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The bin Ladens: a family history

Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll's portrait of the bin Ladens, a family torn between Islam and the West.

By Chuck Leddy / April 1, 2008

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steve Coll Penguin Press 688 pp., $35


The rags-to-riches story of the bin Laden family begins with Mohamed bin Laden, who started as a bricklayer for an American oil company in the 1930s and later began his own construction business. As far as politics went, Mohamed Bin Laden appeared to have none.

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But he did have many wives and 54 children. Among these was Osama, born in the late 1950s to a 15-year-old mother, one of seven children Mohamed is believed to have fathered that year. While Osama was still a child, his father died in a private plane crash with an American pilot at the controls. (Airplanes and the bin Ladens are oddly connected. At least eight of Mohamed's sons and a few of his daughters took flying lessons; Osama's oldest brother, Salem, died piloting his own plane in Texas in 1988.)

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll draws upon more than 150 interviews and thousands of documents in The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in The American Century, an absorbing history of the bin Laden family, whose most famous member masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Coll's story is a family biography rather than a portrait of Osama, but in the telling much is revealed about the young man who grew up in a family almost as secular as it was pious, "one degree separated from Mecca and two degrees from Las Vegas."

Coll describes how the bin Ladens built their family empire by becoming the official construction company of the Saudi royal family. The bin Ladens have grown rich over the past half century through lucrative government contracts with the House of Saud – building roads, palaces, and renovating Muslim holy sites.

After Mohamed, the next bin Laden patriarch was the charismatic, Westernized Salem bin Laden. Salem relied on his outrageous humor and great wealth to ingratiate himself with King Fahd. Coll tells one story about Salem bin Laden making a bet with King Fahd that he could get four Western women to marry him at the same time. Coll describes the scene as Salem gathers four of his girlfriends in one room and promises them houses and lifetime financial security if they'll marry him. (Salem lost the bet when one shocked girlfriend refused.)

Salem bin Laden was a jet-setter who loved American music and Western women, but he also held conservative Islamic beliefs. When one of his sisters fell in love with an older Italian man, Salem "agonized and fumed," says Coll. The bin Ladens were as diverse and conflicted as any large family, notes Coll – but this one happened to be caught between the allure of Western permissiveness and the dictates of Islamic piety. Osama bin Laden became the family's most pious member.