able to find who had been part
of his life at one stage or another truly loved him, found him sweet and easy
to be with. But he did have this Arabian fantasy that he could have multiple
wives, and he adapted that fantasy to the West and, at one point, proposed
simultaneously to four of his Western girlfriends--one American, one French,
one German and a fourth English--simultaneously at his mansion in London.

And one of the women who was present provides a recollection on the record of
how it went; and she's amazing in the way she tells it. She's a very likeable
person, and she just says, `Well, you know, I thought about it, didn't seem
like such a terrible idea.' She was 22 or 23. And he was offering each of
them a house of their own in Saudi Arabia with a flag from their country of
origin flying in front. And each of them would receive a car from their own
country; and this woman, the American who was recounting i t, said she thought
to herself, `Well, this is no good. I don't really want a Cadillac, and this
woman from Germany's going to get a Mercedes.' It was this sort of fantasy
world that Salem created wherever he went, and then which people somehow took
seriously.

And there is some kind of odd parallel between that and the fantasy world that
Osama created that people around him also took seriously.

GROSS: What do you see as the parallel?

Mr. COLL: Well, the charisma, this ability to create spaces, realities to
redefine the world; and also this way of living, as you said earlier, in a
sort of borderless culture, where none of the rules and none of the inherited
lines on the map are to be accepted. And Salem, in his very secular, mobile,
pilot/adventurer/rock 'n' roll musician way, he reinvented the map in which he
lived. And Osama, in his Islamist, radicalized, anti-Western way, did
something very similar.

GROSS: Here's another great contrast between Osama and his older brother
Salem. Now, Osama has made all these like terrorist videos warning about
imminent destruction and al-Qaeda attacks, and the multimedia thing that you
write about that his brother Salem did was his hemorrhoid multimedia show.
Would you just describe it? This seems so trivial in some ways, but it's just
so fascinating.

Mr. COLL: Well, Salem was a great prankster, and he lived to entertain in a
lot of ways. And this extended to every facet of his life. At some stage in
the mid- to late-'80s, he required hemorrhoid surgery, and he became very
self-dramatizing about this. He insisted on hiring some very experienced
cardiovascular surgeon, someone with far more skill than is typically required
for hemorrhoid surgery, but nonetheless he insisted. And he went to New York
at Columbia Presbyterian and he had the surgery, and then he brought in
cameras into the operating theater and filmed the whole episode from the point
of view of his backside, and then took the video around Saudi Arabia and sort
of shocked and entertained the royal family, up to and including the king,
with displays of his own experience in hemorrhoid surgery.

And there was this way in which he ingratiated himself with the Saudi royal
family--which was a crucial business strategy for the bin Ladens, because all
financial favor flowed from the whim of the Saudi royals. And he ingratiating
himself with them by essentially violating their sense of decorum, by being
outrageous, but doing it in a way that just worked somehow, that was funny,
that people wanted to be around. And that sort of hemorrhoid video was
something that a dozen people I met recounted the moment when he put it on the
screen and how they felt and how people laughed. It was the way he lived.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll. His new
book is called "The bin Ladens." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Call. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden."
His new book is all about the bin Laden family. It's called "The Bin Ladens:
An Arabian Family in the American Century."

Now, Salem died right before Osama bin Laden created al-Qaeda. But in the
years before that, when Osama was working with the mujahideen in Afghanistan
trying to oust the Russians, did Salem, who was the businessman in the family,
or one of the businessmen in the family, did he help Osama with money? Did he
give him money to buy arms?

Mr. COLL: He did. He helped Osama in a number of ways, and it's remarkable
to come across the sort of details of their collaboration because, as you've
said before, they were such extraordinarily different characters. But what
they had in common were several things. First their business interests. The
bin Ladens, by the 1980s, were essentially the Halliburton of Saudi Arabia.
They were granted sole-source contracts for sensitive defense and intelligence
projects. In the '60s they had built the defensive infrastructure that Saudi
Arabia required during a war against Yemen. And their involvement in the
Afghan war was similar, it was an entirely authorized Saudi project. In fact,
it was in alignment with American foreign policy and intelligence policy at
the time.

So Osama, on the Afghan frontier in the 1980s, was essentially a
representative of a business collaboration between the bin Ladens and the
Saudi government. And so in that sense, Salem collaborated with him because
it was part of the ordinary course of doing business. Yet they were involved
in a war that was increasingly inflected with jihadi theology and ideology.
And so you have, dropping into this war, a man--Salem--who brings with him
rock 'n' roll musicians and shaggy-haired mechanics and chain-smoking Swedes.
And they are these marvelous scenes where they encounter Osama. Salem drives
them up to the frontier or flies them up to the frontier, and Osama politely
shakes hands with these sort of hippie-looking friends of Salem. Or, in
London, Salem arranges to sell weapons to Osama, brings Osama out to London
luxury hotels in the late 1980s--this is something I certainly didn't have any
hint of before doing this research--and as he goes into the meetings with the
arms dealers, he has to say to his European friends, `OK, now, look, my
brother is really, really religious, so no jokes. Put your cigarettes out.
Treat me with respect. This is only going to last 45 minutes, but behave.'
And that was the nature of their collaboration with one another.

But I think Osama looked upon Salem with great respect and, at least according
to his mother and other sources, looked upon him with great affection as well,
notwithstanding his very different lifestyle.

GROSS: Salem was, among other things, a pilot, and he died in a plane crash
when he was at the controls. And there were several other bin Laden children
who are or were pilots; and, you know, the history of piloting and Salem's
plane crash death made me wonder if there was any connection, consciously or
unconsciously, in bin Laden's mind, between how planes figured into his family
and the fact that he used planes as weapons on 9/11.

Mr. COLL: Yeah, I try in the book not to go beyond where the evidence
strictly leaves off, but I do think that the pattern of these events in
Osama's life is very powerful. His father dies in a plane crash caused by an
error by an American pilot. His eldest brother, who's providing him with
financial and materiel aid in the late 1980s, then dies in a freak accident
involving a recreational ultra-light aircraft in San Antonio, Texas, just
outside of San Antonio. Mysterious accident. I've investigated it. I've
come to the conclusion that it was an accident, but an inexplicable one in
many ways. And it would be an unusual Arabian who did not hold those events
in mind, and who did not wonder, certainly in the case of Salem's death,
whether there were perhaps other explanations, a conspiracy to kill him for
some reason. In fact, Osama's own brothers traveled to Texas to look into the
matter themselves, suspecting that perhaps foul play had been involved.

More broadly there's, at a conscious or unconscious level, this pattern over
and over again in bin Laden family life of aviation disasters involving
Americans. And even beyond that specific theme, aviation and the power of
mobility and the power of border-crossing technology is obviously present in
Osama's sense of himself as a terrorist leader and as a tactician. So it
doesn't require a great leap for him to imagine and carry out a plot like that
that he pulled off on September 11th. To many Americans at that time, it
seemed like an ingenious invention; but, in fact, you can see that it's rooted
in his own experience and in his own imagination, whether conscious or
unconscious.

GROSS: Osama bin Laden's father, Mohamed bin Laden, went from poverty in
Yemen to being tight with the royal family in Saudi Arabia and creating a
couple of really big, profitable enterprises, business enterprises. How did
he first get tight with the royal family in Saudi Arabia as an outsider coming
from Yemen?

Mr. COLL: Well, he arrived at the cusp of the Great Depression; and for most
of the '30s and the very disruptive period of the second world war, he
basically hustled for a living and as a small-time contractor and bricklayer,
trained himself, began to develop the skills and the vision required to go
into business on his own. It's really after the end of the second world war,
though, that he breaks out and that he ingratiates himself with the royal
family. And he succeeds largely because he's willing to work in a way that
the royal family requires, and in a way where other construction companies
from abroad--American companies like Bechtel, English companies, German
companies--they can't deal with the whims and the idiosyncrasies of the Saudi
royal family in the early days, in their kind of palace-building phase, where
they were essentially interested in surrounding themselves with personal
luxuries and to a secondary extent only investing in national infrastructure.
They worked in irregular ways.

And Mohamed bin Laden essentially discovered how to perform as a kind of
concierge service for the royal family. He accommodated them and gave them
what they wanted; and in doing so he essentially took business
away--gradually, over the 1950s--from the international corporations that had
initially been invited in to start to build Saudi Arabia with its oil wealth.
And the Saudis loved him because he was willing to accept late payments and do
personal projects and be patient, and he was also one of their own. Even
though he was an immigrant, he was a Saudi figure increasingly, and I think
the Saudi royal family took some pride in having created, in effect, an
indigenous fortune of the sort he represented.

GROSS: What were Mohamed bin Laden's greatest accomplishments?

Mr. COLL: He was a very successful businessman in the whole range of
endeavor that Saudi Arabia undertook between the end of the second world war
and the mid-1960s. So this included building roads, it included building
palaces and offices and all sorts of other infrastructure. But I think his
greatest source of distinction was his position as the sole contractor for the
three holiest cities in Islam--Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem--where he won
contract after contract, granted by the Saudi government, by religious
authorities, even by international religious authorities in Jerusalem, to
undertake sensitive renovations and improvements at these places of worship.

His time in Jerusalem is particularly striking because he was granted--with
the support of the Saudi government--contracts to renovate the Dome of the
Rock, the third holiest site in Islam; and he did so with crews that included
Catholics from Italy and Muslims from Saudi Arabia and Palestinians. He ended
up owning property in Jerusalem. And he took, toward the end of his life,
enormous pride in this status that he enjoyed as a sort of a religious
builder.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist Steve Coll, author of the new book "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian
Family in the American Century." It's about the different ways Osama bin Laden
and his siblings were affected by their inherited wealth and their exposure to
Western culture. It's also about how their father, Mohamed, made his fortune.
When we left off, Coll was describing Mohamed's work as the sole contractor
for the three holiest cities in Islam: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Mohamed
also owned property in Jerusalem.

This gets to something that you've discovered in your book that I don't think
was known before, which is that Mohamed bin Laden owned land or real estate in
Jerusalem and, after the '67 Arab-Israeli war, was forced out. Tell us that
story and how that figures into the bin Laden family.

Mr. COLL: Yeah. In a technical and a legal sense, essentially the bin
Ladens are, in some small way, Palestinian refugees. They belong to the
population that claims a right of return to Israel as a result of the
territory that was taken in the 1967 war. He owned a house there and was able
to find documents describing the contracting work that had brought him to
Jerusalem, and then to trace the ownership of the house through interviews
with Israeli citizens, and essentially his property was taken over by Israeli
land authorities after the 1967 war, and then sold and re-sold. It was once
owned by an Israeli naval officer, and it's now owned by an Arab citizen of
Israel.

And of course the bin Ladens are wealthy and ensconced in Saudi Arabia and are
not in any meaningful way Palestinians; but it was striking to see that
Osama's own repeated rhetorical claims to a piece of the Israel narrative were
actually rooted in greater truth than I think has typically been presumed. In
fact, a lot of analysts of Osama--myself among them in the past--have sort of
ridiculed his attempts to claim allegiance with the Palestinian cause because
it wasn't clear what purchase he had on that narrative and on those
grievances. And the discovery that his father really was a Palestinian
landowner is striking in at least a modest way.

GROSS: While the father, Mohamed bin Laden, had contracts for the three
holiest cities in the Muslim world, did his son--maybe this was long before
Salem was living the kind of life of, you know, rock 'n' roll and sex and, you
know, so on that he was living--but did Salem's life ever, was it ever
considered to reflect badly on the family and their interests?

Mr. COLL: I think not. In the period where he was living that life, his
choices, while exaggerated in some respects, were not unusual among young
Saudis coming of age after the oil shock. This was a generation that, after
1973, especially among privileged families like the bin Ladens, enjoyed sudden
wealth and allowances, in the case of the bin Ladens, of a couple hundred
thousand tax-free dollars a year in 1970's dollars, a lot of money, and they
could essentially purchase any lifestyle they wanted. And many elite Saudis
became initially fascinated by the choices and the freedom and the mobility
and the pleasures available in the West. And so in some sense, Salem's
journeys were representative of this period of exploration among many elites
in Arabia and in the Gulf. And equally, Osama's revulsion and conservatism
was emblematic of a pattern of resistance and reaction against the sudden
advent of all of these freedoms and choices.

What bound the bin Ladens together beyond business interests, though, was a
really powerful sense of family belonging that really transcended all of these
differences and of choice and of identity. And that, in the end, was one of
the most striking things about them for me, was that, despite these
extraordinary differences among the 25 sons, the sense of belonging among them
was even more powerful.

GROSS: After Salem's death, when Osama founded al-Qaeda, what did his
brothers and sisters think? Like, when they found out what Osama was up to,
did they profoundly disagree with what he was doing? Did they try to distance
themselves? Were they worried about how he would affect their business lives
and their futures?

Mr. COLL: It's a subject that evolves over time; and in order to understand
it, I think we have to start with the observation that, at the time al-Qaeda
was created by Osama in 1998, his work, his beliefs, his involvement in the
Afghan war were all entirely orthodox in Saudi terms. This was a mainstream
thing for him to be doing. Yes, his ardor and his puritanism grated and was
more extreme than the form of Islam practiced by many of his brothers and
sisters, but it was not out of bounds, and it certainly wasn't something that
anyone would look at and call radical.

He came home from the war, however, and began to say things that did sound a
little radical. Not initially a complete break, but he started to question
the authority of the Saudi royal family and its entitlement to rule over the
Arabian peninsula, and he protested the arrival of American troops in the
kingdom to help expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991. Gradually he
began to say and do things that put the family's interests in Saudi Arabia at
risk.

And what's interesting is, at first, his brothers, and to some extent his
sisters, essentially tried to co-opt him. They say, `Osama, look, we
understand you have these views, but we have offices in Mecca and Medina, the
holiest places in Islam. If you want to live a righteous life, go work as an
executive there for us and you can have it all. You can be more religious
than the next person. You can practice your faith. You can preach. And you
can make a good living in our construction company.' And for a long
while--that is to say, for a period of three to four years--Osama seems
intrigued by these possibilities of having it all. But eventually, his
contact with radical networks and his own beliefs about the Saudi royal family
lead him into exile; and gradually, by the mid-1990s, he breaks with his
family, despite their entreaties to come home and to calm down.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Now, you write that, for years, the bin Laden family invested in the
obscure margins of the United States, the odd strip mall or the apartment
complex. In about the time that you've been discussing, when they broke with
Osama bin Laden, they started investing much more deeply in the United States.
And one of the most famous bin Laden investments was in The Carlyle Group, and
this is a private equity company that the bin Ladens are no longer invested
in; but because of their connection and because George H.W. Bush, James
Baker, Frank Carlucci, and a lot of other prominent Americans who have been
involved in politics have also been involved in The Carlyle Group, there's
been a lot of theories and even conspiracy theories about The Carlyle Group
that have circulated since 9/11. How did the bin Laden family become invested
in The Carlyle Group?

Mr. COLL: They had a business contact, a sort of investment banker of Iraqi
origin who arranged, helped Carlyle find potential passive investors in their
big sort of hedge funds and equity funds. And I think he put the bin Ladens
in touch with them. It was the natural kind of vehicle for the bin Ladens.
They lived in a society--Saudi Arabia--where elite contacts and personal
contacts at the top of government were the key to successful business. I
think they sort of transposed that theory of business on the United States,
and sought out opportunities to embed themselves with elite families and elite
institutions. So they made big, charitable contributions to Harvard
University, and any fund that was being promoted by James Baker or George H.W.
Bush was appealing because of the kinds of connections to the top of American
society that it offered.

They made a series of investments in Carlyle equity funds in the mid-1990s,
and then were visited by James Baker and President Bush as they came out to
the Middle East to cultivate investors and to just provide access to those who
were involved with Carlyle. I don't think there was much of an operating
relationship. They didn't really do deals together or stay up all night
around the conference table trying to figure out what business to go into.
They were essentially hedge fund investors before these things were called
hedge funds.

GROSS: Still, it's just kind of hard to imagine, that people really in the
know, like George H.W. Bush and James Baker, would be highly placed people in
a private equity company that included the bin Laden family, after knowing
about Osama bin Laden, even though Osama bin Laden had become like the black
sheep of the family.

Mr. COLL: Well, there was a sort of mutual advantage in this alliance
between these two families, the Bushes and the bin Ladens, as well as their
lawyers, like James Baker. I think, on the American side, these people were
convinced that most of the bin Ladens were innocent of Osama's radicalism and
so were entitled to legal representation. For instance, Baker and Botts,
James Baker's law firm, represented the bin Laden family before the American
government at the time that Osama started to conduct violent operations
against American targets. They privately went into meetings with the FBI and
offered advice about how to defend bin Laden family interests from the
jeopardy that Osama might create in the form of economic sanctions or other
trouble.

So certainly James Baker had no qualms about partnering with that portion of
the bin Laden family that said it had repudiated Osama. And equally, the bin
Ladens used their contacts with not just Baker and Bush, but also with Jimmy
Carter and, as I said earlier, Harvard University and other places where they
made large charitable contributions, as just a kind of hedge, as a
demonstration that the bin Ladens were not all of Osama's view or that they
did not share his attitude towards the United States.

And I think it was an awkward way to sort of hedge your bets, but from the
distance of...(unintelligible)...it looked like the best way to try to
persuade the American government that the bin Ladens were not all the same.

GROSS: The bin Laden family, you know, largely a business family, lots of
money. Meanwhile, you know, Osama is organizing al-Qaeda and preparing
attacks against the United States. He needed a lot of money to keep al-Qaeda
going. How much money did he have from the bin Laden family business
interest?

Mr. COLL: A lot less than the American government believed right up to 9/11.
It was sort of astonishing to find that the answer to that question was
actually sitting around in open American civil court files. In Los Angeles
County superior court there was a divorce case in the early 1990s involving
one of Osama's half-brothers and an American wife. And this ex-wife believed
that she wasn't being told the truth about her husband's income, and so she
sent her forensic accountant to Saudi Arabia to investigate family finances;
and this accountant came back and reported to the court accurately that each
of the brothers received about 300 to $400,000 in basic dividends each year,
and that they might make more in salaries if they worked in the company, and
that their principal inheritance was only in the range of eight to $15
million.

And this information was essentially sitting in an archive in Los Angeles
throughout the 1990s; but as late as 2000, the CIA was reporting to President
Clinton, then to the cabinet that was trying to reckon with Osama bin Laden
and al-Qaeda, that he had a fortune of $300 million. And so, unfortunately,
US policy sort of proceeded throughout the period before 9/11 from a mistaken
assumption, which was that Osama had the money to self-fund; and in fact he
was much more dependent upon continuous fundraising, and much more vulnerable
to disruption than the American government understood.

GROSS: One of the stories surrounding September 11th, which there's a lot of
speculation and even conspiracy theories, is how the members of the bin Laden
family who were in the United States on September 11th were given the right to
fly out of the country on chartered planes at a time when all the airports
were shut and no one else was flying anywhere. What did you learn about how
they got out?

Mr. COLL: Well, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar,
sultan, made the call to the White House and to the FBI and made the
arrangements, not just for the bin Ladens but for some members of the Saudi
royal family who happened to also be in the United States at the time. It's a
myth that aviation was shut down, but there were nonetheless special
arrangements made for these charter flights; and the flight bearing the bin
Ladens started in Los Angeles, went through Orlando, Washington, and Boston
and collected three or four of Osama's generation and many of the children of
that generation.

The scene aboard the plane was the most remarkable discovery. The pilot and
crew didn't know they had bin Ladens, revolted at one stage, demanded more
money. And at the end, you have this kind of mournful family reunion taking
place aboard a plane that was outfitted for a sports team, everyone chain
smoking, and some of the young college students complaining that they'd just
gotten fake IDs that would've allowed them to enjoy Boston more than their
previous years at school, all being flown eventually over the Atlantic and
back to Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: And the pilot and crew didn't find out until the bin Laden family got
on who the passengers were going to be, and you say Prince Bandar of Saudi
Arabia contacted the FBI and Richard Clarke and got approval.

Mr. COLL: He did. And, you know, he was very well connected to the White
House and to the FBI, and Clarke and the FBI have emphasized that they went
over the manifests and conducted interviews with many of the bin Ladens on the
plane. I didn't find, in my own review of this, evidence that they'd allowed
anybody to leave who was a subject of continuing interest, with one possible
exception. There was a passenger on the flight who seems to have been
involved with a charity in northern Virginia that had previously been
investigated by the FBI. He seems to have been the only person who was aboard
the flight who might, by objective assessment, have warranted additional
questioning. But everybody else was vetted and had no connection to Islamist
movements of any kind.

GROSS: Osama bin Laden signed his last will and testament on December 14th of
2001, so this is just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, and in it he
advises his children not to work with al-Qaeda. You say he cites the story of
a Muslim leader who forbid his son from becoming a caliph, saying, `If it is
good, then we have had our share; if it is bad, then it is enough.' I found it
so interesting that in his last will and testament he would tell his children
not to become members of al-Qaeda. What do you make of that?

Mr. COLL: Well, one of the few sort of humanizing themes in Osama's
biography is the tension that he repeatedly feels and expresses about his
family life, to which he is very fully devoted, more than 20 children and four
wives, and pretty attentive and doting father, for a militia leader with
terrorist ambitions. The tension between that and his role as an exile living
a life of sort of war-fighting hardship; and this moment in late 2001 was his
darkest hour. He was under bombardment, he thought he would certainly be
killed or captured. And I think he was giving his family permission to go and
live a different life from that which he had ultimately chosen.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll. His new
book is called "The bin Ladens." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Coll. He's the author of the new book "The Bin
Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century."

Will you just allow me one brief moment of cheap psychology before you have to
leave?

Mr. COLL: Sure.

GROSS: And that is, you know, Osama bin Laden is all about like attacking the
West for its corrupt values, and in some ways those are the values of his own
family. I mean, you know, so many members of his family have lived in the
West. His brother is so into--at least two of his brothers were so into rock
'n' roll. And Osama bin Laden attacks the symbol of the global financial
industry, the World Trade Center. Well, you know, his family was so invested
in The Carlyle Group, this big international private equity company. So in
some ways, like, his attacks, they're attacking his own family. I mean, it's
the values of his own family.

Mr. COLL: Yeah. I mean, I think the most frustrating thing about him, from
a biographer's point of view, is that he is so persistently silent about these
questions. And the silence itself is suggestive, that there is a lot of
interesting material there. What we can say for certain is that he had
ambition within the family; and he clearly seems, at times, to have been
resentful that he didn't become the leader of the bin Laden family and the bin
Laden business, and his pursuit of his own ambitions is at least partially a
chance for him to prove who he was and what he was capable of vis a vis his
brothers.

As to the values issue, you know, clearly he is censorious about anyone who
chooses to live what he regards as an un-Islamic life. That includes his
brothers. At the same time, he has a view of sin that is, in some way,
accommodating of wayward choices by family members, that he does repeatedly
say, `It's not my business to judge another man's conduct. That God will do
on judgment day. I can only urge my brother to get on the right path before
it's too late.' And so I don't think that he is attacking America because he
feels some deep personal revulsion about his family's sort of cultural choices
and needs to sort of purge them. I think that it is political, and also there
is an element of resentful ambition and stubbornness that is born of his
beliefs about who he was and who he might have been in Saudi Arabia if only
they had understood him, if only they'd given him the keys to the kingdom.

GROSS: I wish we had a whole lot more time to talk, but unfortunately we
don't. But before you go, I do want to ask you, where do you think Osama bin
Laden is now, and what do you think he's up to?

Mr. COLL: Well, we can see the what he's up to part from his periodic video
and audio statements. He's clearly living among friends. He has access to
news, probably satellite television and the Internet. He's reading books
about American foreign policy. He was educated in English at his prep school;
and I imagine, in this long exile, he's renewed his acquaintance with English
and is reading books in the English language. And I think he's in Pakistan.
It's conceivable that he's in an urban area, but more likely he's in some
mud-walled compound in the territory along the border with Afghanistan, where
he has long roots and many friends.

And I do think that it's more likely now, in the next year or two, that he'll
finally be captured or killed than at any time since late 2001. I say this
not because American efforts to find him have improved--I don't think they
have--but the situation in Pakistan has changed dramatically in the last six
or eight months. He's now a more unpopular figure than he was even a year
ago. And also the new government has a different set of motivations to find
him in comparison to the government of President Musharraf.

GROSS: So even though the new government is less friendly with the Bush
administration than Musharraf was, you think the new government in Pakistan is
going to do a better job going after al-Qaeda and bin Laden?

Mr. COLL: They have better motives to do so. The United States got itself
into a strange situation with Musharraf in which the structure of its aid to
the Pakistan government essentially incented the government not to find bin
Laden; because if they found him, they had reason to fear that the US would
end this flow of more than $10 billion that it was providing directly to the
army. The democratic government came to power arguing to Washington that
constitutional democracy was a better counterterrorism strategy than reliance
on an authoritarian military leader. And so I think they understand that if
they can deliver Osama, they're not going to be punished for it; rather,
they're going to be rewarded. So for the first time at least you have
somebody in the Pakistani government who has motivation to find him. And at
the same time, the population in which he's hiding has turned more hostile to
him, and so the possibility of someone dropping a dime on him is much greater
now than it was a couple years ago.

GROSS: Are you expecting another al-Qaeda attack against the United States in
the near future?

Mr. COLL: Well, they're clearly trying. There's a whole series of
conspiracies that have surfaced in Europe that are coming out of this Afghan
frontier area. The most important of those is one that Americans know very
little about, which was the conspiracy in August of 2006 to blow up aircraft
over the Atlantic Ocean. This is the one that caused fliers to no longer be
able to carry their toothpaste aboard. And if that plot had succeeded, it
involved an attempt to blow up 12 planes, probably would've been 4,000 people
dead, mostly British and American. Now, the British broke it up before it
could go forward. I don't know what the chances of its success were, but it's
an indication that al-Qaeda still has ambitions and networks; and it probably
suggests that it's not so easy for them to work directly on American soil,
that they'll try to get at the United States through Europe, where they seem
to be able to operate more effectively.

GROSS: Well, Steve Coll, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. COLL: My pleasure, Terry. Thanks very much for having me.

GROSS: Steve Coll is the author of the new book "The bin Ladens." He's a
staff writer for The New Yorker and president of The New America Foundation.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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