Since the day 19 hijackers, owing allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, the name “Bin Laden” has reverberated around the world as shorthand for a benighted medievalism, the deadliest anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, hatred of the West, of secularism, of “infidels”—the reverse, in short, of civilization as much of the world knows it.
Renegade: Bin Laden’s family once wanted to purchase McDonald’s franchises for West Asia.
But, as The New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll shows in his new book The Bin Ladens, Osama’s background is far more complex. His break in the early 1990s from his massive family — for long, the biggest business group in Saudi Arabia—and from all that they stood for (persistent modernization, business ties with America, fealty to the corrupt ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia, a love of material and secular pleasures) occurred very slowly and tentatively.
Coll’s book is simultaneously the biography of a terrorist and that of a great business house (Osama only makes his first appearance a quarter of the way into the book). Coll’s story begins early in the 1930s with Mohamed bin Laden, an impoverished but enterprising Yemeni national who came to Jeddah in search of work and became a contractor in construction. Mohamed’s trade gradually flourished, and he came close to the court of Al Saud, the ruling dynasty of newly formed Saudi Arabia. Mohamed’s links with the court would set his own dynasty firmly in step with that of the Al Saud for decades to come. Mohamed was a much-married man — he sired 54 children from several wives, and Osama was one of seven children born in one year. A construction contract funded with American money in January 1951 — half a century before 9/11 — marks the first appearance of the name “Bin Laden” on an American state document.
Private jets were a luxury enjoyed by many Saudi notables, and Mohamed had his own jet manned by an American pilot who took him from site to site. Mohamed’s death in a plane crash in 1967 would be the first eerie episode in a long list of links between members of the Bin Laden family and plane crashes. Most of the Bin Laden business was divided up, as per Islamic law, between the many children, but the burden of running it till many of the children became adults rested upon Salem, Mohamed’s eldest son and Osama’s eldest brother.
Coll’s extended portrait of Salem, an energetic, garrulous bon vivant given to risk-taking in every sphere, makes for the most pleasurable section of his massive narrative. Salem extended his father’s system of patronage, forging links with many members of the next generation of the Al Saud family. He drank wine and ate pork without inhibition and inherited his father’s love of flying; he bought several jets and acquired considerable proficiency in flying them. He flew frequently to the US, where he invested copiously in businesses and real estate, and supported several girlfriends around the world. As the oil boom of the 1970s made the Saudi kingdom flush with money, the Bin Laden family rose higher than ever before. But Salem himself died tragically in a plane crash.
The Bin Ladens: Allen Lane, 672 pages, Rs795.
All this while, Osama, whose mother had remarried after being divorced by Mohamed, was acquiring an education at an expensive private school in Jeddah. This was where he came into first contact with radical religious rhetoric, through a teacher who owed allegiance to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Osama’s devotion to the word of God and his fastidious observance of rules — he would avert his eyes while speaking to women outside the family — was not seen as unusual by his family in a country where, as Coll remarks, “religion was like gravity” and the influence of the austere Wahhabi school was strong.
After attaining maturity, Osama worked with the Bin Laden group as a junior executive while enjoying a life much higher than his position because of his stake in the family business. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 would be the making of Osama as a man. He moved to Pakistan to work as a fund-raiser for the cause of the mujahideen, the Arab militia who had arrived to join the Afghan resistance, and his profile rose within his country and family.
In Pakistan, Osama came into contact with several radical preachers (Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri) who taught him the lines of his polemic —Christians and Jews want to take over the world; the West is tempting the Muslim world with lowly material and carnal pleasures; it is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad against these forces — while exploiting his access to wealth.
It is worth noting that Osama’s current face — that of a rootless, transnational holy warrior, a voice speaking to the world from an abyss, plotting its doom — was only consolidated after his family broke all ties with him in 1994, followed shortly afterwards by the Saudi government’s cancellation of his citizenship.
Left without the consolations of family or motherland, Osama was now on his own—Osama first, and Bin Laden second.
In his speeches and essays (his skillful use of new media such as satellite television and the Internet is totally at odds with his hatred of modernity), he now railed against the Al Saud dynasty and its defenders, and of practices such as usury, which he had formerly endorsed.
Coll’s brilliant book, with its emphasis on “the universal grammar of families”, shows us an Osama bin Laden who is more contradictory, more fragile, and more vulnerable than the Osama we have previously read about.
The big picture
Three more books that brings out the many facets of the Al Qaeda leader
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited by Bruce Lawrence (Verso, 2005)
The first requirement of any conflict is to understand the enemy, and this book, a collection of Osama’s essays and broadcasts over the years, is an invaluable resource for understanding the nature of the man’s grouse with most of humanity.
The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History, by Peter Bergen (Free Press, 2006)
Bergen’s anthology brings together an array of helpful source material, from interviews given by Bin Laden (including one with the author) to statements and anecdotes recounted by his allies and associates.
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 2007)
This widely praised book by Wright, like Coll a staff writer at ‘The New Yorker’, takes a wide-angle view of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, and is not only analytically astute but exhaustively researched—more than 500 interviewees are listed in the notes.
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