US author Steve Coll spent years looking into Osama bin Laden's family. Now, his new book provides a unique insight into the clan. SPIEGEL spoke with him about where the terrorist might be hiding, how his father got his start, and the unique romantic liasons pursued by one of his brothers.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Coll, Osama bin Laden recently broke a long silence. He threatened Europe and called for the "liberation" of the Gaza Strip. How seriously should we take these missives? Do they tell us anything about him or about where he might be?
Steve Coll: Bin Laden has long formulated his messages such that they touch on current events. It is not difficult to imagine him hidden away somewhere on the Afghanistan border watching al-Jazeera or CNN and taking notes for his next communiqué. I think his comments on Europe were mostly an effort to make headlines -- written after he heard about the Muhammad caricatures being reprinted. But it could also be an indication that he got wind of a plot developing in Europe. In the last two years, we have found connections between such plots and al-Qaida headquarters. His mention of Gaza is typical of his attempt to play a role in current events. He simply wants to show that he is still alive and keeping abreast of developments in the Muslim world.
SPIEGEL: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama accuses the Bush administration of having dangerously neglected the hunt for the world's most-wanted terrorist. Is he right?
Coll: It would have been possible to eliminate Osama bin Laden, specifically between 1998 and 2001, in the time before Sept. 11. We had agents on site at the time, and they gave (former President Bill) Clinton the chance to strike three times. One time he decided against a missile attack, because he was unwilling to accept the deaths of children. A swing was distinguishable on a satellite image of bin Laden's base near Kandahar. It probably would also have been possible to surround the camp with Special Forces and extract him. But those weren't the political priorities at the time. But even after 9/11 there was an opportunity. Bin Laden himself later wrote about how desperate his situation was during the heavy bombing of his cave hideout in Tora Bora near the Pakistani border in December 2001. He managed to escape at the last minute. Whether some of the Afghan troops that had advanced with US troops into the mountains were simply too half-hearted or actively helped him get away, it's hard to say. In any event, we neglected to bring in the Tenth Mountain Division, which specialized in that type of combat and was partly stationed in Uzbekistan at the time. It was a bad decision.
SPIEGEL: Where is bin Laden now?
Coll: I am firmly convinced that he is on Pakistani soil, and I would even venture to say where: in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, near the city of Miram Shah. Bin Laden knows the area like the back of his hand. It is controlled by the Haqqani clan, in which he has deep roots. Pakistan's army doesn't dare enter the region.
SPIEGEL: Do you think he's in some sort of al-Qaida camp where he can play a role coordinating the group's activities?
Coll: Osama probably moves from place to place, protected by friends -- which doesn't mean that someone won't betray him one of these days. And he apparently has access to modern means of communication, like satellite TV. The Miram Shah region, unlike rural Afghanistan, is further developed in this respect than we in the West generally assume. I imagine that Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, isn't in the same place as bin Laden.
SPIEGEL: Out of caution or for tactical reasons?
Coll: Probably both. But in the last two or three years, the two have regained so much confidence that I've heard they even get together at Shuras, the group consultations among the al-Qaida leadership. We don't know whether Bin Laden himself issues commands to carry out terrorist attacks. But it's practically certain that he knows about most al-Qaida operations.
SPIEGEL: You devote much of your new book to his family and its origins. Why?
Coll: I believe that Osama bin Laden and the broad contradictions among religion, tradition and modernity in the Middle East, with enmity toward the West on one side and the attractiveness of our ideas and way of life on the other, is best understood through the prism of this clan.
SPIEGEL: Do you see the bin Ladens as a terrorist clan? Or are they just a nice family with one well-known black sheep?
Coll: They are a large family, at any rate. Osama alone has 24 brothers and 29 sisters, and the bin Ladens have always been a clan that encompasses an astonishingly broad range of ideologies -- from those of its completely worldly members, like bon vivant Salem bin Laden, a Beatles fan and playboy, to those of its religious fanatics. This diversity was also evident on that fateful day in America. When the terrorists slammed their hijacked American Airlines jet into the Pentagon, Shafiq bin Laden, Osama's half-brother, was in a conference with investors at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, just a few kilometers away. The conference was sponsored by the Carlyle Group, in which both the bin Ladens and the Bush family held shares.
SPIEGEL: As with most of the world's successful family clans, the bin Ladens also got their start behind a powerful patriarch.
Coll: Indeed. Osama's father Mohammed was a self-made man who transformed himself from a simple, illiterate farmer's son to a multimillionaire. He comes from the inhospitable Hadramaut, a bitterly poor region in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, whose name couldn't be more appropriate. Hadramaut means "death is among us." At 14, Mohammed took his fate into his own hands. In 1925, he crossed the Red Sea to the north on an overcrowded wooden dhow, wandered half-starved through the desert, and eventually made it to Jiddah, a dismal and stiflingly small city at the time. But Osama's father overlooked the poverty and saw an opportunity.
SPIEGEL: What was he able to do that others couldn't have done?
Coll: He had seen the astonishing, tall clay brick buildings his fellow Saudi Arabians had built in the Hadramaut. He wanted to become a builder, to tear down houses and build towers. Towers, and later aircraft, would, in surprising variations, determine the fate of this family.
SPIEGEL: Where did Mohammed bin Laden get the startup capital for his business?
Coll: He slept in a hollow in the sand, worked part-time in a shop for pilgrims, cooked, worked in a stone quarry and saved every cent. He started a company in 1931 and soon became involved in housing construction. In the days of the first oil boom, he used ambition, hard work and good contacts to become the top builder for the Saudi royal family. Soon, in addition to high-rises, he was building dams and roads. He became rich.
SPIEGEL: A lot of folks were rich. Where did his influence come from?
Coll: Money couldn't change his social position in Saudi Arabia, even though he was awarded a cabinet position in 1955. The al-Saud royal family appreciated his honesty and reliability, but they would never allow their daughters to marry him or any of his sons. If Mohammed wanted to ensure that his children would have better opportunities -- and that was something he wanted more than anything else -- a first-class education was critical.
SPIEGEL: He must have had his favorites, among the 54 children from his 22 wives. Was Osama one of these favorites?
Coll: Mohammed bin Laden quickly divorced Osama's mother, a Syrian woman from the port city of Latakia. But everything suggests that the father was an important role model for Osama. As a young boy, he accompanied his father to Mecca and Medina, where Mohammed completed extensive renovation work, just as he did in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an important religious site for Muslims. The senior bin Laden was a devout man, and these projects in Islam's holiest places were of great personal importance to him. But he was by no means a fanatic, and he was surprisingly cosmopolitan for a man of his background. He was a modernizer.
SPIEGEL: How can you tell?
Coll: He also employed Christians and other "infidels" on his construction site in Jerusalem, bought more than half a dozen modern Packard two-seaters from the United States and was the first private citizen in Saudi Arabia to have his own airplane. He had it maintained by TWA. An American pilot would eventually lead to his downfall, when he crashed the bin Laden family plane on a September day in 1967.
'Osama Was More of a Shy Boy'
SPIEGEL: Had the patriarch clearly set up his succession? Did Osama play a role?
Coll: Osama, son number 17, was just 10 years old when the father died. Like the other male heirs, he received a 2.3 percent share of the company, while each of the daughters received only 1 percent. This money and the interest on the company's annual profits -- invested, contrary to the rules of Islam, with Western banks -- made Osama a rich man. He was a millionaire, but he wasn't worth 300 million as has been claimed. After a transition period, in which King Faisal assumed a guardian-like role, Salem bin Laden was made the head of the huge family company. He was at least 10 years older than his brother Osama and had attended a British boarding school.
SPIEGEL: Some of the siblings received their education in the West or in the Lebanese capital Beirut, which was very liberal at the time, while others stayed in Saudi Arabia. Didn't Osama want to venture out into the world?
Coll: He visited Beirut once, but he apparently found life there to be more alienating than fascinating. Sometimes he watched American TV series like "Bonanza" and "Fury," and sometimes he played football, but always in long trousers. But Osama, who was more of a shy boy, sought his role model, his new father figure, elsewhere. He was heavily influenced by a teacher who promoted the ideas of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Osama's radicalization was not directed against the family. He accepted Salem's authority without objection, even though he must have disapproved of his drinking habits, his playboy lifestyle and his fondness for Western pop music. But at first Osama's religious and revolutionary zeal by no means contradicted the policies of the Saudi royal family, especially when it came to issues like the call to "liberate" Jerusalem, and then, later on, the fight against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, which he plunged into with enthusiasm.
SPIEGEL: Did the other Bin Ladens admire Osama, or did they just see him as an eccentric?
Coll: They thought the intensity and rigor with which he lived his faith were odd. For example, he forbade his young wife from drinking through a straw and his children from drinking from a bottle, because he felt that these things were un-Islamic. But by no means did they see him as a sectarian outsider. Just as it was once customary in families of the European nobility for a son to choose the priesthood, they considered it quite normal that one of their own would choose the call of religion.
SPIEGEL: It soon became more than that.
Coll: Yes. Osama became radicalized in 1979, with the attack of radical Islamists on the Great Mosque in Mecca, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His ego and his ambition grew when, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, he distributed money, most of it donated by his family, to the Afghan insurgents and then joined the mujaheddin in their holy war.
SPIEGEL: How was the family able to maintain this split between Mecca and the West?
Coll: Salem was quite successful as the head of the family and as a businessman. He knew how important the donations were for the Afghan resistance movement. On the advice of his politically influential US friends, he also helped finance the CIA's campaign against the Contras in Nicaragua. Most of all, however, Salem bin Laden lived his American dream, which included villas, cars and private planes. He liked to travel and he loved singing to an audience. He once sang Bavarian folk songs at the Oktoberfest in Munich, after paying $2,000 in cash to buy a spot in the overflowing beer tent. His love life was especially eccentric.
SPIEGEL: In what way?
Coll: He had five preferred girlfriends: an American, a Briton, a Frenchwoman, a Dane and a German. One day he had them all flown to London, introduced them to each other and announced that he wanted to marry each of them and give them each a villa. The only condition was that they would have to be available for him at all times -- and have their respective national flags flying on their property and a car made in their respective country parked in front of the door. He dreamed of his own, private United Nations. The German, nicknamed "my Panzer," left immediately, while most of the others played hard-to-get. Salem eventually married the British woman…
SPIEGEL: …but was unable to enjoy his good fortune for long.
Coll: That's right. A short time later, in May of 1988, he took off in an ultralight aircraft from the Kitty Hawk Field of Dreams in San Antonio and, though he was an experienced pilot, inexplicably hit power lines and crashed. It was yet another aviation death, and once again it was linked to America. The brother who then took over as head the company, Bakr bin Laden, was a moderately religious, internationally experienced and worldly man.
SPIEGEL: How did the rupture between Osama and the family come about?
Coll: Osama had found a new mentor in the Pakistani-Afghani border region. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar with the Muslim Brotherhood, acquainted him with the concept of international jihad. New weapons, paid for with Saudi money and delivered by the United States, turned the war around in favor of the mujaheddin. After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan and he returned home to Saudi Arabia, Osama began searching for new projects. When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in 1990, he offered the royal family his Arab fighters for a punitive expedition against Saddam Hussein, playing the loyal Islamic guerilla leader in the service of the monarchy. But to his great disappointment, the rulers in Riyadh chose to pin their hopes on the Americans and agreed to allow the US to station large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia.
SPIEGEL: But didn't the bin Laden family make money on the deal?
Coll: The company, under Bakr's leadership, built a helicopter landing site for the US Army. All of this was too much for Osama: the humiliation stemming from the rejection of his support, and the certificates of appreciation that US General Norman Schwarzkopf handed to individual executives within the bin Laden Group for their "invaluable support." He sharpened the tone of his political speeches, and then took his four wives and many children to live in exile in Sudan. After the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, when Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization came under suspicion, the family officially disowned him.
SPIEGEL: Were all contacts truly cut off?
Coll: No. Osama's firstborn son Abdullah had already abandoned the father before he moved on to Afghanistan and became more and more involved in terrorism. But we know that the mother and several other family members traveled to Kandahar to attend the wedding of the second-eldest son Mohammed in January 2001.
SPIEGEL: Carmen bin Laden, a sister-in-law of Osamas who lived in Saudi Arabia for a long time, told SPIEGEL that she believes that the "Bin Ladens never disowned Osama; in this family, a brother remains a brother, no matter what he has done." Do you have evidence to support this claim?
Coll: No direct evidence. One of the family members, Saad bin Laden, is under house arrest in Tehran as a suspected terrorist. And there are financial transactions by individual family members that are difficult to trace and therefore suspicious, but no overwhelming evidence. Bakr bin Laden and the globalized family company are far too dependent on international acceptance to remain in contact with Osama, no matter what they think of him. After Osama's declaration of war on the United States, the family hired a former Wall Street Journal journalist as a PR advisor. And with only one exception all bin Ladens who were living the United States left the country shortly after the attack.
SPIEGEL: And now the family is spread across the globe. Can you give us a short summary?
Coll: Yeslam bin Laden has secured the rights to the family name for his Bin Laden Fashions, which he abandoned in the face of protests. Abdullah owns an event management agency in Jiddah. Hassan is one of the principal shareholders in the Hard Rock Café Middle East. Other family members finance Hollywood films, own or have owned privatized prisons and an airport in the United States. Bakr and the Bin Ladin Group are bidding on the contract to build the world's tallest building in Dubai. He counts Prince Charles, George Bush senior and Jimmy Carter among his close acquaintances. He has also taken flying lessons and pilots his private jet himself.
SPIEGEL: And Osama…
Coll: …is by no means the country bumpkin, the fanatic fundamentalist he is sometimes portrayed as in the West. He sees himself as a master of global changes and their technologies. He believes, not quite incorrectly, that he has used the modern media more effectively than his American adversaries. Robbed of his Saudi Arabian identity, at home in international jihad, Osama, as his most recent messages from the underground show, sees himself as a true world citizen.
SPIEGEL: He sent a message to the candidates in the American presidential campaign four years ago, shortly before election day…
Coll: …and the Democrats and (former presidential candidate) John Kerry see this as one of the main reasons behind their loss. I believe that he wants to influence America this time, as well. There is a threat of the terrorist attack on American soil that al-Qaida has long warned of. Osama bin Laden is planning something for the US election.
SPIEGEL: He could harm the Democrats, who have long led in the opinion polls, but are seen as less competent when it comes to fighting terror. Could Osama be the Republicans' last hope?
Coll: This is the year of the Democrats, unless there is a huge disaster.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Coll, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Erich Follath
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH