A legacy of money, blood

Times Staff Writer

Life, as Kierkegaard pointed out, can only be understood retrospectively, but we must live it prospectively.

It’s a disjunctive paradox, as true for the lives of nations as it is for those of individuals. Steve Coll’s stunningly researched and grippingly told new book, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century,” is the kind of history that naturally gives rise to such large thoughts.

In essence, it proposes not so much an alternate history of the 20th century but an account of one that occurred simultaneous to our usual collective recollection of the last 100 years. While the great struggles of the American Century -- world wars, depression, imperialism, the fights with right- and left-wing totalitarianisms -- were preoccupying us, out of sight and beyond our Western and essentially secular understanding, men, ideas and appetites born of a desert waste were conjoining in ways that created the first great challenge of this new era, the confrontation with Islamic jihadism.


Could this have been foreseen? Could something different have been done? It’s possible, though not likely. One can’t realistically imagine the degree of disinterested foresight and wisdom that would have made the difference. History as good as the sort Coll has written here sobers as well as enlightens. The author brings formidable credentials to his task. He’s the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret operations in Afghanistan -- “Ghost Wars” -- and won another Pulitzer for explanatory journalism while a reporter for the Washington Post, where he later served as a foreign correspondent and managing editor.

“The Bin Ladens” now joins Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” and Mary Habeck’s too-often overlooked “Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror” as the books that ought to be read by anyone who really wants to understand the origins of the current crisis.

Coll’s book is important because -- the title notwithstanding -- it’s really a history of two families, the Bin Laden and Al-Saud, whose patriarch Abdulaziz Ibn Saud “walked out of Kuwait in 1902 with a sword, some camels and a small band of followers to reclaim, in his family’s name, the mud-walled town of Riyadh in the central Arabian plateau, and the paltry realm it oversaw.” Thirty blood-soaked years later, he “announced at last the formation of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” A few years after Abdulaziz stormed out of Kuwait, an impoverished, one-eyed teenage boy named Mohammed Bin Laden walked north out of his native Yemen to the Arabian port city of Jeddah in search of work. Eventually, he would found a construction and trading company that would become Saudi Arabia’s largest, with holdings that, today, extend around the globe -- including the United States.

There are hundreds of Bin Ladens -- survivors from among Mohammed’s more than 50 children and their descendents -- and Coll’s book gives ample attention to the most infamous of the patriarch’s progeny, Osama.

Careful readers of the torrent of post-9/11 journalism and book-length studies won’t find too much that’s new or surprising here, though a couple of very important facts about Al Qaeda’s co-founder are nailed down conclusively. One has to do with precisely when and how he became radicalized. Coll reports that it occurred while he was attending an elite high school in Jeddah and came under the profound influence of an Egyptian instructor, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama apparently joined the brotherhood as a teenager. Given the way he ultimately turned on the Sauds, it’s ironic that the teacher was one of a large number of Egyptian and Syrian exiles to whom the Saudi royal family had given shelter, believing that their religious ideology might be used as a counterweight to the secularism of Nasser and the Baathists. (Thus, the Saudis have suffered from “blowback” no less than the Americans did in Afghanistan or as did those elements of the Israeli Likud who thought Hamas could be encouraged as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Radical Islam turns out to be a tiger nobody can safely ride.)

Osama bin Laden was predisposed to accept such influence, a shy and deeply religious boy who moved somewhat on the fringes of his family because his mother -- whom his father quickly divorced -- was herself a Syrian, whose family may have had ties to that country’s heterodox Alawite sect. (Osama was but one of seven sons born to Mohammed and his various wives in one year.) The very orthodox Bin Ladens looked down on Alawites, just as the Sauds -- natives of the geneology-obsessed Nejaz region -- always have looked down on the Bin Ladens, as Yemenites.


Still, the families were bound together by a mutual belief in the strict Wahabi brand of Salafist -- which is to say, ultra-puritanical -- Islam and mutually beneficial financial ties. Coll’s exhaustive, but cautious reconstruction of the Bin Ladens’ finances also clears up one of the enduring myths about Osama. He never was particularly wealthy by international standards, and, when his family cut him off from their business under pressure from the Sauds, he essentially lost everything. Coll carefully recounts the FBI’s and CIA’s attempts to figure out what sort of financing he still receives from various Islamic charities, and there’s suspicion that some of his sisters still may be passing him money. The aura of great wealth was one of the many myths the very public relations-conscious Osama carefully cultivated. (Some of the best estimates of Bin Laden family finances actually come from court files in the United States, where several family members wound up in divorce proceedings.)

What’s most striking about Coll’s book is its undidactic but unflinching account of just how rancidly dysfunctional the Saudi royals’ governance has been and of how the Bin Ladens -- canny, but in so many essential ways incompetent -- have benefited from their patrons’ venality through a breathtakingly supine sycophancy and simply bribery. Corrupt, hypocritical, frightened and inept at everything but self-preservation, the Sauds have essentially looted their country’s foreign-developed oil riches, using the Bin Ladens to dole out development only when it was absolutely necessary to placate a restive populace.

The results have been particularly appalling in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where Saudi-financed construction projects undertaken by the Bin Ladens essentially have eradicated the historic pilgrimage sites. Not too many years ago, the remains of the Prophet Mohammed’s house in Mecca were bulldozed to construct a public toilet. These projects not only allow the Saudis to profit more from the hajj, which religious Muslims are obliged to make at least once, but also have imposed a Wahabi straitjacket on the pilgrimage. Formerly, Shia and sufic pilgrims observed the hajj with all sorts of individual rituals and visits to shrines and tombs they referred. Now, thanks to the Bin Ladens’ demolition and construction projects only a Wahabi version of the pilgrimage is possible.

Finally, Coll’s book makes an important contribution to the contemporary debate by putting to rest the myth that Jihadism is fueled by a passion to see justice for the Palestinians. In fact, garden-variety anti-Semitism of the most repellant kind has been part of the Saud/Bin Laden axis from the start. Abdulaziz was a rabid anti-Semite, though he’d never met a Jew nor heard of Zionism. Faisel, apparently the best of the Saudi kings because he stole the least, nonetheless peddled every sort of outlandish anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, along with copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Today, the son of one of Osama’s half-brothers runs a group called the World Assembly of Muslim Youth out of Falls Church, Va. He has a Saudi diplomatic passport and the special mission of reaching out to American Muslims with Wahabi religious materials, including one that says:

“The Jews are enemies of the faithful, God and the angels; the Jews are humanity’s enemies; they foment immorality in this world.”