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Documenting the ‘The Bin Ladens:’ From the Political to the Personal

March 28, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Author and journalist Steve Coll's new book "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century" documents Osama bin Laden's upbringing and family environment. Coll discusses his new book with Margaret Warner.
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MARGARET WARNER: Osama bin Laden is known worldwide as founder of al-Qaida and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But much less is known of his sprawling Saudi family and their multiple ties to the United States.

Now, Steve Coll, author of the prize-winning “Ghost Wars,” has pulled back the curtain on Osama and his billionaire clan. His new book is “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.”

And, Steve, welcome back to the program. What was it about the bin Laden family that so intrigued you that you devoted not only all the time but writing an entire book about them?

STEVE COLL, New Yorker Magazine: Well, I’ve been studying Osama in one way or another for 15 years. And I always felt that I bounced off of the Saudi and family context from which he arose and always felt that there was more complexity and more subtlety there than at least I had been able to penetrate.

So I kept going back to it and finally saw the family as a vehicle to write more specifically about the broader narrative of modernization in Saudi Arabia, all the contradictions and complexity it created.

Father's influence on young Osama

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there's so much in this book, both political and personal, but let's focus on the personal and in terms of Osama bin Laden's life and the influences on him. Let's start from the family. Let's start with his father, Mohammed, the self-made construction magnate. Now, you describe him as distant, yet a model for young Osama. How?

STEVE COLL: Well, he was genius, in many respects, and a charismatic man, but I think a model for Osama in two important ways.

One, he was an extraordinarily inspirational leader of diverse followers. And Osama's own success as a terrorist militia leader has arisen in a lot of ways because of his ability to unify Islamists from diverse cultures, diverse language groups, diverse sects.

And he learned that from his father, I think, at these work camps in the desert, where African and Yemeni, and Palestinian and Lebanese, and Pakistani laborers all worked side-by-side in camps that resembled nothing so much as what we saw Osama lead in Afghanistan in the late '90s.

I think the other influence his father had on him was his role as a modernizer and someone who embraced the technologies of globalization and the possibilities of modernization at a time in Saudi Arabia where very few people were looking to the future that way.

And Osama, again, succeeded as a terrorist leader because of the way he adopted technology, the satellite telephone, the airplane, and his vision of a border-crossing movement. And I think he inherited that or was inspired to some extent by his father in that way.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, of course, his father died when Osama was only 10 years old. And you say that that very important turning point occurred then when he was in what we might call middle school, in terms of his conversion to a more austere form of Islam.

STEVE COLL: It was an experience that is not altogether unusual in the Gulf, but he was recruited in essentially an after-school study group. He was attending a very modern prep school where the boys wore blue blazers and gray slacks.

And he was invited by a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood, his gym teacher, to stay after school with a small group of elite students. And there he was indoctrinated into the Muslim Brotherhood's form of political Islam, a more activist, revolutionary-inflected form of religious teaching than was commonplace in Saudi Arabia at the time, which itself is obviously a very conservative and orthodox culture.

But he grew up as a teenager in the Muslim Brotherhood tradition and so, from the beginning, had a kind of political tint to his religious conservatism.

Brother embraces Westernism

MARGARET WARNER: And the other big family influence was, of course, the oldest brother, Salem, who was completely different, very secular, very Western. I mean, give us a flavor of just how different he was and what explains the difference.

STEVE COLL: Well, Salem was an adventurer, a pilot, a charismatic man, very talented, and much beloved by his many friends in the United States and in Europe. He was a guy who traveled with rock 'n' roll musicians, a singer who would get up on any stage and place "House of the Rising Sun," a man who had more girlfriends at times than he could keep track of, who skied and sailed and lived large, but was also, in many ways, a talented and serious international businessman.

During the 1980s, he and Osama worked quite closely together on the anti-Soviet Afghan war. Salem arranged for weapon sales to Osama. He arranged for support, publicity and finance. And they were collaborators in what at the time was, in Saudi terms, a very orthodox foreign policy program.

The bin Ladens were, in a sense, the Halliburton of Saudi Arabia. They worked on sole-contract, sensitive defense and intelligence projects. They had done this since the 1960s. And Afghanistan was just another form of that collaboration.

So Salem, even though he had little of his brother's religious ardor, nonetheless thought this was an important project for the family business and for the Saudi government, and so he was all in.

And it created these marvelous scenes of contradiction, where Salem shows up with his shaggy, chain-smoking, rock 'n' roll, European entourage in order to provide his fundamentalist brother with shoulder-fired missiles and munitions and other things.

Differing world views

MARGARET WARNER: But the difference between those two brothers and the lifestyles they embraced in a way gets to one of the themes of your book, does it not...

STEVE COLL: It does.

MARGARET WARNER: ... of this whole generation of Saudis?

STEVE COLL: This was a generation of Saudis who came of age in a period of the oil shock. And they not only knew sudden wealth, in the case of privileged families like the bin Ladens, but they were suddenly exposed to competing ideas of identity and choice, of faith and freedom, and all in a very concentrated time, and with the privilege to essentially purchase whatever life they wanted for themselves, on a global stage, so they were mobile and they were growing up very fast, and they had the resources to make varied choices.

And among the generation of 54, to which Osama belonged, 54 children of Mohammed, they made very different choices, all together, while remaining remarkably unified as a family.

MARGARET WARNER: And you describe very vividly not only Salem, but so many of them trying to straddle the two worlds of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

STEVE COLL: Literally, as Salem was as enthusiastic about the United States as Osama proved hostile to it. And he was a man who flew back and forth across the Atlantic as often as you and I might cross town. And he had many friends, investments and involvements in the United States, as did some of his other brothers and sisters.

And it wasn't the only way that America influenced their sense of themselves or their sense of politics. It was omnipresent in Saudi Arabia, as well. The Saudi government depended very heavily on the United States for expertise, for ideas, and for military support.

Turning to radicalism

MARGARET WARNER: But then where does the strain of the Osama bin Laden come from?

STEVE COLL: Well, it's embedded partly in orthodox Saudi Salafi teachings and the presence of a very powerful clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia. It also arises from transnational Islamist movements after 1979, such as the Brotherhood, which Osama entered.

And then it arises, as well, from the resentments that begin to develop in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, when Saddam invades Kuwait, and hundreds of thousands of American troops come to the rescue, raising...

MARGARET WARNER: And in that sense, you're saying that Osama bin Laden's views, in that sense, were not at all unusual?

STEVE COLL: No, they weren't. And what's striking -- what was striking to me in this research project was to rediscover how orthodox a figure Osama really was until about the mid-1990s and how common his own resentments were as they began to develop.

What made him distinctive was not that he lived this life or had these forms of sort of dissenting anger; it was where he took them in the end.

And partly that was a sort of innate stubbornness and also an extraordinary ambition and a talent across borders in a way that other violent jihadists simply couldn't manage.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Steve Coll, a fascinating book. Thank you so much.

STEVE COLL: Thank you, Margaret.