The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century
By Steve Coll
hardcover, 688 pages
Penguin Press HC
List price: $37.50
Note: Translator's footnotes have been omitted.
Prologue: "We all worship the same God"
October 1984 to February 1985
Lynn Peghiny played piano most mornings at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Hotel in Orlando, Florida. She was twenty-four, dark-haired, slim, and spirited. She had grown up in Melbourne, on the Atlantic coast, and studied music at the University of Central Florida. She was drawn to the piano and made a living at it, if barely. The breakfast shift in the Hyatt's cavernous atrium was normally subdued — sleepy tourists fortifying themselves for a day at Disney World, businessmen murmuring about real estate. One morning in October 1984, however, a middle-aged man with bright eyes and a mop of black hair walked over and asked in an unfamiliar accent if she would play Beethoven's Für Elise. He listened appreciatively, then handed her a twenty-dollar tip. "Do you play private parties?" he asked.
They exchanged business cards. His name was Salem Bin Laden. He had a house just west of Orlando, he told her, not far from Disney World, and he happened to be entertaining some visitors from his native Saudi Arabia who were members of that oil-endowed country's royal family. He owned a piano and hoped she would play at an evening party. A few days later, she drove out State Road 50, which ran due west through miles of orange groves toward Lake County. Salem's home, near the decaying railroad town of Winter Garden, turned out to be an ochre-walled five-acre estate with horse stables, a tiled swimming pool, weeping willows, and palm trees. The main house, a Mediterranean Revival built during the 1920s, had russet Spanish-tile roofing, cupolas, and arched, shaded walkways; it rested on a knoll above a sparkling lake.
"Leeen! Leeen!" Salem exclaimed when she arrived, waving her into the dining room, where his guests were taking breakfast at four in the afternoon. "Come, come," he said. "Sit with us." He placed her next to his guest of honor. Abdul Aziz Al-Ibrahim was a brother of Princess Jawhara Al-Ibrahim, the fourth and reputedly the favorite wife of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. The Ibrahims had ascended from obscurity after Fahd fell for Jawhara; she left her husband for the king and gave birth to a son, Abdulaziz, upon whom Fahd doted. Princess Jawhara's place at the king's side created opportunities for her brothers. They became influential businessmen, exciting jealousy and gossip in royal circles; they had recently started to invest in Orlando real estate. Salem Bin Laden, whose family's construction firm relied upon access to the king's court, cultivated the Ibrahims' friendship.
Lynn chattered freely; Ibrahim ate vigorously, but in silence. Salem leaned over and whispered, "You're not allowed to speak directly to him." Mortified, she fell silent; she wondered what she had gotten herself into.
Salem took her outside to show her the grounds. He was a slight man in his late thirties, about five feet and seven inches, slim but soft from a life without much exercise. He smoked cigarettes continually, and dark bags had formed beneath his eyes. Yet he radiated a magnetic energy that seemed, along with his money, to immediately attract people and hold them in his orbit. He was a skilled pilot who spoke passionately about flight; he mentioned that one of his brothers had recently injured himself in a crash near the lake. He seemed restless, in perpetual motion, yet also sweet and trustworthy. Gradually that afternoon Lynn came to understand that she had been invited into some sort of rolling intercontinental party over which Salem presided, a party that had no particular beginning or end. He told her that he would be leaving soon on his private jet for California; he had a meeting there, he said, about a possible movie project involving the actress Brooke Shields.
As evening fell the estate began to fill, mainly with Saudi men who appeared to be on vacation. There were also a few middle-aged American women who were friends of Salem's, or seemed to be in business with him. Lynn found a Yamaha upright piano in the living room and began to play. Eventually Salem told her that she should come back the next day; the party would carry on. "Bring your sisters! Bring your friends!" he urged. "We need girls!"
When Lynn did return with a girlfriend and two of her sisters, she found a band in the living room. Salem decided amid some fanfare to organize a talent show. He promised five thousand dollars in cash to whoever won first place, and he appointed himself the sole judge. One of the American women played piano and sang, the band ran through some numbers, and Lynn took a turn at the Yamaha. Lynn's girlfriend, however, had no particular musical talent. She decided, instead, to expound to her Saudi audience about her recent experiences of giving birth and of divorce.
Intimate monologues about a woman's pain and the miracle of life were not often heard in the male-segregated sitting rooms of Saudi palaces or merchant houses, and the quiet that followed her presentation, it seemed to Lynn, was a little awkward.
"I feel really bad," Salem told Lynn afterward. He liked her friend, he said, and he felt bad about her divorce. He peeled off about a thousand dollars in cash. "Please, give this to her."
At one point, one of the American women who seemed to work with Salem in Orlando pulled Lynn aside. "You know, Salem really likes you," she said.
As Lynn Peghiny recalled it years later: "She said — and I'll never forget it — she said, 'Lynn, this is a great opportunity for you. You're young. You're unattached... You know, he'll show you places and take you places, and if I were you, I'd just go for it.'"
Salem Bin Laden was a favored customer of AlamoArrow, a retailer outside San Antonio, Texas, of ultralight sport aircraft. The previous Christmas, he had turned up at the store unexpectedly on a Friday evening and purchased much of its inventory — planes and accessories — and asked that it all be delivered to the airport and loaded onto his private BAC-111 twin-engine jet. A few weeks later he returned to buy more ultralights, including a camouflaged former military prototype that had once been equipped to shoot missiles. Its armor had been removed, but "he thought that was pretty cool," recalled George Harrington, one of the store's sales associates.
Ultralights are small open-air hobby planes that are usually flown a few hundred feet high at speeds of about forty miles per hour, powered by a single engine roughly the size of that on a motorcycle. Salem loved them; like gliders, another of his passions, they offered the sensation of flying like a hawk, free and buffeted by wind. They were banned from Saudi Arabia on security grounds, so Salem stored the planes at his various refuges outside the kingdom.
During the last months of 1984, he collected the latest models, called Quicksilvers, because he was outfitting, for early in the New Year, an elaborate Saudi royal hunting expedition to Pakistan that Salem seemed to envision as a blend of Arabian Nights and Dr. Seuss. Salem explained to the AlamoArrow managers that he and his Saudi guests, who were princes in the royal family, would camp in the desert and hunt by falconry in the traditional way, but they would also equip themselves with flying toys. He asked George Harrington and his colleagues to buy and prepare a twenty-foot Wells Cargo trailer so it could haul the ultralights across Pakistan's rough roads and desert tracks. Salem had also ordered a hot air balloon from a champion balloonist in Florida; it came with a plaque that read "Custom Built for Salem Bin Laden." He purchased a Honda mini-trail motorcycle and a red Chevy Blazer light truck outfitted for desert travel with high-beam lights and enormous tires. He installed a high-frequency radio in the truck so he could call out to the nearest Pakistani city if he were lost or stuck in the sand. In Germany he bought a four-wheel-drive air-conditioned Volkswagen camper with a shower and a kitchenette and stuffed it with "every gizmo he could get," as Harrington remembered. They towed the American-made equipment to South Carolina, where the Bin Laden family worked with a freight-forwarding company that could ship the goods to the United Arab Emirates, a small kingdom on the Persian Gulf, and from there to the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Salem liked to have musicians in his entourage; Harrington played the guitar, so Salem arranged to hire him to travel to Pakistan, where he could help oversee the ultralight flying by the royal guests. A few days before Christmas, Harrington, a genial, big-boned Texan who had never traveled abroad previously, found himself jetting to London in the company of an American pilot, Don Kessler, who worked for Salem and who also played the drums.
They all stopped initially at Salem's estate outside London, and then, on Christmas Eve, they flew to the south of France, and after that, to Salzburg, Austria. They unloaded their luggage and drove to the ski resort in Kitzbühel. Of course, they had no ski equipment with them, as the decision to fly to Austria had been made only hours earlier, so Salem led the group into a shop and bought everyone skis, boots, parkas, and pants. They hit the slopes and then accepted an invitation to a party at the local villa of Adnan Khashoggi, the well-known Saudi arms dealer.
Khashoggi's home had a discotheque with a stage. The room that night was loud, dark, and teeming with Saudis and Europeans. Salem took the microphone and announced that he intended to perform. He and George Harrington took steel-string acoustic guitars onto the stage and struck up the folk and bar band classic "House of the Rising Sun."
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy,
And God I know I'm one . . .
"He was a half-assed guitar player, and even less qualified as a vocalist, but you couldn't embarrass him at all," Harrington recalled. "So we played that night for a packed house."
They flew next to Marbella, Spain, and then on to Cairo for New Year's Eve. They stopped for a while in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and then traveled to Dubai.
At the Hyatt hotel there Harrington met Salem's new girlfriend from Orlando: Lynn Peghiny. They became instant friends, two Americans caught up in an unexpected adventure, hopping from one country to the next, unfamiliar with their surroundings. Lynn had flown in from New York to join the upcoming expedition to Pakistan. ("I look back and I'm astounded at what I did at twenty-four," she said in hindsight.) Salem put her in a hotel suite with a grand piano. They listened to her play Chopin.
A few days later, Salem packed Lynn and George into his Mitsubishi MU-2, a stubby, short-haul turboprop airplane. An elderly Bedouin aide carried aboard a hooded hunting falcon. George took possession of a briefcase containing at least $250,000 in cash and traveler's checks; he had come to understand that one of his jobs was to keep track of Salem's travel money. Also along was Bengt Johansson, a shaggy-haired, chain-smoking Swedish flight mechanic who was one of the longest-serving European members of Salem's entourage. They roared down the runway, bound for Karachi. "It was so loaded down and they took off and everybody just applauded that the thing got up in the air," Lynn recalled, "and I'm like, 'Why are y'all taking chances?'"
In Karachi, Salem met with a Saudi diplomat; he often dropped in on his country's ambassadors when he traveled the world. His entourage checked into the Sheraton, a concrete-and-glass fortress that passed as the city's finest hotel.
At the Karachi seaport, Salem discovered that the Pakistan Army would not permit either ultralights or hot air balloons into their country. On its eastern frontier, the Pakistan Army faced Indian military forces in a continuous state of alert; to the west, it was embroiled in a secret guerrilla war in Afghanistan against Soviet forces, who occasionally conducted raids inside Pakistan. Saudi princes flying around in uncontrolled small planes and balloons seemed to the army's officers a prescription for disaster. Salem argued, and fumed, and tried to pull strings, but the Pakistani authorities stood firm; they told him to send his airborne toys back to Dubai.
In the midst of these frustrations Salem summoned George Harrington and Bengt Johansson one morning and announced that they would all fly in the Mitsubishi up to Peshawar, the Pakistani city that served as a staging area for the Afghan war. Initially, Salem explained only that he had an errand to run. As it turned out, it involved his half-brother Osama.
"I said, 'Why?'" as Harrington recalled it. Eventually, "he explained that Peshawar was apparently the base for rebels . . . I had never heard of Peshawar. World politics were not on my radar screen. He said that Osama was up there and he was the liaison between the U.S., the Saudi government, and the Afghan rebels," as Harrington remembered. "Salem needed to make sure that Osama was getting what he needed. The Saudi government was funneling stuff to Osama; Salem said he needed to go up and check with his brother to make sure . . . things were going well."
The trio flew up that same afternoon and landed on a dirt strip — Harrington could not tell if it was a road or a runway. Osama and some of his aides came out to greet them. "I remember being struck that he was so much taller than Salem."
He was then about twenty-seven years old. In addition to his height, his bushy dark beard made a striking impression; it poured down his cheeks and gathered below his chin, elongating his thin face. His brown eyes were bright and communicative, but his manner was reserved. Osama visited Pakistan regularly from his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but he had not settled down on the war front; he was a philanthropic commuter, encouraged by his religious teachers to fund charities and Arab volunteers who had just begun to arrive to join the fighting.
Salem made formal introductions to his American and Swedish companions. Osama wore robes and a flat Afghan cap; he was reticent around the foreigners, but he shook Johansson's hand respectfully. Bengt had learned over the years that all of Salem's younger siblings treated their eldest brother with unquestioning respect, and that this respect extended by rights to Salem's friends, no matter how indecorous they might appear in Saudi eyes.
They drove to Osama's office and sat in a circle. The two half-brothers spoke together in Arabic for about two hours. A modest lunch appeared. It was typical of Salem to bring his Western friends into settings where they might not otherwise be welcomed, but no one openly questioned their presence, and in any event, neither Harrington nor Johansson could understand much of what was being said.
After lunch Osama led them on a tour of the charitable and humanitarian work that he was supporting in the Peshawar region to help the Afghans. They visited refugee camps where Afghan civilians and fighters displaced by Soviet bombing lived in primitive tents or shelters. They visited a hospital "with people with amputated limbs," and Harrington was amazed to hear tales of terrible atrocities carried out by the Soviets, and how, nonetheless, the wounded rebels "wanted to go back and fight for Afghanistan." They visited an orphanage where, as Johansson recalled it, the children lived in "small blocks . . . concrete blocks, and they were sleeping on the floor." The children gathered together and sang songs for Osama's visitors.
Salem recorded these scenes with a personal video camera, a large and awkward handheld device that he had brought with him. He appeared to be making a home movie to publicize Osama's work and to raise funds. It was "a fact-finding mission," Harrington remembered. "The camera was to show what was going on. Nothing militaristic . . . It was more about money."
After some additional adventures in Pakistan, Salem's entourage flew back to Dubai; Salem announced that he had to make an unexpected business trip, and that he would be gone for about a week.
The American balloon champion who was a part of the entourage took George and Lynn on a soaring flight above the emirate's sand dunes. Gulf breezes and desert winds blew them accidentally over a local emir's palace. The emir's guards pointed their automatic weapons angrily at the billowing red and yellow dirigible. "This is it," Harrington remembered thinking. He would end his life as "just a bloodstain on the ruler's lawn." Fortunately, the guards held their fire.11
They heard nothing from Salem for a while, but Harrington knew where he had gone, because Salem had told him of his destination: Washington, D.C.
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was preparing that early winter of 1985 for a summit meeting and state dinner with President Ronald Reagan. "For some reason," as Harrington recalled it, "the king wanted Salem" in Washington. Salem flew off immediately. This was hardly an unusual diversion. As Salem's friend Mohamed Ashmawi, a wealthy Saudi oil executive, put it: "He used to go and visit the king wherever he is."
Secrecy and complexity governed the relationship between King Fahd and Ronald Reagan. That winter of 1985, apart from Great Britain, there was perhaps no government with which the Reagan administration shared more sensitive secrets than it did with Saudi Arabia. Unbeknownst to the American public, for example, Reagan had authorized an attempt to free American hostages held in Lebanon by selling weapons to the kidnappers' sponsors in Iran; Adnan Khashoggi, who worked closely with the Saudi royal family, was centrally involved in those secret transactions. Also, the previous June, after a request by Reagan's national security advisor Robert McFarlane, King Fahd had secretly agreed to funnel $1 million per month into a Cayman Islands bank account in support of Nicaragua's anti-communist rebels, known as the Contras; this contribution allowed President Reagan to evade congressional restrictions on such aid. Saudi Arabia had no particular interest in the Nicaraguan cause, according to the kingdom's longtime ambassador in Washington, Bandar Bin Sultan ("I didn't give a damn about the Contras-I didn't even know where Nicaragua was," he said later). However, according to Bandar, McFarlane claimed the aid would help ensure Reagan's reelection in November by preventing trouble in Central America. The Saudis contributed the money and, as it happened, Reagan won in a landslide.
Early in 1985, King Fahd notified the Americans that he would now double his off-the-books contributions to the Cayman Islands account. Favor begat favor between these two governments during the late Cold War, and secret begat secret, a pattern of conduct that required an unusual measure of personal trust and understanding at the highest levels. Fahd's visit to Washington was therefore of timely significance. Reagan was a master of the theatrical and ceremonial aspects of his office, and he prepared to put on a show.
Up the White House driveway they strolled on the chilly night of February 11 — Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees manager; Vice President George Bush; Linda Gray, star of Dallas, the television series about oil barons; Oscar Wyatt, the genuine Texas oil baron; the actress Sigourney Weaver; and Donald and Ivana Trump. "It's exciting. It's Americana. It's Ronald Reagan," joked Saturday Night Live comedian Joe Piscopo, who was also on the state dinner's guest list. "The king of Saudi Arabia came here to see how a real king lives, I suppose."
Saudi royals do not travel on official business with their wives, so the king escorted Abdulaziz, his eleven-year-old son by Princess Jawhara Al-Ibrahim. They arrived at the White House in traditional Saudi robes and red-checked headdresses. Now in his early sixties, Fahd had become an obese man, and his legs could barely carry him, but his double-chinned face still had a gentle, boyish quality. Back home, Fahd was so devoted to Abdulaziz, who seemed likely to be his last son, that he spent vast sums to ensure that in each of his luxurious palaces, the boy's room was outfitted with exactly the same toys, wallpaper, and bed silks, so that he would never feel that he was away from home. Reagan doted on the child, too, posed for a photograph with him, gave him a private tour of the Oval Office, presented him with a model of the Space Shuttle, and seated him next to Sigourney Weaver at the state dinner. Abdulaziz confided to the actress that when his father's work in Washington was completed, he hoped to visit Disney World.
Salem Bin Laden's activity in Washington around the summit is difficult to pinpoint. A French intelligence report later claimed that Salem was involved in "U.S. operations" in Central America during this period. The American government has not declassified many of the records describing Saudi Arabia's secret aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, but those available provide no evidence of Salem's participation. (Like Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, Salem "had no idea where Nicaragua was," said a European friend who worked with him on arms deals in other parts of the world.) An attorney who represented the Bin Laden family in a Texas civil lawsuit some years later recalled possessing a photo of Salem standing with Ronald Reagan, but that evidence file had been destroyed during a routine archive cleaning, and the photographs taken by White House staff during the Fahd summit show no trace of Salem. He was the eldest of fifty-four children, the leader of the sprawling Bin Laden family, the chairman of several multinational corporations, and a genuine friend to King Fahd, but Salem was also decidedly the king's subordinate; he might just as well have been called to Washington to organize a night on the town as to participate in clandestine statecraft.
There was one portfolio of secrets binding King Fahd and President Reagan that winter that unquestionably involved Salem Bin Laden, however. These concerned the covert aid provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia to anti-communist rebels fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The United States and Saudi Arabia each had already channeled several hundred million dollars in cash and weapons to the Afghan rebels since the Soviet invasion in 1979. It seems probable that when Salem reached Washington that winter, he would have passed to King Fahd, if not directly to the White House, the video evidence he had just gathered documenting Osama's humanitarian work on the Afghan frontier. As he welcomed Fahd to the White House, Reagan took pains to acknowledge Saudi Arabia's particular efforts to support Afghan refugees on the Pakistani frontier: "Their many humanitarian contributions touch us deeply," Reagan said. "Saudi aid to refugees uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed here, Your Majesty."
That February of 1985, in Pakistan, the leading Saudi provider of such assistance was Salem's half-brother, Osama. Reagan's language suggested that he had been given at least a general briefing about Osama's work.
"We all worship the same God," Reagan said. "The people of Afghanistan, with their blood, courage and faith, are an inspiration to the cause of freedom everywhere."
Years later, as he grew into middle age, Osama Bin Laden gradually abandoned the sources of identity that were his birthright, and which had heavily influenced his early life-his membership in the wealthy Bin Laden family, and his privileges as a subject of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He eventually declared himself at war with Saudi Arabia's royal family, and by doing so placed himself in violent opposition to his own family's interests, a posture that was apparently so fraught for him that he very rarely spoke about it in public. When he did, he blamed the Saudi royals for trying "to create a problem between me and my family." He has never denounced or openly repudiated his own family, and he has explained their occasional statements repudiating him as merely the product of heavy pressure brought to bear by the Saudi government.
After September 11, it became commonplace to trace the sources of Osama's radicalism to the Islamic political revival that swept the Middle East after 1979, and also to his experiences as a jihad fighter and organizer during the anti-Soviet Afghan war. These were crucial influences on him, but to focus on them exclusively is to risk passing over the complexity of Osama's relationship with his family and his country, the sources of attraction and repulsion these ties created in his life, and their influence on his character and ideas. These latter subjects are ones that the Bin Ladens and the Saudi royal family have tried to keep as private as possible.
The extraordinary story of the Bin Laden family's rise during the twentieth century is compelling even where it does not touch upon Osama at all. For many of the Bin Ladens of Osama's generation, family ties proved to be changeable and, above all, complicated. Theirs is a story of modernization and power in Saudi Arabia, a young and insecure nation where the family is by far the most important unit of politics. "The Arabia of the Sauds," as the country's name signifies, accurately conveys the ruling Al-Saud family's conception of its power. In their country, political parties are banned, even social clubs are frowned upon, and tribes are relatively weak; family and religious faith offer by far the most legitimate sources of public identity. Within the business community to which they belonged, the Bin Ladens were by no means the kingdom's most significant family, but across decades they built a unique and important partnership with the Al-Saud, anchored by the Bin Laden family's role, from the 1950s onward, as the official building and renovation contractors of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and, for a time, Jerusalem.
The family generation to which Osama belonged — twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters — inherited considerable wealth, but had to cope with intense social and cultural changes. Most of them were born into a poor society where there were no public schools or universities, where social roles were rigid and preordained, where religious texts and rituals dominated public and intellectual life, where slavery was not only legal but openly practiced by the king and his sons. Yet within two decades, by the time this generation of Bin Ladens became young adults, they found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and alcohol and changing sexual mores — a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, since they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These Bin Ladens, like other privileged Saudis who came of age during the oil shock decade of the 1970s, became Arabian pioneers in the era of globalization. The Bin Ladens were the first private Saudis to own airplanes, and in business and family life alike, they devoured early on the technologies of global integration. It is hardly an accident that Osama's first major tactical innovation as a terrorist involved his creative use of a satellite telephone. It does not seem irrelevant, either, that shocking airplane crashes involving Americans were a recurrent motif of the family's experience long before September 11.
The Bin Laden family saga also provides a particularly consequential thread of the troubled, compulsive, greed-inflected, secret-burdened, and, ultimately — to both sides — unconvincing alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia during the oil age. Until Osama announced himself as an international terrorist, his family was much more heavily invested in the United States than has generally been understood — his brothers and sisters owned American shopping centers, apartment complexes, condominiums, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much else. They attended American universities, maintained friendships and business partnerships with Americans, and sought American passports for their children. They financed Hollywood movies, traded Thoroughbred horses with country singer Kenny Rogers, and negotiated real estate deals with Donald Trump. They regarded George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family. In both a literal and a cultural sense, the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama declared war, and yet, as was true of the relationship between the Saudi and American governments, their involvement in the United States also proved to be narrow and brittle. This made both Osama's anti-American ideology and his family's response to it all the more complex.
The Bin Laden family's global character owes much to the worldwide shape of the oil market and the wealth it created after 1973, but it is rooted, too, in an age before combustion engines. Osama's generation of Bin Ladens was the first to be born on Saudi soil. Their father, Mohamed, the gifted architect of the family's original fortune, migrated from a mud-rock fortress town in a narrow canyon in the remote Hadhramawt region of Yemen. He belonged to a self-confident people who were themselves pioneers of globalization, albeit in a slower-paced era of sailing ships and colonial power. Mohamed Bin Laden bequeathed to his children not just wealth, but a transforming vision of ambition and religious faith in a borderless world.
Excerpted from The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steve Coll. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) April, 2008.