Meet The Bin Ladens Osama's Road to Riches and Terror

The Bin Laden family disowned black sheep Osama in 1994. But have they really broken with the mega-terrorist? Recently revealed classified documents seem to suggest otherwise. Osama's violent career has been made possible in part by the generosity of his family -- and by his contacts with the Saudi royals.
Von Georg Mascolo und Erich Follath

In early spring 2002, American intelligence agents tipped off authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina that something wasn't quite right with the "Benevolence International Foundation." Their reaction was swift; special forces stormed eight offices of the Islamic foundation in Sarajevo and in Zenica. They found weapons and explosives, videos and flyers calling for holy war. More importantly, however, they discovered a computer with a mysterious file entitled "Tarich Osama" -- Arabic for "Osama's Story."

After printing out the file -- close to 10,000 pages worth -- the intelligence experts quickly realized they had stumbled upon a true goldmine. They were looking at nothing less than the carefully documented story of al-Qaida, complete with scanned letters, minutes of secret meetings, photos and notes -- some even written in Osama Bin Laden's handwriting. CIA experts secured the highly sensitive material, dubbed "Golden Chain," and took everything back to the United States. To this day, only fragments of the material have been published. Now, however, SPIEGEL magazine has been given complete access to the entire series of explosive documents dating from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.

During that time, Osama bin Laden, known as "OBL" in CIA parlance, was primarily interested in "preserving the spirit of jihad" that had developed during the successful Afghanistan campaign -- a fight which saw an international group of Muslim fighters stand up to the mighty Soviet army. Bin Laden wanted to expand the group's activities to battle "the infidels" in the West. A full decade before the attacks on the Twin Towers, the documents make horrifyingly clear, bin Laden was already dreaming of "staging a major event for the mass media, to generate donations."

Finances are the focal point in these early al-Qaida documents. OBL, as one of the heirs of a large construction company, had a substantial fortune at his disposal, but it was still not enough to finance global jihad. The Saudi elite -- and his own family -- came to his assistance.

"Be generous when doing God's work"

The evidence lies in the most valuable document investigators managed to acquire: a list of al-Qaida's key financial backers. The list, titled with a verse from the Koran, "Let us be generous when doing God's work," is a veritable who's who of the Middle Eastern monarchy, including the signatures of two former cabinet ministers, six bankers and twelve prominent businessmen. The list also mentions "the bin Laden brothers." Were these generous backers aware, at the time, that were not just donating money to support the aggressive expansion of the teaching of the Islamic faith, but were also financing acts of terror against non-believers? Did "the bin Laden brothers," who first pledged money to Al-Qaida and then, in 1994, issued a joint press statement declaring that they were ejecting Osama from the family as a "black sheep," truly break ties with their blood relatives -- or were they simply pulling the wool over the eyes of the world?

Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism for the CIA, says, "I tracked the bin Ladens for years. Many family members claimed that Osama was no longer one of them. It's an easy thing to say, but blood is usually thicker than water."

Carmen bin Laden, a sister-in-law of the terrorist, who lived with the extended family in Jeddah for years, says, "I absolutely do not believe that the bin Ladens disowned Osama. In this family, a brother is always a brother, no matter what he has done. I am convinced that the complex and tightly woven network between the bin Laden clan and the Saudi royal family is still in operation."

French documentary filmmaker Joël Soler even goes so far as to refer to the family as "A Dynasty of Terror," in his somewhat speculative made-for-TV piece.

But could this really be possible? Are the bin Ladens (or "Binladins," as they more commonly spell it), with their 25 brothers, 29 sisters, in-laws, aunts and, by now, at least 15 children of Osama, nothing but a clan of terrorists? Or are relatives being taken to task for the crimes of one family member, all on the strength of legends and conspiracy theories?

American celebrity attorney Ron Motley plans to file a lawsuit against alleged Saudi backers of al-Qaida on behalf of hundreds of families who lost relatives in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Listed among the defendants summoned by federal judge Richard Casey at Motley's request in January 2005 were Osama and one of his brothers, as well as the family's billion-dollar business in Jeddah, the "Saudi Binladin Group."

Tracking the bin Ladens across the globe

To form an impression of this rather unique extended family, one would have to travel to the desert kingdom, where it has its roots, as well as to Washington, Geneva, London and the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- in other words, to all those places where the bin Ladens have left their tracks or where they live today. And the best way to get to the bottom of this clan is to piece together its many parts. Only then will it become more apparent whether the bin Ladens are a clan of terrorists or (with one well-known exception) a terribly affable family.

The bin Laden story, with its dramatic twists and turns, almost comes across as an Arab version of Thomas Mann's novel "Buddenbrooks." In both cases, it's the story of an imposing patriarch, who has managed to hold the clan together, and of his sons, who cannot or do not wish to stop the family's moral decline.

JEDDAH, ON THE RED SEA, IS A MAJOR CITY AND AN IMPORTANT TRANSIT PORT FOR SAUDI ARABIA. It's also one of the main ports of entry for pilgrimages to the Muslim holy city of Mecca -- and to the headquarters of the family dynasty, the Saudi Binladin Group (SBG).

"We have a mayor and all kinds of political heavyweights. But the truly ruler of Jeddah is Bakr bin Laden," says an informer who agreed to speak only under condition of anonymity. "But Bakr is never seen in public, and when he does occasionally go to the Intercontinental Hotel for dinner -- usually with Osama's son Abdullah -- he has the entire restaurant closed. During a tour of the city, the source points out a glass and steel palace not far from the city's downtown area, with its twisting alleyways and smattering of restored old houses. It's the headquarters of SBG, the secretive realm of Bakr Bin Laden, 58, the son of the family's patriarch and chairman of the company's board of directors.

Jeddah is the place where the clan's founding father began his astonishing career. And it's also the place where the first family member became connected with Islamic terrorism -- not Osama, but his older brother, Mahrus bin Laden. US authorities have also clearly linked another member of the clan, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who is married to one of Osama's sisters, to terrorist attacks abroad.

Although Bin Laden senior -- Mohammed bin Laden -- was practically illiterate, he was blessed with tremendous energy and keen sense of business. In 1930, he left his village, Ribat, in the desperately poor Yemeni region of Hadramaut, and headed north. In Jeddah, then a small city, he eked out a living as a porter for pilgrims, steadfastly saving his earnings to start his own company.

A year later, when the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia gained its independence, the immigrant from the south was still struggling to make ends meet. But he quickly recognized the two factors that were becoming increasingly important in his adopted country: oil, which had been flowing from Saudi wells since 1938, and, with its enormous profits, was revolutionizing the country's traditional society and causing nomadic tribes to take up roots; and the country's authoritarian king, whose patronage sometimes determined survival, but always determined social advancement.

A third factor that was critical to the success of the state, and was symbiotically linked with the monarchy from the very beginning, was the religious establishment in its uniquely Saudi form. The principles of Wahhabism-- as Saudi Islam is known -- have their roots with the 18th century radical zealot Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the Sauds' most powerful ally in their efforts to take control of the peninsula. After the founding of the Saudi state, fundamentalism became the official religion.

The royal court builder

Mohammed bin Laden had no quarrels with either the preachers or the princes; his only goal was to make it to the top, and the construction business was the ideal launching pad. The kingdom needed roads, railroads and airports. Bin Laden senior built ramps in the palace for the handicapped King Abd al-Aziz's wheelchair and highways into the mountains for his luxury cars. Bin Laden was later named Minister of Public Spending, and the royal family even awarded him the contract to renovate the country's holy sites. The family business, SBG, quickly developed into the court builder for the entire Saudi infrastructure.

Following an old Islamic tradition, the bin Laden senior kept numerous wives. In 1956, he sired child number 17 with a Syrian woman from Latakia, and the boy was named Osama. It must have been difficult for the patriarch to keep track of his family; ten years later, child number 54 was born -- Mohammed bin Laden's last offspring. In 1968, the patriarch was killed when his Cessna, piloted by an American, crashed -- a foreshadowing of things to come.

The king placed the family business, SBG, under the management of a trustee, making the bin Laden sons the de facto wards of the monarch. Osama was ten years old at the time and he was occasionally allowed to ride along on the company's bulldozers. But he had hardly known his father -- a deficit he recognized only later in life when he elevated the family's patriarch to the status of Spiritus Rector in matters of Islamic fundamentalism.

Even as a boy, Osama was always considered the "holy one" in the family. He drew attention to himself when he denounced school soccer tournaments as a godless waste of time and assiduously monitored the houses of neighbors, taking it upon himself to enforce the state's prohibition of music. He enrolled in the economics program at Jeddah's King Abd al-Aziz University, where the curriculum was determined by anti-Western agitators from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The family became divided, into a more stationary branch, and an "international" branch that settled across the globe. One member of the latter camp was Salem bin Laden. He attended a British university, married a woman from an upper-class British family, and vacationed in Disneyland. In 1972, when the Saudi government relinquished control over SBG, Salem, as the family's eldest son, was named head of the company and quickly made it clear that he had no compunctions about doing business with the United States.

Salem bin Laden established the company's ties to the American political elite when, according to French intelligence sources, he helped the Reagan administration circumvent the US Senate and funnel $34 million to the right-wing Contra rebels operating in Nicaragua. He also developed close ties with the Bush family in Texas. But Salem's successors, not Salem, were the ones who were able to fully capitalize on these connections. In 1988, Salem died in a plane crash near San Antonio, Texas, when the aircraft he was piloted became entangled in a power line. After Salem's death, Bakr took control of SBG.

Brother terrorist

In the meantime, trouble was brewing at home in Saudi Arabia -- in Mecca, of all places, and with the presumed involvement of a family member. In November 1979, insurgents occupied and barricaded themselves into Islam's holiest site, demanding an end to corruption and wastefulness in Saudi Arabia and charging the royal family with having lost its legitimacy by currying favor with the West. It was an act of terror that foreshadowed every major plank of the al-Qaida platform of radical fundamentalism -- and it was no coincidence that this radical group was lead by members of the Muslim Brotherhood with ties to Osama's professors.

At the time, Osama was still entrenched in Saudi society, but his older brother, Mahrus, maintained ties to the fanatics. It's even speculated that he may have used his access to SBG's offices to obtain the renovation plans for the Great Mosque, together with all its secret passageways, and handed them over to the radicals. In any event, the fanatics forced their way onto the mosque's grounds in a truck that was later identified as a Binladin company vehicle.

Mahrus bin Laden was arrested, but was then released for lack of evidence. The terrorist attack turned into a nightmare for the authorities. With the help of French special forces, the Saudis managed to overcome the attackers, but only after a two-week siege and a bloody battle claiming more than a hundred lives. For Mahrus's career, however, the affair proved to be nothing more than a minor speed bump and he later resurfaced as head of SBG's office in Medina.

In late 1979, Osama, with the royal family's blessing, set off for Afghanistan to participate in the jihad against the Soviet Union, which had invaded its neighbor to the south. Both the CIA and Saudi Arabia helped fund the Mujahedeen's armed struggle against the communist "infidels." Prince Turki, head of the Saudi secret service, visited Osama several times in Afghanistan and heavy equipment provided by the SBG family business was used to excavate secret tunnels. For Osama, the support of the Saud family and the bin Ladens became a reliable source of funding.

In 1990, after his triumph in Afghanistan, OBL offered the Saudi royal family the use of his troops to battle Saddam Hussein, whose forces had invaded Kuwait. But King Fahd decided instead to bring in American forces. The decision proved to be a financial coup for the family business, which helped build military bases for the outsiders, but it was turning point in Osama's life. Embittered, he went to Sudan in 1992, where he built training camps and organized attacks with his al-Qaida group, especially against "infidels" from the United States. He also made sure that the planning of terrorist activities remained in the family. His brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, was involved in the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. On his visa application for the United States, he had listed his occupation as an "employee of the Saudi Binladin Group." Khalifa was briefly detained in the United States, but was then deported to Jordan, where he was released because of formal legal errors. In the past, he had also been implicated as a financial backer of the Philippine Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization.

Part II of "Osama's Road to Riches and Terror" can be read here .

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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