The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

Journalist Steve Coll discusses the inspiration and research behind his book.
  • Transcript


Topic: The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

Steve Coll:  After I finished Ghost Wars I felt that I had left Saudi Arabia on the table as a subject to some extent and I wanted to go back to it. I had worked on bin Laden over a long period of time as a reporter ten or 15 years and I had worked on him in the context of the Afghan wars and in the context of international Islamic radicalism but I felt that there was still another story to work on not just in reference to him but in reference to Saudi Arabia about the experience of modernization in the kingdom after the oil shocks of the ‘70s and to try to understand both Osama, to reinterpret Osama but also even without reference to him to write about the diversity of experiences and identities and the fluidity of identity that many Saudis of his generation wrestled with in the period after the ‘70s. I’ve been coming and going from Saudi Arabia since 1990 and it’s a very difficult place to write about in an authentic, specific way. It’s a difficult place to work as a journalist, hard to research. There’s not very many points of entry and you sort of have this intuition that there is something complicated and interesting and more modern and more accessible to an American audience than the clichéd political cartoon of the long-chinned sheik pouring gasoline into an American car would offer. And so I was really looking for a story to write about Saudi Arabia as well as about bin Laden.

Question: Were you able to debunk any myths?

Steve Coll:  Well, I think all of these sort of binary models for thinking about this conflict, us versus them, Christianity versus Islam, the West versus the East, the North versus the South, all of them while offering valid frameworks for debate and for thought none of them is useful in the real lives that Saudis or other Arabs experience because the world is just too fluid and too flat and especially in the Gulf after the oil boom. And so much change was happening so fast in so many ways that to draw lines on a map and say some people lived on one side of the line and other people lived on the other side of the line is just-- It’s confusing. It actually takes you away from the subject and so to get to the sort of myths--  What interested me about bin Laden and what I thought I would find in trying to place him in his family story and what I also thought I would find just in the family without reference to him is a story about modernization and the experience of modernization in the specific lives of Gulf Saudis in the 1970s forward. And why would we be interested in the particular complexities of modernization in Saudi Arabia?  Well, because 19 of them turned up on these airplanes in New York and Washington and so trying to just create another way to contextualize those faces and that mystery was a lot of the interest in the project.

Question: What did you learn about the rise of Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed?

Steve Coll:  He was in many ways a familiar type in that he created a great fortune by force of will and charisma and ambition and in doing that he built up a whole sort of family and business in his own image. What was interesting about him was not the kind of outline of immigrant comes to Saudi Arabia, is illiterate, has talent, creates fortune, which is a narrative that we’ve seen in lots of cultures and settings. What was interesting was the thing he built in his own image and it was a family and an idea about success that was rooted in a number of things that surface in Osama bin Laden’s later talent. One was his ability in the pre-modern environment of early Saudi Arabia to create a very modern company. He was an early pioneer in what we now call globalization. He had engineers and architects from Italy. He had suppliers on Broadway in New York in the 1950s. He had workers from Sudan and Nigeria. He had pilots from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He built a multinational, multiethnic, multi-linguistic construction company and broader enterprise in a place where that just didn’t really exist very- in very many ways. And it was his style of leadership, his ability to attract and organize global diversity around an enterprise that inspired his sons I think, mostly inspired his sons to do similar things in business. It inspired one son to do similar things in Jihad but it was this model of modernity and globalization and organization, one, and two, this streak of charismatic genius in the family that is really located in the father. He had a talent, a gift, an intuition, about how to organize people and how to create something out of nothing, and he also had a way of living that was very active and just absolutely impervious to borders or to convention. He was a traveler. He was a man who always saw himself as part of a wider world, not just one city, one business. He was very difficult to contain and in his sons this streak of charismatic genius is visible in the secular lives of some of his business-oriented sons who were equally unusual in their talents and their way of living and adventurous and full of risk and ambition. And then in a distorted, sort of fragmented way, it takes you to Osama and it sort of- it sets his achievements and his sort of talent in a line and in a context that I found very interesting. I didn’t expect that but it was what I discovered

Question: What is the most glaring piece of incompetence you have come across in your research?

Steve Coll:  It had to do with Osama’s money. Up until 9/11, both President Clinton and President Bush and their cabinets and everybody else who was cleared to read intelligence reporting about the problem of al-Qaeda was saying that Osama had a personal fortune of $300 million and the relevance of this was that he was self-funding all of this terrorist activity so that basically whatever strategy you might use against him just had to recognize you got to- he was like going up against the Ford Foundation. He had a huge endowment and he was just going to be hard to deal with in that respect. Well, that turned out to be completely wrong. In fact, his inheritance was maybe $20 million over 20 years, 25 million over 20 years, and the whole time that presidents and cabinets were receiving this information it turned out, as I found when I was researching the book and had these- one of these sort of great investigative reporter eureka moments in the basement of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in an open court file involving the divorce of one of Osama’s brothers. The ex-wife of that brother, suspecting that he was not telling her the truth about his income, hired a forensic accountant to go to Saudi Arabia and audit the whole bin Laden family money system. And this forensic accountant came back and filed a report that was sitting there in an open file saying okay, here’s exactly how much money the brothers get, here’s what percentage of the company they own, they only get this much money a year, their total inheritance is maybe ten, 20--  The amount of money that he had inherited was sitting in an open court file from 1993 until the present and no one had gone to look at it so I’m like a mildly trained reporter who knows that you go do civil lawsuits when you’re looking at something complicated and for all those years nobody--  As a taxpayer, I just thought it was really frustrating. Nobody from the FBI, nobody from the CIA, just did the thing you would do like look at all the civil cases in the U.S. involving bin Ladens and look at the files and see what you learn so—

Question: Is there any part of your research that you deemed inconclusive?

Steve Coll:  There is always a little bit of mystery about why someone makes the kinds of commitments and choices that someone like him makes but it’s more or less transparent, and in the end he’s a fairly stubborn and not a very complicated personality in some respects. He sort of starts on a path and what’s remarkable about him is his fortitude and his stubbornness in staying on a path even as all kinds of risks and costs accumulate, but the part that doesn’t really- the most enduring mystery to me still--  Even though I feel like I was- I spent a long time trying to unpack it and tried to bring as much as I could forward in the book, there is- there are layers still about Osama’s relationship with the Saudi establishment and with his family that I think if fully known would turn out to be even more complicated and even more ambiguous than the I hope somewhat complicated, ambiguous portrait I’ve sketched with the information available. The point is in summary that we think of Osama as a radical and are interested in him is- as a radical. How did he become radicalized?  When did he turn away from the- but the context from a Saudi perspective is that he was- to a much greater extent than our narrative would allow he was an orthodox figure. He was an entirely authorized figure. He was somebody that people were proud of. He was legitimate. He was in fact more than legitimate. He was a source of reputation for the family. With the government he was an instrument of Saudi foreign policy. He wasn’t opposed to it. He was an example of what a proud family like the bin Ladens in the context of Saudi Arabia could produce in the religious side of the family. And so something about that stature that he had, the orthodoxy that he represented, I think is very Saudi and very elusive and I felt like I got maybe a quarter of the way toward what a- an unencumbered researcher with access to everything, maybe even only 10% of the way there. If Osama and everyone else would really talk honestly about how this inside, outside journey to and from Saudi Arabia happened, that would be a really interesting story.

Recorded on: 07/10/2008