But, as the New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll shows in his new book The Bin Ladens, Osama’s background is far more complex than what he himself portrays it to be. His break in the early nineties from his massive family – for long the biggest business group in Saudi Arabia – and from all that they stood for (persistent modernization, business ties with America, fealty to the corrupt ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia, a love of material and secular pleasures) occurred very slowly and tentatively. Coll’s book is simultaneously the biography of a terrorist and that of a great business house. Indeed, Osama only makes his first appearance a quarter of the way into The Bin Ladens.
Coll’s story begins in the 1930s with Mohamed Bin Laden, an impoverished but enterprising Yemeni national who came to Jeddah in search of work and set up as a contractor in construction. Mohamed’s trade gradually flourished, and he came close to the court of the Al-Saud, the ruling dynasty of newly formed Saudi Arabia. Mohamed’s links with the court would set his own dynasty firmly in step with that of the Al-Saud for decades to come.
Mohamed was a much-married man – he sired 54 children from several wives, and Osama was one of seven children born in the same year. A construction contract funded with American money in January 1951 – half a century before 9/11 – marks the first appearance of the name “Bin Laden” on an American state document.
Private jets were a luxury enjoyed by many Saudi notables, and Mohamed had his own jet, manned by an American pilot who took him from site to site. Mohamed’s death in a plane crash in 1967 would be the first eerie episode of a long list of links between members of the Bin Laden family and plane crashes. Most of Bin Laden business was divided up, as per Islamic law, between the many children, but the burden of running it till many of the children became majors rested upon Salem, Mohamed’s eldest son and Osama’s eldest brother.
Coll’s extended portrait of Salem, an energetic, garrulous bon vivant who loved to live on the edge, makes for the most pleasurable section of his massive narrative. Salem extended his father’s system of patronage, forging links with many members of the next generation of the Al-Saud. He drank wine and ate pork without inhibition, and inherited his father’s love of flying, buying himself several jets and acquiring considerable proficiency in flying them. He flew frequently to America, where he invested copiously in businesses and real estate, and supported several girlfriends all around the world. As the oil boom of the seventies made the Saudi kingdom flush with money, the Bin Laden family rose higher than ever before. But Salem himself died tragically in a plane crash.
All this while Osama, whose mother had remarried after being divorced by Mohamed, was acquiring an education at an expensive private school in Jeddah. This was where he came into first contact with radical religious rhetoric, through a teacher who owed allegiance to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Osama’s devotion to the word of God and his fastidious observance of rules – he would avert his eyes while speaking to women outside the family – was not seen as unusual by his family in a country where, as Coll remarks, “religion was like gravity” – everpresent – and the influence of the austere Wahhabi school was strong.
After attaining maturity Osama worked with the Bin Laden group as a junior executive, while enjoying a life much higher than his position because of his stake in the family business. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 would be the making of Osama. He moved to Pakistan to work as a fundraiser for the cause of the mujahideen, the Arab militia who had arrived to join the Afghan resistance, and his profile rose within his country and within his own family. In Pakistan, Osama came into contact with several radical preachers (Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri) who taught him the lines of his polemic – Christians and Jews want to take over the world; the West is tempting the Muslim world with lowly material and carnal pleasures; it is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad against these forces – while exploiting his access to wealth.
It is worth noting that Osama’s current face – that of a rootless, transnational holy warrior, a voice speaking to the world from an abyss, plotting its doom – was only consolidated after his family broke off all ties with him in 1994, followed shortly afterward by the Saudi government’s cancellation of his citizenship. Left without the consolations of family or motherland, Osama was now on his own – Osama first, and Bin Laden second. He lived for a while in Sudan, and then, under pressure from the Sudanese government, moved to Afghanistan in 1996.
In his speeches and essays (his skillful use of new media like satellite television and the Internet is totally at odds with his hatred of modernity) he now railed against the Al-Saud dynasty and its defenders; against practices like usury, which he had formerly endorsed; and most relentlessly against the United States. In exile he became something of a "global news junkie" trawling the internet and magazines for material he could use. In his library in Afghanistan, books about American foreign policy and anti-Semitic screeds lay alongside "traditional Koranic texts, faxed essays from radical Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, and bits and pieces from Western media reports".
Coll's close analysis of the moods and rhythms of Osama's speeches over the years (collected recently as Messages to the World, a volume edited by Bruce Lawrence and published by Verso) shows how, immediately after September 11, Osama's morale took a dip, as the American invasion of Afghanistan he had anticipated bowled over the Taliban instead of meeting with the resistance that the Soviets once had. Heavy bombing around him led to Osama believing that his death was imminent, and in December of 2001 he composed a mournful will and testament. "[N]ever before had a document attributed to him conveyed such despair and exhaustion", writes Coll.
But the long winter passed, Osama found himself safe, and he returned to a life of incitement and provocation via videos and speeches broadcast over the Internet. His spirits were lifted once again after the Iraq war, which he saw as a chance to mobilise the potential of the entire ummah. in 2008, nearly seven years after he shook the world, he remains at large, a spectre who looms in every discussion of world politics. But Coll’s brilliant book, with its emphasis on “the universal grammar of families”, shows us an Osama Bin Laden more contradictory, more fragile, and more vulnerable than the Osama we know.
"Young Osama", an essay by Coll on Osama's youth, can be found here, and the first chapter of The Bin Ladens is here. A good long interview with Coll in a recent issue of Der Spiegel is here.
And some other pieces of interest: Samuel Huntington in conversation with Nathan Gardels on Bin Laden; "The Hunt for Bin Laden" by Declan Walsh; and "What Were The Causes of 9/11?" by Peter Bergen, who has written a widely praised book called The Osama Bin Laden I Know; "Terrorism's CEO", an interview with Bergen; and, most recently, "The Jihadist Revolt Against Bin Laden", a piece by Bergen and Paul Cruikshank just published in the New Republic.
Lastly, Osama has a very funny walk-on part as "OBL" in Mohammed Hanif's charming new novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about which I will have a post soon.
A shorter version of this piece appeared recently in Mint.