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Bin Ladens, done that

The history of the Bin Laden family is another rags-to-riches fairy tale from the Middle East’s boom period, until one of its introvert members decided to rewrite his life, that of his family and that of the world. Soutik Biswas writes.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2008 03:20 IST

Much before globalisation became de rigeur, the Bin Ladens had embraced it. An immigrant family with roots in a remote mud rock town in Yemen, it crossed the border into Saudi Arabia, hired multinational immigrant workers and built roads, dams, power stations, water pipelines and air force bases and revamped mosques for the royal family. The family also grew live stock, wheat and vegetables for the royal farms.

When the Bin Ladens grew into riches, they bankrolled Hollywood movies, traded horses with Kenny Rogers, negotiated real estate — unsuccessfully — with Donald Trump, and regarded Bush Senior and Jimmy Carter as friends of the family. The Bin Ladens loved underground rock, Beatles, Chicago, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, watched Elvis and Bruce Lee movies, dated European girls and loved nifty clothes, cars and planes. A quarter of the family children went to US schools and colleges at some point.

One of the family members, as we all know by now, was very different. Osama Bin Laden, one of the 54 children of the paterfamilias and infrastructure tsar, Mohammed Bin Laden, began as a shy, unassuming, courteous and religious child and ended up exporting global jihad. But as Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Steve Coll shows in his amazingly well researched The Bin Ladens, Osama, one of his father’s 25 sons, was also an ardent globaliser, hiring fighters from all over the world to set up the al-Qaeda, sending them all over the world to fight his infidel enemies, and using the media cannily to get his message across.

In Coll’s book, the Bin Ladens emerge as a product of globalisation, a potent mix of a vast and rich family with its conservative and liberal wings, growing up and operating in a schizoid political and social environment in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Osama, the family name today spits out a staggering nearly 26 million results on Google, but the story of the family’s diversity, resilience and flair for networking with men of power and pelf around the world is truly remarkable.

For evidence look to Salem Bin Laden, who took over as the paterfamilias after Mohammed Bin Laden’s death, and remained Osama’s dependable half-brother till his death in an air crash in the 1990s. Salem planned movie projects with Brooke Shields, bought and flew airplanes of all kinds, sang House of the Rising Sun at Adnan Khashoggi’s discotheque, played harmonica during jam sessions for a friend’s rock band, chain smoked and had food and coffee during Ramadan afternoons, and hired a designer from Blade Runner to pitch ideas to King Fahd to deck up the King’s new 747. He had girlfriends from all over the world and once planned to marry five of them. Salem was a giddy soul and a maverick — he would play harmonica to entertain air traffic controllers while piloting his Learjet. As Coll says: “He ensured that the risks of private aviation became an increasingly pervasive part of the Bin Ladens family life and conversation.”

Osama, grew up with his Syrian mother on the conservative side of the family, and is described — as in other books on him — as a shy, obedient, hard working loner who loved swimming, hunting and riding horses. He loved action films and Westerns. There is no evidence, says Coll, that he was ever educated in a religious school and interestingly, briefly studied at a Quaker school in Beirut. “He was a quiet lad,” an Irishman, who taught him English, says in the book. “I suppose silent waters run deep.”

Indeed. As he grew into adolescence, Osama flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Egyptian Islamic organisation which rooted for a more religious Arab politics, and Salafists. The Bin Laden clan saw him, says Coll, “some with sceptical tolerance and others with unequivocal admiration as their clan’s remarkably committed young preacher and prayer leader”.

Osama’s early travels to Afghanistan in the early 1980s during the Soviet invasion of the country, were “nothing more than cash and hold meeting operations”. But as he grew attracted to radical Islam, he banned Disney cartoon videotapes and Sesame Street at home, shunned television, and tried to teach his children to live the hard way, taking them to camp in the desert, ride horses, sleep in the open, and cover themselves with sand to protect them from the cold. Exiled to Sudan after supporting Islamist bush wars in Yemen and other places, he built roads and farmed before he finally found his little kingdom in faraway Afghanistan, after landing there in the mid 1990s. He also met a one-eyed preacher called Mullah Omar. The rest, as we all know, is grim history.

How premeditated was Osama’s rise to the chief operating officer of global jehad, is much less clear. With the death of Salem — who had supported his work on the Afghan frontier — and the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, he lost a sponsor and some sense of his purpose. Living in exile in Sudan in the mid-1990’s “out of money, divorced by one of his wives, abandoned by his eldest son, estranged from his family — a hint of King Lear in the wilderness”, Osama apparently explored the possibility of moving to London in 1995 for a more traditional, political exile. Would the world have been a very different place today if Osama, hounded out of his country of birth and Sudan, had not found his exile and kingdom in a pariah, war-ravaged country? It has to be the most tantalising question in modern history.

Soutik Biswas is India Editor, BBC News Online