Christopher on “The Bin Ladens” by Steve Coll, translated by Nicola Clayton-Stead
Names are meaningless. Burning office blocks, cries of horrified people –since September 11th the name Bin Laden has represented terror and death. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center did not only destroy a symbol but also a network of relations, which spread from Washington via Jerusalem to Riad, guaranteeing Bin Laden’s influence and prosperity for centuries to come. Aside from its political and economical significance, “nine eleven” also represents a family catastrophe. Steve Coll shows the rise and fall of the family in his book “Bin Ladens”.
Steve Coll, who in the past has already won the Pulitzer-Prize two times over, studied the world political role of the Middle East. Already in 2004 he concentrated on his book “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 11, 2001” with help from the Taliban through the USA and with the involvement of the Bin Laden family from this region. One of Coll’s focus points, who at the time worked as managing director for the Washington Post, represented the use of Islamic fundamentalism as an instrument of American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. Yet this strategy had a weak point: the financial and physical support for Islamic resistance in Afghanistan to a large extent faced an uncontrollable dynamic from these groups. Appearing in his 2004 publication, Coll chose a rather foreign-political, contemporary perspective, yet now in the family biography “Bin Ladens”, he has carried out a different perspective and has concentrated on inside-Arabian developments. There are hardly any other Arabian families who hold such a key position as the Bin Ladens.
The rise of the Bin Laden family is a mixture of oriental fairytale and American dream. At the age of twelve, Mohammed Bin Laden left his Yemeni home initially to work in Ethiopia, then later Saudi-Arabia. Migrating for work is traditional in Yeman: children leave their home at an early age and get sent elsewhere by Yemeni migrants. Like his age group, initially Mohammed carried out work which got rejected by the Saudi Bedouins. But he had an advantage. He was skilful and motivated and had the time on his hands.
The rise of the Bin Ladens and of the Saudi Arabians are closely linked to each other. To the Bin Laden revolutionaries, oil, power and religion become a way to success. The triumph of oil, the power claims of the Saudi royal family and the necessity to control the wahabite influence, opened unlimited possibilities to dynasty-founder Mohammed. The Americans were a more important triumph. Already in the 1930s, American firms discovered the value of “black gold” and gained permission for extra funding for important building projects. Mohammed’s contacts and America’s building projects complemented each other. Initially, Bin Laden profited from outsourcing, but then after a short time began building for himself. Streets, palaces and barracks, Mohammed’s Arabic descent and his close connection to royalty paid off. And not even his sudden death ended the course of victory for the family. The Bin Ladens were not only a building-owner-dynasty for the Saudi royal family; they were a national symbol with strategical meaning. As Muslims they took on religious building projects in Mekka, Medina and Jerusalem, as Arabs they organised the errection of modern infrastructure and as entrepreneurs they kept in contact with the west.
As Mohammed’s son and predecessor, Salem strengthened the family’s western connection. Brought up in England, socialised in Saudi-Arabia, Salem embodies the family’s contradiction similar to that of the political system. Luxury and fear of God, wahabite tradition and abundance of oil –for a long time this contradiction was hidden by fear of communism and of Nasser’s nationalism. The material wealth of the family as well as that of the royal family makes this balance of extremes possible. Internally, the Bin Laden family supported the policy of the Saudi royal family with the construction of social institutions as well as the establishment of modern telephone networks. Externally, Salem’s contacts helped Saudi-Arabia both economically and politically to become the turntable of American foreign policy.
An additional way of dismantling domestic policy pressure and demonstrating religious steadfastedness came about through the Red Army’s invasion into Afghanistan. The Russian aggression towards the neighbouring country helped both Saudi Arabia as well as the Bin Ladens to canalise the increasing open-mindedness towards fundamental Islamic positions. Salem’s obvious enthusiasm for America was not representative; it was not shared by other family members. Instead, as the case of Salem’s half brother Osama shows, Islamism combined with anti-American resentments got pushed to the foreground. Afghanistan offered the opportunity to live out this feeling and for Osama Bin Laden, to be an outlet for an Islamic revolution.
War led to radicalisation and followed with estrangement from peace. An alienation that was also noticeable for Osama after the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan. Salem’s unexpected death left behind a familiar, political vacuum at the end of war. While the rest of the family turned back to normality of Saudi daily life, Osama looked for new, militant spheres of activity. Financial potential and radical zeal made it possible for the build up of training camps and support for terror cells in Afghanistan and Sudan. The gap deepened between Osama and the rest of the Bin Ladens, but also with the Saudi royal family. A development which got speeded up by the occupation of Kuwait and following the second Gulf war. The consequences were the loss of Saudi state citizenship and the expulsion of Osama from the family.
While Osama’s radicalism grew further and culminated in the ghastly climax of the September 11th horror scene, the family tried to maintain the traditional relationship with royalty and with the United States. A venture which became even harder in the course of the years ahead as a result of the USA’s growing distrust towards Osama’s relatives, and with the memories from September 2001, culminated in a real stampede of Bin Ladens living in the USA. But all the mistrust and family defiance proved Saudi royalty to be above all a safe ally and a reliable refuge for Bin Laden in the years after 2001.
Coll’s biography of Bin Laden is impressionable. It impresses both by the extent of the author’s research as well as by the conciseness of historical and biographical facts. The author’s meticulousness extends not only to the analysis of flight protocols, journals or tax returns –it also forms a historical panorama. Living circumstances of a single family member, by all oriental unfamiliarity contain a personal note, which it emancipates from the name-giver of modern terrorism. Especially Salem, the earlier deceased family member of the Bin Ladens, appears in this viewpoint as a stabilising alternative to Osama. Convincingly, Coll succeeded in representing the close, almost symbolic relationship of Bin Laden to royalty and his religious environment. The basis here is a network of relations that despite all modernisation, personal closeness, family tradition and political loyalty above all get maintained in life. It is for those who believe in institutions and western readers, just as fascinating as having to get used to a different model of society.