Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll (Book Review #52 of 2016)

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in an American Century   (4 stars)
(I read this book as part of a wider set to better understand the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. See full list of books below this review.)

After I finished this book, I followed up with Growing Up Bin Laden and highly recommend them in this order. Coll's book gave me much information about Osama Bin Laden (OBL)'s father that was unavailable to Bin Laden's wife and son in the latter book. But OBL's family provided much more detail on the events outlined by Coll, and their memories and timelines match up well. Coll's book is much more about the wider Bin Laden Group than Osama himself. After all, Mohammed Bin Laden had 25 sons and 29 daughters, and of course their paths would have much diversity. It's a misconception in the West that the Bin Laden group bankrolled OBL's lifestyle, he had access to a small fraction of the state and according to Growing Up Bin Laden (and The Black Banners by FBI agent Ali Soufan), that money was used up quickly and OBL and Al Qaeda were often hard-pressed for cash. The Bin Laden story reads a bit like The Godfather trilogy, or perhaps the soap opera Dallas, where the brothers all go their different ways but bear the same name. They are united by name and palace intrigue.

Much of this book focuses on the rise of Mohammed Bin Laden and the rise of his construction empire and relationship with the Saudi royal family. But Coll begins the book with a glimpse into the life of Salem bin Laden, who was known in America as a playboy, hosting a "royal continental party" with no end until his death in a plane crash in 1988. Salem was Mohammed's eldest son and became responsible, after Mohammed's death in 1967, for maintaining the business empire and its relationship with the Saudi royal family, members of which he hosted on his jaunts across America. Salem courts American women and hosts lavish parties in juxtaposition to his half-brother Osama who is living in caves helping wage war against the USSR and developing his devotion to austere Wahhabism.

American political powers have always had a complicated relationship with Saudi money and influence. Coll writes of how King Faad contributed to a Cayman Islands bank account to fund Iran-Contra under Reagan in the 1980s. There are plenty of other books written about this influence (See House of Bush, House of Saud as just one example). Salem's chief job seemed to be to keep both the Sauds and political powers in America happy in ways that would pay off well for the Saudi BinLadin Group. He is both a Western-educated playboy with multiple relationships with women but also a seemingly sexist and over-protective brother to his sisters. His mercurial personality is a symptom of his insatiable desires and of course this ends tragically-- he dies at 42, crashing an ultralight aircraft he was flying without a helmet.

Mohammed bin Laden was born in Yemen and migrated to Jeddah where he worked in construction. Mohammed's time in Jeddah coincided with British Arabist/diplomat/spy Harry St. John Bridger "Jack" Philby, who had become an advisor to Saudi monarch Ibn Saud. Oil was the interest of both the British and Americans, and both Philby and bin Laden had connections to Standard Oil of California's interest in Jeddah that later morphed into Saudi-ARAMCO in 1936. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and suddenly money poured into construction projects. Mohammed bin Laden the bricklayer had started a construction company and came to the attention of Saudi monarch Abdul Aziz; Bin Laden began building mansions in Saudi Arabia. The American firm Bechtel began many modernization projects in Saudi Arabia, including building pipelines. Bechtel contracted some of this work to Sulaiman S. Olayan's General Contracting Company. The GCC was essentially what the Binladin Group would eventually become. Mohammed Bin Laden's company starting building mosques around the Middle East, then received larger contracts for dams and canals. Once Bechtel left, Bin Laden picked up their contracts and constructed a power station in 1951. By now, Mohammed had 15 sons and nine daughters and his company became the preferred entity for building the House of Saud's largesse. King Faisal cemented an alliance with bin Laden as he came to power in 1964. Coll recounts Faisal's governmental reforms and his battling Baathists and other insurrectionists after 1967.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 to Alia from Syria, who was likely an Alawite. Alia was just one of 22 wives the construction magnate had. OBL had little contact with his father as his mother left him at an early age. The profligate Mohammed died in a plane crash in 1967, leaving behind his business empire. Coll did not have the access to bin Laden's childhood that is recounted from OBL's family's retelling in Growing up Bin Laden.

King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew in 1974 and King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took the throne. Faisal had been courted by the US for years and would maintain the policy of trading oil access for aid, trade, and protection. Meanwhile, Salem bin Laden took the reins of his father's empire. Salem set a precedence for migration to America where his children and other family members would live and attend universities. His lifestyle led some to question whether or not he was "looney." In contrast, his half-brother OBL began reading the works of Muhammed Qutb, brother of radical Sayyid Qutb who helped found the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Coll writes that the 1973 Israeli-Egypt war was a formative moment for OBL. When radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Binladin group helped the government combat the seige (I highly recommend Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca). Apparently some of the Bin Laden clan were also arrested as part of the group of attackers. OBL was also influenced by the same ideas as this group and would later adopt the same goals of purifying Saudi Arabia of its Western influences.

1979 also marked the Soviet invastion of Afghanistan and the Saudi-spearheaded response of supporting the jihad. This effort united OBL's interests with that of his secular siblings; it united both secular and separatist across Saudi Arabia, something that helped cement the House of Saud's grip on power for the time being. Coll writes that the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and its aftermath also influenced OBL. (Again the much better details of how OBL was influenced in these years, and his Western travels and education that Coll does not cover are in their book).

In 1980, Yeslam bin Laden became chairman of the Saudi Investment Company in Switzerland, also adopting a Western lifestyle and marrying Western women. After Salem dies in 1987, Bakr bin Laden became chairman of the Saudi Binladin group. He was responsible for maintaining the family's trust accounts in Switzerland. This account was transferred after the end of the 1991 Gulf War and would never be used in a Western banking system again. Osama, raised largely separate from his family's lifestyle, owned 2.4% of the company in the 1980s. OBL, frustrated by the Saudi's decision to turn to the US for protection against Saddam in 1990, is eventually forced to move his former jihadi fighters to Sudan (events not covered well by Coll), where he plots terrorist activities. When OBL refuses to heed his brothers' requests that he return to Saudi Arabia, he flees to Afghanistan and his family sells his shares in the Binladin Group, denouncing his activities in 1994.

Interestingly, OBL's nephew Abdullah became a Harvard academic who also began to preach Islamic extremism in America in the 1980s, coming under FBI investigation in 1996 along with his brother, Omar. Abdullah and Omar may have preached anti-semitism but there was little anyone could do about their activities because Abdullah apparently had a diplomatic passport (and perhaps Omar did as well). Coll reported that Abdullah sold his home in Virginia months before 9/11 and left the country before the attacks. Omar possibly had some connection to planning the attacks but was ferried out of the country with the rest of the Bin Laden family after 9/11, the family receiving explicit permission from Colin Powell to fly while the rest of the nation's flights were grounded. Omar was never interviewed by the FBI, despite large files and an ongoing investigation on himself and Abdullah. Coll speculates as to whether Abdullah and Omar were raising funds for OBL's terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Four of the 9/11 hijackers lived just down the street. The FBI raids the group Abdullah chaired, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, in 2004 in an investigation on terrorism financing; the group was banned elsewhere and testified against in the 9/11 commission hearings.

I find accounts on this part differ. Some say that Abdullah left before 9/11, but a New Yorker article from November 2001 documents that Abdullah was the only bin Laden to remain in the US for a time after 9/11. He claims he was willing to help the FBI but they never asked. Coll writes that the Saudi embassy told the FBI they could not interview him because they claimed him as an attache with diplomatic immunity. It appears that Omar was the one doing the preaching and perhaps fundraising, and that his ties to Abdullah were not allowed to be completed. Wikileaks revealed that Abdullah would be the bin Laden to officially request OBL's death certificate in 2011.

As I write this in 2016, Congress has just overidden Pres. Obama's veto on a bill that lets 9/11 victims sue the Saudi's for potential involvement, an effort that Coll's investigative reporting has fueled. The bin Laden family engaged in various PR and legal moves in the US and elsewhere to protect their assets both from confiscation and investigation. (In his biography by Ron Suskind, Former Treas. Secretary Paul O'Neill documents the investigation of financing of terrorism after 9/11 that reached a "dead end" when it got to Saudi Arabia.) The Washington-oriented Carlyle Group's involvement with the bin Ladens and their connections in escorting the family (and other Saudi nationals) out of the country ASAP after 9/11, even those under FBI investigation, is a frustrating (if largely forgotten) part of history.

Coll documents the CIA's relationship with the Saudi government and the mutual distrust. The CIA were listening to Osama in Afghanistan and apparently getting little help from the Saudi government. Coll breaks down the translation of OBL's interviews before and after 9/11. While various Arab and Islamic scholars and sociologists I have read recently criticize the use of a "clash of civilizations" to describe the current state of affairs, that is clearly how OBL saw the problem because it is written as such in the Quran. The Binladin group continues to grow under the leadership of its chairman Bakr, and continues to be responsible for lucrative building projects in Saudi Arabia.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If interested in Osama bin Laden, don't read this book without reading Growing Up bin Laden. This website appears to have the entire recorded history on the bin Laden family, much of which is left out of this volume and would fill many volumes if every lead were pursued:
Other books on the history of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia would also be helpful. Also, consult other sources more recent than this book, it would be interesting for Coll to write an update based on now-available information.

Other books on Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and ISIS I read coincidentally:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Rise of Isis  - Jay Sekulow (1 star)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of ISIS (not yet read)

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