Bin Laden relatives have business, philanthropic ties

At the Charlestown Navy Yard, just across the harbor from Logan International Airport, National Park Service rangers this week forklifted 4-by-4-foot concrete keel blocks across the driveway that leads to the USS Constitution, moored nearby.

They blocked the driveway because they were on alert for an attack on Old Ironsides, an enduring symbol of American might. Security precautions were increased at monuments around the country after Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The rangers said their action had nothing to do with the fact that a relative of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader suspected of masterminding the assaults, owns a half-dozen luxury brick-and-glass condominiums across the street.

"We've known for quite some time about Osama bin Laden's family owning those condos. But it doesn't worry us," park ranger Glenn van Neil said Thursday as he stood on the dock near the country's most fabled warship.

Bin Laden's ties to Boston are being closely scrutinized by federal investigators. Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile, has family ties and a group of supporters in the city, where two hijacked airliners that demolished the World Trade Center towers took off.

Mohammed M. bin Laden, whose relationship to Osama is not clear, owns the condominiums at Flagship Wharf, where units cost $300,000 to $2 million. The condos are housed in a huge renovated building where American warships were once built.

Sherry Grancey, owner of Grancey and Company Real Estate, which markets the condos, said she could not talk about Mohammed bin Laden or his property holdings. "I'm very sorry, but because it's a private residence, I can't comment," Grancey said.

Five miles west in Cambridge is Harvard University. One of bin Laden's brothers, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, gave a large donation to the university's school of design and another to underwrite Islamic scholarship at Harvard Law School. University officials did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

In earlier statements, as recently as this week, the university has distanced itself from Osama bin Laden, saying he is estranged from the brother who made the donations, and said that the source of the scholarships is distinct from the funds that U.S. authorities say may have been used to plan and carry out Tuesday's suicide attacks.

The multibillion-dollar bin Laden family fortune, now split among many heirs--who are often divided by disagreements about money and world view--was built on immense construction projects at Saudi Arabia's holy sites, including Mecca, and in East Jerusalem before Israel annexed it in 1967 after the Six-Day War.

When Sheik Mohammed bin Laden, the family patriarch and founder of its construction companies, died in 1968, he left behind 54 sons and daughters, the offspring of many marriages to women in many countries, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A dozen or more of the older brothers run the companies from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

The family has disavowed Osama bin Laden completely. The Saudi royal family issued an arrest warrant for him in 1993, but the brothers who run the companies remain friends and allies of the royal family.

Another Boston link might be more serious than condominiums or scholarships: Two of Osama bin Laden's associates once worked as drivers at Boston Cab Co., including one man who was jailed in Jordan on charges of plotting to blow up a hotel where Americans and Israelis were staying. The drivers were Bassam A. Kanj, a native of Lebanon, and Raed M. Hijazi, a Palestinian who lived in Boston and Everett, a northern suburb.

Investigators this week reportedly began interviewing drivers at the company, where a dispatcher referred questions to a spokesman at a different telephone number that rang unanswered.