Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens

Since the day nineteen hijackers owing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the name “Bin Laden” has reverberated around the world as shorthand for a benighted medievalism, an intransigent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, and a murderous hatred of the West, of secularism, and of “infidels” – the obverse, in short, of civilization as much of the world knows it.

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.


Hari said...

Chandrahas – thanks for that little sneak preview about OBL in Hanif’s novel. I came across a nice excerpt from the Nytimes piece on A Case of Exploding Mangoes that relates to OBL as well:

"The most darkly funny scene in “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” imagines a Fourth of July party in Islamabad in 1988, hosted by Arnold Raphel. The American guests dress up in flowing turbans, tribal gowns and shalwar kameez suits, by way of ridiculous homage to the Afghan fighters. Among the invited guests is a young bearded Saudi known as “OBL,” who works for “Laden and Co. Constructions.” As OBL moves through the throng, various people stop to greet him and chat. Among them is the local C.I.A. chief who, after swapping a few words, bids him farewell: “Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up.”

I put this up for another reason – a tangential one, as you might call it. Doesn’t that last line – Good work, keep it up –sound remarkably similar to the trim, somewhat patronizing comment that someone regularly leaves in this space?

More seriously: your posts are great as usual, but the conversations on your comments space recently have been just as great.

Chandrahas said...

Hari - Gee whiz, you're right. The resemblance in comments is uncanny. The only difference is that the CIA officer is probably more guilty of patronising behaviour than the reader of my blog, whose problems might have to do with the gap between intentions and results when it comes to the use of language. Indeed, one of the themes of the writer who is the subject of my new post, coming up in a bit, is the struggle of human beings to squeeze meaning and clarity out of language.

I am glad you have enjoyed reading the recent comment threads. Yes, there has been an abundance of comments lately, and there are many good ones among them which have taken the implications of the piece out in different directions.

Indeed, the dialogic format of comments seems to me much more receptive to thought and to an improved mutual understanding of a matter by both writer and reader (who are in this case almost intercheangeable) than the essays which are the foundation for later proceedings. I don't know if you'd agree, but I always find that I think better when I am asked a specific question, or have to argue against a particular assertion which has worked me up.

Sometimes I also find that decisions about word usage and sentence structure that I may have made half-consciously while writing are usefully queried in comments, and help improve my judgment of my own work.

In general, I think, comments at their best prove how advances made by any single person actually take root in the soil of conversation, discussion and debate, dialogue: that even the most solitary activity has a social and external component to it. "Talk" is often the unacknowledged soul of work.

And indeed, our experience of literature could be seen as a kind of constant if ever-shifting dialogue, in which we are memorably spoken to by, and then always carry around within us, the books that have revealed something about life to us. In a sense a book does not achieve fruition as a book, is not validated in its speaking, until it has found a good reader, and a good reader, while taking something away from a book, also brings to it something - his intellignce, his past, his own notions and perceptions - which makes for a thrilling dialogue even across centuries, across millennia.

The fruit in my fridge is all over, the the guavas on the branches of the new tree outside my new window in my new house are still too small to reward plucking. So I am now going shopping, as eating necessarily comes before reading.

Anonymous said...

"So I am now going shopping, as eating necessarily comes before reading."

It'd be interesting to know if in the above sentence, "before" implies precedence in terms of time or priority. The answer can expose the writer's worldview to the world. And how dangerous would that be?

Chandrahas said...

Amit - This is a very interesting comment. But if I sit down right now to reply to it in detail, all the crumb-fried steak chops at the bakery in the market will be bought up by people who will enjoy them less than me. So I'm off now, and let us talk about this later.