Meet The Bin Ladens, Part II: Tracking Osama's Kin Around the World
Osama bin Laden's family has disavowed itself from its terrorist "black sheep," but the discrepancies are considerable. In interviews with his family that took our reporters to Paris, Arlington, Virginia, Geneva and the furthest-flung corners of Pakistan, we take a closer look and the ties he may or may not still have to his relatives.
Osama also stayed in touch with his friends from the Saudi intelligence agency, even after Libya issued a warrant for his arrest, charging bin Laden with alleged involvement in the murder of two Germans -- an official working for Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and his wife. Prince Turki sent Osama's mother, Hamida, and his brother Bakr to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, several times to convince Osama to abandon his terrorist activities. The visits were so frequent that Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, believed at the time that Osama was a Saudi spy. Washington increasingly came under pressure to do something about OBL, especially after his involvement in attacks in Somalia and Yemen. The US government met with Saudi officials behind the scenes, confronting them with satellite images of al-Qaida training camps in northern Sudan. In April 1994, King Fahd finally revoked Osama bin Laden's Saudi Arabian citizenship. The bin Laden family followed suit, issuing a sparse, two-sentence statement, signed by Bakr, disowning Osama.
Despite these actions, OBL was still far from being a "black sheep" with no ties to his native country. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki visited bin Laden several times after he had moved from Sudan to Afghanistan to join forces with the radical Taliban. Turki allegedly brought along expensive gifts to Kandahar, in the form of dozens of pickup trucks. According to a former member of the Taliban intelligence service, Prince Turki and OBL made a deal: The Saudis would support al-Qaida financially, but only under the condition that there would be no attacks on Saudi soil. (Prince Turki, now Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Great Britain, has denied these claims, telling SPIEGEL that they are "nothing but fantasy.")
On Jan. 9, 2001, OBL attended his son Mohammed's wedding in Kandahar, accompanied, according to CIA sources, by his mother and two of his brothers. The CIA also claims that "two of Osama's sisters traveled to Abu Dhabi" a month later, where they met with an al-Qaida agent at the Gulf emirate's airport to deliver large sums of cash.
In mid-January 2005, New York federal judge Richard Casey wrote, in his grounds for allowing the civil suit against SBG filed by the families of 9/11 victims, that "the Saudi Binladin Group maintained close relationships with Osama bin Laden at certain times," and that it remains "unclear" whether these ties continued when OBL became involved in terrorism.
Can this global company, with its close ties to the Saudi royal family, truly be brought to trial, or will the US government, officially allied with Riyadh in its "war on terror," work behind the scenes to have the case dismissed? SBG has already demonstrated its willingness to work with the West by entering into joint ventures with Motorola and a deal with Disney, and has also been Porsche's official agent in the kingdom. Moreover, SBG is developing new airport security equipment in Saudi Arabia, as well as building housing for US managers working in the oil industry.
In Kazakhstan, the Saudi Binladin Group is helping build the country's new capital, Astana. In Syria, SBG and a Spanish company jointly operate the country's biggest olive oil processing plant. And in Dubai, the family company has just submitted a bid for a portion of the construction of what will be the world's tallest building. Next to aircraft, it seems, the bin Ladens see towers as a special challenge.
PARIS, AVENUE MONTAIGNE, NEAR THE CHAMPS-ELYSÉES AND THE LUXURY HOTEL "PLAZA ATHÉNÉE". A dinner appointment with Yeslam bin Laden at one the French capital's most expensive and exclusive restaurants.
He did not reserve a table. Was it because he doesn't like to identify himself as a bin Laden on the phone? "No no," says Osama's brother, "despite everything, I am proud of our family's name. But they know me here, so I don't need a reservation." Indeed, the staff, apparently accustomed to princely gratuities, practically bends over backward for bin Laden, a regular here, and seats us at the best table in the restaurant. Yeslam bin Laden, 55, orders a steak, medium rare. "Osama and I grew up very differently, and I never shared his system of beliefs," says Yeslam bin Laden.
When Yeslam was six, his mother sent him to a school in Beirut, because it was far more liberal there than in Saudi Arabia. He later attended schools and universities in Sweden and England. Although he spent his vacations at home, he saw his father "rarely," and his "half-brother Osama no more than three or four times, the last time in 1987 or thereabouts." He says that his only clear memory of Osama is of his strict condemnation of music, and his religious fanaticism, which struck Yeslam as odd. Yeslam himself believes religion is a personal matter, and he refuses to take responsibility for others. "Am I my brother's keeper?" he asks, calling himself an "enlightened Muslim," clearly alluding to the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
As a young man, Yeslam went to night clubs, drove a Porsche and earned his pilot's license. He studied business administration in Los Angeles. Photos from his college days show him with his Persian fiancée, a long-haired, happy hippy couple ensconced in the California lifestyle. He rarely received visitors from Saudi Arabia. One of these visitors was his devout brother Mahfus, who brought news of the bin Laden family, the Saudi royals and the Wahhabite clerics. But despite his worldly influences, Yeslam bin Laden retained his Saudi roots and insisted on a wedding in Jeddah. Against his wife Carmen's will, the women were fully veiled at the ceremony.
After living in the United States, Yeslam spent more than a decade and a half in Saudi Arabia -- from 1977 to 1984 -- where he was one of the leading executives in the family company in Jeddah. After a dispute with his brothers over SBG's finances, Yeslam went to Geneva, where he founded an investment company that specialized in managing large fortunes. There were soon rumors that Yeslam had reconciled with Bakr and was involved once again in business dealings with the bin Laden family. He dreamed of the birth of a son, and probably of rising to the top of SBG management in Jeddah.
When Yeslam's third daughter was born in April 1987 and he began spending long periods away from home, his marriage failed. According to his wife Yeslam, worried about his business, he became increasingly tense. Members of the Saudi royal family were now traveling to Geneva regularly and demanding his attention, especially the influential Prince Mishal. Yeslam bin Laden's divorce developed, as he himself says, into a bitter "War of the Roses." But in 2001, after years of troubles, he was finally successful on another front when he was granted Swiss citizenship. What is Yeslam's relationship with his brother Osama, who, as he claims, he last saw 18 years ago?
"9/11 was a tremendous shock for me," says Yeslam, now an upstanding citizen of Geneva who has also donated many thousands of dollars to the local film festival. "Osama had long since become a stranger to me, nothing but a name one reads in the newspaper," he says. "I felt that I was being held responsible for the crimes of a relative." The offices of his Geneva-based Saudi Investment Company (Sico) and his properties near Cannes were searched by the authorities, "just like that, on the strength of suspicion," he says. In early 2001, he registered the name "Bin Laden" as a trademark. He planned to establish a fashion house that would sell Bin Laden jeans but then, heeding the advice of friends, he abandoned the idea after 9/11: "After the incidents in New York, it would have been seen as a label in poor taste."
He developed a new business idea in the fall of 2004, a line of perfume. It's named "Yeslam," after its inventor and, according to its advertising, marries the scents of jasmine and lilies of the valley with an underlying note of sandalwood. In ads for the perfume, this combination of scents produces "a penetrating but gentle message for those who yearn for inner peace." The company plans to sell 60,000 bottles to its peace-loving customers.
Everything could work out for the best in Yeslam's world -- if only these new, hateful accusations would go away. A shadow lies over the man who tries to be pro-American and anti-Osama with every fiber of his being. In late December 2004, the French paper Le Monde reported that examining magistrate Renaud von Ruymbeke plans to investigate the bin Laden family's allegedly dubious financial dealings.
At the center of the investigation is an account that brothers Omar and Heidar bin Laden opened in 1990 with Swiss bank UBS with an initial deposit of $450,000. According to documents presented to the court, this account was still in existence in 1997, and only two people were authorized to conduct transactions: Yeslam and Osama bin Laden. The French court also intends to investigate information suggesting that 241 million were funneled from Switzerland to shadowy bank accounts in Pakistan through Akberali Moawalla, a former business partner of Sico and an acquaintance of Yeslam. Could all this have occurred with Yeslam's involvement or knowledge?
"I am not involved in money-laundering, and especially not with al-Qaida," says Yeslam bin Laden, his voice becoming slightly hoarse and edgy. He says that he never used the alleged UBS account and, probably for this reason, forgot about it. He takes pains to point out that he has not been charged with anything, neither by the New York court nor the French judge. He says that he is "innocent until proven guilty" -- another Western concept that this man living between cultures values, knowing full well that it carries no particular weight in his native country.
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, HOME OF THE AMERICAN CEMETERY FOR WAR HEROES AND "HARRY'S TAP ROOM". It's a relatively inconspicuous burger-and-seafood restaurant conveniently located halfway between the White House and CIA headquarters in nearby Langley, Virginia. We are here for a meeting with the CIA agent who hunted down Osama, tried to shed light on the bin Laden family's business dealings, and probably knows a great deal about the mysterious departure of more than a dozen bin Laden family members from the United States after 9/11. This is the man who published the bestseller "Imperial Hubris" last year under the nom de plume "Anonymous."
Anonymous now has a name and a face. His name is Mike Scheuer, and a gray beard partially covers his finely-chiseled academic face. He resigned from the CIA after 22 years of service, because he was no longer able to remain anonymous. Journalists were on the verge of uncovering his identity, and his book was facing harsh criticism from the White House. "That was when I did what had to be done," says Scheuer, 52, before taking a bite of his hamburger. He leaves his French fries untouched, glancing at his stomach. Being overweight isn't exactly part of the image someone wants to convey who, as a CIA field agent, helped arm the mujahedeen to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and who, in 1996, was placed in charge of "Alec," the top-secret unit authorized by former President Bill Clinton to hunt down bin Laden.
It was the first time an entire CIA station focused on a single man. Scheuer headed the special unit for three years until his superiors, angered by his complaints that the hunt for the world's top terrorist was being conducted half-heartedly, reassigned him for the first time. But he was brought back after Sept. 11, 2001, when it became clear that his bleak predictions had come true. But Scheuer's criticism of the Iraq war ultimately destroyed his good standing with the White House. "Bush strengthened the terrorists with his invasion, but it was a truth that they didn't want to hear."
Scheuer's axis of evil differs markedly from the president's. He believes that Pakistan and, even more so, Saudi Arabia are the epicenters of global violence. "Many Saudis support the terrorists in Iraq to this day - but we're the ones who are putting up the money -- by paying $50 for a barrel of oil and making ourselves dependent on oil imports."
Scheuer, an experienced intelligence expert, doubts that the entire bin Laden family has severed ties with Osama: "I haven't seen anything in the last 10 years that's convinced me that would be the case." In his view, SBG still derives some of its profits from business dealings in the Islamic world that can be linked to the family's supposed "black sheep." "He's treated as a hero almost everywhere over there," says Scheuer.
The CIA came close to capturing OBL several times. On one occasion, during the al-Qaida leadership's hasty retreat from the Afghan city of Kandahar in the fall of 2001, family passports were inadvertently left behind. Saad, a son of Osama bin Laden, was supposedly sent back to al-Qaida headquarters to make sure the documents wouldn't fall into the hands of the Americans. When he realized he had forgotten the combination for the safe, he used a cell phone to get the information, directly violating his father's strict instructions. Several different intelligence agencies picked up the call, but by then it was too late to act.
According to Scheuer, members of the bin Ladin family who were doing business in the United States or studying at US universities were almost completely inaccessible. "My counterparts at the FBI questioned one of the bin Ladens," the former CIA agent recalls. "But then the State Department received a complaint from a law firm, and there was a huge uproar. We were shocked to find out that the bin Ladens in the United States had diplomatic passports, and that we weren't allowed to talk to them."
Scheuer believes that these diplomatic privileges also helped the bin Ladens get out of the United States quickly after September 11, in a bizarre episode that has even been probed by the US Congress and an investigative commission.
Only two days after the attacks, when the US government had just reopened US air space, charter jets began taking off from various cities. Nine pilots flew 142 Saudi Arabians back to the kingdom. On Sept. 20, 2001, the "bin Laden jet" took off from St. Louis, making stops in Los Angeles, Orlando, Washington and Boston. At each stop, the plane picked up more half-brothers, nephews, nieces and cousins of public enemy number one. At that point, the FBI had already begun investigating two of the bin Ladens who were flown out of the country. They both lived in Falls Church, a suburb of Washington, and were officials in the "World Assembly of Muslim Youth."
Richard Clarke, for many years the chief of counterterrorism at the White House, has revealed that he was responsible for the flights. He says that he grantedhis approval after having been asked to handle the issue. And by whom? Perhaps by Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, after coordinating the plan with Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, a close friend of the First Family? "I would be happy tell you, but I don't remember," Clarke told a Senate investigating panel -- few believe he was telling the truth.
Of course, former CIA agent Scheuer is well aware that the bin Ladens, as investors in and customers of the Carlyle Group, an investment company, had common business interests with the Bushs. In fact, until October 2003 George W.'s father and predecessor in the White House still worked as an "advisor" for Carlyle, which is also involved in the defense sector. Although Scheuer is no wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, he also believes that the US government was "unusually" accommodating to the bin Ladens. Does he regret leaving the CIA, and does he dream of returning? Scheuer, a father of four, says: "I liked my job. I wanted to protect the country against its enemies -- but not the president against his critics."
- Part 1: Tracking Osama's Kin Around the World
- Part 2: NEXT PAGE: "The Saudi Arabian Wahhabites are the luxury version of the Taliban"
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