A sprawling, fascinating account of America’s declared No. 1 enemy, his far-flung family and the astonishing number of influential Americans who live within that family’s orbit.
Salem Bin Laden loved American pop music and films. For many years he kept a kind of “rolling intercontinental party” that would be interrupted only when he called up one of his fleet of jets and ran off to do business, whether meeting with Brooke Shields in Hollywood or the king of Saudi Arabia at home or in some foreign venue. So writes New Yorker staff writer and two-time Pulitzer winner Coll (Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, 2004, etc.), who finds Salem involved in countless other ventures around the world, from telecommunications to construction to arms-dealing (at least enough of the last to get tangled up in the Iran-Contra Affair). In addition, Salem’s siblings owned real estate across America, from apartment complexes to an airport; funded presidential races, favoring the GOP; and enjoyed friendships with British royalty and the American elite. “In both a literal and a cultural sense,” Coll observes, “the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama declared war.” Even so, the relationship was shaded and complex. The über-patriarch of the family was a Yemeni who worked doggedly to build a fortune in Saudi Arabia. He then branched into Palestine, only to be displaced by the victorious Israeli government at the time of the 1967 war, which surely contributed to then-ten-year-old Osama’s later views. Mohamed Bin Laden returned from East Jerusalem to find himself in a strained relationship with the Saudi royal family, perhaps because he was glacially slow to deliver on huge public-works contracts. This, too, may have led to his offspring’s views, and it cannot have helped that Salem died in a plane crash in America, just as Mohamed died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot. “Bush’s ill-considered use of the word ‘Crusade’ to describe America’s response to September 11” couldn’t have helped either.
The makings of a villain, shaped in many ways by the culture he came to revile. Urgent and important reading.