SPIEGEL Interview with US Author Steve Coll: 'Osama bin Laden is Planning Something for the US Election'

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.

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