SPIEGEL Interview with US Author Steve Coll 'Osama bin Laden is Planning Something for the US Election'
Part 2: '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
- Part 1: 'Osama bin Laden is Planning Something for the US Election'
- Part 2: 'Osama Was More of a Shy Boy'