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The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008)

de Steve Coll

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5901640,451 (3.89)15
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. Journalist Steve Coll tells the 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 family'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 family's attempts to recover from September 11, this book 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.--From publisher description.… (més)
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This book followed the Bin Laden family from 1900 to 2007. The Bin Ladens is a pretty rich family and enjoyed prominent status not only in Saudi Arabia but was also well respected by European and U.S. politicians. The rise of the Bin Laden family was closely dependent on the country's political and economic situation. (But the Bin Ladens, interestingly, are not Saudis. Their patriarch grew up in Yemen.) I learned a lot about the history, geography and politics of Saudi Arabia from 1900 to 2007 -- not enough to make me an expert, but definitely more than I ever knew! It was a fun and engaging read.

Although the most famous member of the family to the rest of the world is obviously Osama Bin Laden, he did not play an important role in this family at first, as he is merely one of the patriarch's over 50 sons, and he was one of the younger sons, without full brothers, without a mother of esteemed family background. The book started by following the life trajectory of his father, Mohamed Bin Laden, who made his fortune as an immigrant operating a construction company building palaces and roads and renovating holy cities for the Saudi royalty. After the death of Mohamed, the book focused on Salem Bin Laden, one of Mohamed's older sons and his apparent heir. After the death of Salem, the book did not focus on one single person but rather attempted to describe the many businesses conducted by the Bin Laden Group both in Saudi Arabia and worldwide. (They owned U.S. real estate and prestigious U.S. hotels!)

Mohamed and Salem had distinct personalities and shone as protagonists of the book. Osama's activities did get mentioned, and sometimes entire chapters were devote to his activities, but they did not take center stage. Even in depictions of events after 9-11, the book mostly reported how members of the Bin Laden family reacted to and recouped from the tragedy. The author identified similarities between Osama and his father and older brother: "Ambition, energy, natural talent, and a gift for managing people had made Mohamed Bin Laden wealthy. Reinterpreted by Salem, these characteristics had girded a secular life of singular creativity and financial success. Reinterpreted through a prism of Islamic radicalism by Osama, they.....prove just as transforming." ( )
  CathyChou | Mar 11, 2022 |
Obviously written with Osama in mind, but it is the other parts of the story that fascinated me. Note: published in 2008 before the death of Osama Bin Laden. ( )
  MarthaJeanne | Feb 20, 2018 |
A must read to place Osama in context. Interesting photographs of the clan, showing relationships among the extended family members. ( )
  carterchristian1 | Apr 9, 2011 |
As the 20th century begins, the Bin Laden saga does as well. It is almost an accident of fate, the death of an oxen, borrowed by Awadh, that begins the Bin Laden clan in earnest. The book examines the rise and fall of this prominent family beginning with the line of Ali. His descendant, Aboud has one son, Awadh. Awahd has four sons, two of which, Mohammed and Abdullah are the early focus. At first, it reads almost like a fairytale or a nightmare as their very survival seems to depend on magical moments or accidents of fate. Since much of the history is handed down orally, it is really hard to separate fact from fiction, sometimes.
The Bin Laden family fell into the good graces of the King by sheer force of events, unplanned and unchoreographed. When Abdulaziz wanted help to build shelters for his ever growing fleet of cars, the Americans and the British refused. Had they accepted, perhaps Mohammed Bin Laden would not have stepped up to fill in the construction gap which eventually brought him prominence and fortune. Perhaps the clan would have deteriorated into oblivion instead of infamy.
King Abdulaziz, of Saudi Arabia, was brought up in strict observance to Wahhabism, and in spite of his religious background or in consequence of it, he is a womanizer. He has wives or slaves or mistresses in the hundreds. Women are property. In all other ways he is an observer of the Koran, praying often during the day. Although he loves toys and new technology, often prohibited, he finds outlandish excuses to be allowed to use them. Those that disagree too strongly with him are merely eliminated.
The very reading of this book will likely enrage some because of the obvious debauchery displayed and lived out by the very wealthy Saudis in the Bin Laden family. Their wealth and power gives them tremendous access to the most famous royal families and well known personages of the world. Their personal pleasure governs them. Their toys are of the exceptional variety. Price is never an object or concern. When the mood strikes them, they pick up and follow their whims, but they also respond immediately when the royal family beckons. The Bin Ladens were there at the ready to do their bidding.
Mohammed Bin Laden was either a business genius or the hapless recipient of accidents of fate which I tend to doubt. I think he was very clever and inserted himself into situations which provided him the advantage he needed with the royal family. Even if he was unprepared, and not up to the task presented to him, he accepted it and managed to pull it off. He took the risk, carved out deals which projected him into the spotlight, married strategically and made influential alliances. Sometime in 1958, his 14 year old bride, Alia, gave birth to Osama Bin Laden.
Salem, Osama’s brother, rose to power after the death of Mohammed, in a plane crash. He was more fun loving and as the brother in power, managed to endear himself to many of the Saudi princes in power and to King Fahd. Although, he too liked to play a lot, he was pious and professed to do everything for Allah.. He had ruder manners and behavior, loved the party life, the night life and also took many wives and had many children.
The hypocrisy and decadence with which the Bin Ladens lived their lives is almost hard to read about because of its extravagance. They seemed to worship money as much as Islam. They practiced the art of “do as I say, not as I do”, with a vengeance.
When I reached the half way point in the book, I was struck by a comment made by Carmen, wife of Yeslam, ½ brother to Salem. She noted that when the brothers came together, you never knew when they would turn from carousing to being very pious. One minute you would think they were westernized but then small things made you realize that they were not. She said they cannot cut the bond that is embedded in them. She said her own husband cannot cut the bond that is his early childhood. It gave me pause and I wondered about Barack Obama, who had been educated in madrassas as a small child, until around the age of 8, I believe. Can he cut that bond? Has he? Will it resurface at some point in time? She posed an interesting concept.
Osama became a radicalized member of the Muslim Brotherhood at around the age of 15 because of the influence of his teacher, Ahmed Badeeb, who was active in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization believing in Sharia law and violence. Using participation in sports as a bribe, the teacher enlisted young men to join him in the movement. Osama was a quiet and well behaved young man, easily swayed by the teacher. Osama was more religious than most and even believed in ancient traditions and modes of dress. In Saudi Arabia, Islam is part of the culture and even in more moderate households, it is a major theme of life. Someone in every home believes in Islam and there is always a Koran evident. The Brotherhood messages were filled with political dissent and preached teaching and proselytizing. Obama was a devout and obedient follower. Even as a young man, he disliked America and its policies toward Jews and Christians which he felt certain was a policy intent on destroying or undermining Islam. He believed wholeheartedly in Jihad.
Osama makes influential relationships in the holy cities and when he begins funneling money from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and than Afghanistan, under the tutelage of Badeeb, who has risen in the ranks of the government, he fosters these with the informal exchange of money in informal gatherings.
Osama’s connections with the Brotherhood mentors is kismet and coupled with his influential connections, make it possible for his love/hate relationship with the United States to begin, with an increasing involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood making him an important arm of their movement.
While reading the book, you discover that it is not hard to understand how an intelligent person could become involved in such a radical cause. His declaration of war against America provides him with a legitimate reason to plot and plan the attacks against America and then to happily witness the death and destruction. He has accomplished his goal. The idea that this madman is still walking around with his followers and protectors who may or may not be mad, but who follow him blindly as haters, is mindboggling. I cannot reconcile that in my mind. He should have been caught and but for the lack of fortitude on the part of the United States, might well have been early on, possibly preventing 9/11 from even occurring. We will never know. Someone out there must be protecting him…but whom? I could keep on summarizing but than you would not have to read the book which is really a fount of information for anyone wanting to learn about the Bin Ladens and in particular, Osama’s rise to power with such an evil intent in the name of his G-d, Allah. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Mar 9, 2011 |
After the September 11 attacks of 2001 there were rumors circulating about members of the Bin Laden clan whisked out of the country by the CIA and of secret connections between the Bin Ladens and the Bush clan. Conspiracy theorists have spun elaborate tales based on these stories. So who are these Bin Ladens and were they really here and why? Steve Coll reveals the true story of the Bin Laden family as much as it can be known.

Osama is one of 54 sons and daughters of Mohamed Bin Laden, a building contractor from Yemen who built a business empire by serving the needs and the whims of the Al Saud dynasty for whom Saudi Arabia is named. Under his leadership and that of his oldest sons, Salem and Bakr the Bin Laden companies have grown into an international multi-million dollar operation, building highways, renovating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the major mosques in Mecca and Medina, creating the Saudi telephone system and investing in satellite communications, fitting out luxury private aircraft in Texas and buying commercial real estate and condominium developments in Florida.

Returning from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Osama Bin Laden became disenchanted with the society he found in his native Saudi Arabia. He soon broke with the Al Saud and king Fahd and exiled himself to Yemen and then Sudan. His family formally removed him from the Bin Laden business at this time. Theoretically he has been cut off from the Bin Laden family fortune since this time, before the embassy bombings, before the USS Cole and certainly before 911. By breaking with the Al Saud Osama broke with the golden goose from which the Bin Laden family fortune was laid.

There is some question whether Osama has received funds from any family members however. Al-Qaeda has relied on donations from within the Arab world for it's operating funds and Bin Laden has been a major factor in getting those donations.



Those mysterious Bin Ladens who were spirited out of the country? A half brother living in Beverly Hills, another attending Harvard Business School, many nephews and a few nieces attending various colleges throughout the country. They were taken to Paris on a flight chartered by the family, with the cooperation of, and after being questioned by the FBI. No connection to Al-Qaeda was found for any of them.

The Bin Laden business empire continues to prosper, building airports, palaces condominiums and resorts in the middle east. Osama continues to live in exile, somewhere in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
  cbjorke | Sep 10, 2009 |
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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. Journalist Steve Coll tells the 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 family'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 family's attempts to recover from September 11, this book 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.--From publisher description.

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