by Jane Mayer
November 5, 2001
The New Yorker
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On September 11th, Wafah Binladin, a twenty-six-year-old graduate of Columbia Law School, was finishing the summer holidays with her family in Geneva. Wafah's father, Yeslam, is the Geneva-based head of the Binladin family's European holding company, the Saudi Investment Company. When she learned of the terror attacks on America, Wafah, who lived in a rented loft in SoHo, became frantic. She knew several people who lived and worked in the area of the World Trade Center, and she repeatedly tried to reach friends in New York. "I was in shock," she recalled, when I reached her in Switzerland recently. "All I thought about was the people in those buildings. I couldn't get hold of my friends. . . . I live only ten blocks away. Every night, I'd walk home, down West Broadway, looking up at the Twin Towers. I have pictures of myself there with my friends. We went to Windows on the World. I kept thinking, How can anyone do such a thing?" Later, she says, she heard the news that the prime suspect was her uncle Osama bin Laden. (Some members of the family prefer "Binladin.") "I thought then, Oh, no! I'll never be able to go back to the States again."
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, meanwhile, another uncle, Abdullah bin Laden, a handsome, slightly built graduate of Harvard Law School, learned about the attack while ordering coffee at Starbucks. Abdullah, who is thirty-five and a half brother of Osama bin Laden, rushed back to his apartment to watch the news, arriving just in time to see the second plane crash, into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
By mid-October, Abdullah, who was ordinarily clean-shaven, started to let his beard grow. People who knew him well realized that he was preparing to shed his Western ways. (He lived in an apartment overlooking the Charles River, spent leisure time piloting private planes at nearby Hanscom Airfield, and dreamed of working at a Manhattan law firm.) Instead, he said not long ago, over lunch at an Afghani restaurant in Boston, he was returning home to Saudi Arabia. His mission was to persuade other members of his family—fifty siblings among them—that they had to publicly put more distance between themselves and Osama or risk losing their reputation as honorable businessmen. The bin Laden family owns and runs a five-billion-dollar-a-year global corporation that includes the largest construction firm in the Islamic world, with offices in London and Geneva.
Abdullah is still conferring with many of his siblings at family compounds in Riyadh and Jidda. He has yet to get the family to agree upon a joint public statement. The reason, according to some people who have been in touch with the bin Ladens, is that the family, despite its pro-American reputation, holds loyalties that are more complicated than either Abdullah or the family's many influential American friends, defenders, and business partners might have known. (The family keeps tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars invested in American companies and financial institutions.) "There's obviously a lot of spin by the Saudi Binladin Group"—the family's corporate name—"to distinguish itself from Osama," Vincent Cannistraro, a former C.I.A. counter-terrorism chief, told me. "I've been following the bin Ladens for years, and it's easy to say, 'We disown him.' Many in the family have. But blood is usually thicker than water."
A Washington business partner of the bin Ladens, who does not want his name used, out of fear that his family might be harassed, said, "People keep asking me, 'Why aren't they on TV denouncing him? Are they really separate?' " Some relatives, such as Wafah and her mother, Carmen, who are estranged from the family (Carmen is seeking a divorce from Yeslam), issued personal statements of grief and regret. But, last week, plans by Yeslam to speak to an American audience through Dan Rather, of CBS, were put on hold, apparently when an older brother counselled against it.
There appear to be two related difficulties in the bin Ladens' response. According to a knowledgeable source, the Saudi royal family, whose patronage and favor are at the foundation of the bin Laden family fortune, is concerned about possible political repercussions from any statements. As President Bush demands that the countries of the world choose sides, and declare whether they are with the United States or with Osama bin Laden, for some members of the bin Laden family—and for many other conflicted Saudis, too—the situation is so complex that they would have to respond "Both."
"The Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family are walking the same fine line," the Washington business partner of the bin Ladens said. "On one hand, the family should hire a great P.R. firm and a great lawyer, and take out ads, like Bayer"—a reference to the pharmaceutical company and its antibiotic Cipro. "But to do that they'd have to denounce Osama." Some American and European intelligence officials told me that several members of the bin Laden family sympathize with Osama. These officials also acknowledged that with a family that large—it may number as many as six hundred, when one counts all the relatives—conflicts are inevitable.
"This war in a way is really about himself, and the values of his own family," said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University, who has studied the rise of Osama bin Laden. "His rampage is against the Saudi establishment, which he says is not Islamic enough. But his own family is the Saudi establishment." Yossef Bodansky, the director of the congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare, and a biographer of bin Laden, sees the situation slightly differently. "Osama isn't at war against his family," he said. "He is fighting to save his family. He sees the corruption of his family as one of the manifestations of the reach of the West." Bodansky continued, "Look, bin Laden is probably right—a value system he cares about dearly is succumbing to the onslaught of Western civilization. . . . He's absolutely correct in principle. But his conclusion that there is no escape but provoking world war leaves a lot to be desired."
When, in a 1998 edict, bin Laden commanded his followers to kill Americans and their allies, military and civilian, this presumably included his niece Wafah. She was born an American citizen when Yeslam was studying at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. She was raised for the most part in Switzerland—her father recently became a Swiss citizen—and she grew up so removed from the family's roots that her first language was French. Last year, she completed an internship at the New York law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel. A partner at the firm, who asked not to be quoted by name, describes Wafah as "conscientious, serious, and quite ambitious." In conversation, she sounds much like any high-spirited and opinionated young American. "I love American movies," she told me. "I love American music, like Destiny's Child and Mariah Carey. I love Madonna. And Michael and Janet Jackson, too. I like modern men. I love Jennifer Lopez—I think she's the most beautiful woman in the world!"
Around two dozen other American-based members of the bin Laden family, most of them here to study in colleges and prep schools, were said to be in the United States at the time of the attacks. The New York Times reported that they were quickly called together by officials from the Saudi Embassy, which feared that they might become the victims of American reprisals. With approval from the F.B.I., according to a Saudi official, the bin Ladens flew by private jet from Los Angeles to Orlando, then on to Washington, and finally to Boston. Once the F.A.A. permitted overseas flights, the jet flew to Europe. United States officials apparently needed little persuasion from the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that the extended bin Laden family included no material witnesses. The Saudi Embassy says that the family coöperated with the F.B.I. The Saudi government has said that the family signed a statement officially disowning Osama in 1994, a year after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The Saudi government also stripped bin Laden of his citizenship, which resulted in self-exile to Sudan. When I asked a senior United States intelligence officer whether anyone had considered detaining members of the family, he replied, "That's called taking hostages. We don't do that."
In criminal cases, it is common practice to bring relatives of defendants before grand juries. But Abdullah, the only relation who had remained in the United States—he stayed in Boston for almost a month—said that he was never questioned in person. He would have been willing to help, he said; an F.B.I. agent telephoned, but they spoke only briefly. Abdullah added that he has not seen Osama for several years, when they attended family gatherings on such occasions as Ramadan, and that he has no more idea how to find him than anyone else does.
During the meal in Boston, Abdullah referred to his brother in embarrassed tones only as "Mr. O." A number of American acquaintances, including several members of the Harvard faculty, attest to the family's distance from Osama. (The university has received from the Saudi Binladin Group donations totalling two million dollars to further Islamic scholarship there.) Abdullah said that he admires America, where he has lived periodically for the past decade, and that he abhors terrorism. He disagrees with Osama's radical fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran; he also accepts the permanent existence of an Israeli state. "Most of my family are moderates," he said. "We are businesspeople, that's what we are about."
While the Saudi government was removing the bin Laden family members from American legal jurisdiction, at home it took other precautions, two sources say. According to Saad Al-Fagih, a London-based surgeon and Saudi dissident, who heads a group called Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, Osama bin Laden's oldest son is being closely watched by the Saudi government, which has restricted his travel from the kingdom for the past five years. Al-Fagih said that the son, Abdullah Osama bin Laden, who is in his early twenties and works for the family business, is one of some fifteen children that Osama has had with three or four wives. "He is being held as a tool," Al-Fagih said. "He's been imprisoned within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia. He lives with the others, but he's kept from leaving the airport." Al-Fagih claimed that the Saudis have "sent a message to Osama that 'If you hurt us, we will hurt your son.' "
Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arabic daily newspaper in Britain, interviewed Osama bin Laden in November, 1996, and is well acquainted with people close to bin Laden. He agreed that "the travel of Osama's eldest son, Abdullah, is restricted," and that he cannot leave Saudi Arabia easily. Atwan added, "Although the son works with his uncle, he has never disowned his father."
Two weeks ago, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, carried an interview with Abdullah, who confirmed that he works with the family construction company in Jidda. He spoke of his "allegiance to the Kingdom's leadership," but he defended his father, whom he said he had not seen for six years. He was not asked whether the government had imposed any restraints on him; he said that he had travelled to Europe as a tourist. He blamed the media for giving the world a "wrong impression" of his father. "My father is a calm and quiet person by nature," he contended. "They have even linked the spread of anthrax to him without any proof or evidence." With the family's blessing, Abdullah said, he had married a relative, and now has two young children.
Cannistraro, the former C.I.A. antiterror expert, believes that many family members have cut off all contact with Osama, and revile his tactics. But there is also, he suggested, "an interconnectedness" among others in the family which frustrates and tantalizes American investigators. He told me that as recently as nine months ago an allied intelligence agency had seen two of Osama's sisters apparently taking cash to an airport in Abu Dhabi, where they are suspected of handing it to a member of bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. (Tim Metz, the family spokesman, said that the intelligence report was "unfair and impossible to check without more detail.") "Some of the sisters are very religious," Al-Fagih said, "and they believe that even if your brother is a real criminal he is your brother. He's got to live comfortably." Under Shariah, Islamic law, Al-Fagih said, it is unjust to deprive any member of a family of his rightful inheritance. Some of Osama's siblings are troubled by a decision that the Saudi government made, in 1994, to freeze his assets, including part of an inheritance, estimated at thirty million dollars, that Osama, like all the sons in the family, received. (The daughters, in accordance with Islamic law, each inherited half as much.) "Many of Osama's brothers and sisters think it is sinful if they keep any of his inheritance money," Al-Fagih said.
According to Cannistraro, Saudi sources observed several of Osama's children travelling between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan without restrictions. He doubts news reports that Osama spoke with his mother shortly before the September 11th attack. Rather, Cannistraro said, he has been told that the Saudis have conveyed messages from her to her son in recent years, begging him to quit his terrorist campaign.
Both Al-Fagih and Abdel Bari Atwan claim that bin Laden's mother has twice met with her son since he moved to Afghanistan, in 1996. Atwan said that a trip in the spring of 1998 was arranged by Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the head of Saudi intelligence. Turki was in charge of the "Afghanistan file," and had long-standing ties to bin Laden and the Taliban. Indeed, Osama, before becoming an enemy of the state, had been something of a Turki protégé, according to his biographers. Prince Turki, Al-Fagih said, "made arrangements for Osama's mother and his stepfather to visit him and persuade him to stop what he was doing." When Al-Fagih was asked about bin Laden's response, he said, "He is very close to his mother, so he thought it was nice to see his mother. It's a free trip. He tries not to discuss his views with his mother. They talk about health, and children. But he didn't promise anything."
The second trip, according to Al-Fagih, occurred last spring. "The royal family approved it," Al-Fagih, who is eager to turn the United States against the Saudi royal family, told me. "It was not just a family affair. It was to try to approach and influence him. They wanted to find out his intentions concerning the royal family. They gave him the impression that they wouldn't crack down on his followers in Saudi Arabia" as long as he set his sights on targets outside the desert kingdom. Last January, the Qatar-based news network Al-Jazeera broadcast footage of what was purported to be the wedding of bin Laden's son Muhammad. Three siblings from a later marriage of Osama's mother were in attendance.
Cannistraro believes that Prince Turki made two trips to meet with bin Laden, although he said that he was unaware of any role played by Osama's mother. He also said that he had been able to verify independently that on one of the trips the Saudis made "a large monetary offer" to bin Laden, consisting of tens of millions of dollars, if he would agree to end his murderous political rebellion.
Gaafar Allagany, the director of the Saudi information office at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said that he knew of no restrictions on the travel of any bin Laden family members, or of any contacts between them and bin Laden since his move to Afghanistan. "These are private citizens," Allagany said. "I don't know what they do. I can't find out, either." Allagany also said that "nobody in the Saudi government has facilitated any meeting or communication between members of the bin Laden family and Osama bin Laden since he moved from Sudan to Afghanistan."
One of Osama's half sisters is married to Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, an Islamic militant who American authorities believe helped to fund the burgeoning terrorist movement in the Philippines in the early nineteen-nineties. During this period, Khalifa established a rattan-furniture export business in Manila and is believed to have received large donations of cash from outside the country, some of which, intelligence officials suspect, may have been funnelled to him by Al Qaeda. In 1995, Khalifa was arrested in San Francisco on charges of violating United States immigration laws. He was detained while the Justice Department tried but failed to gather enough information to charge him in connection with suspected terrorist activities. Eventually, he was deported to Jordan, which had an outstanding warrant for him on charges stemming from the bombing of movie theatres in Amman in 1994. He was acquitted. In 1996, Khalifa returned to Saudi Arabia, where he still lives. When I asked Allagany about Khalifa, he said, "I'd be lying if I said I know anything about him. He's a brother-in-law. In Saudi Arabia, that's not even considered part of the family."
Yeslam Binladin, meanwhile, has issued a statement denouncing his half brother Osama; he has told reporters that his real passions are tennis and flying. He has nonetheless attracted the scrutiny of Swiss and American investigators because of a financial stake he has in a Swiss aviation firm. By a seeming coincidence, he paid for flight instruction for an acquaintance at Huffman Aviation, the training school in Venice, Florida, that many of the suicide hijackers attended. When I asked Yeslam about this, he replied in a fax from Geneva that while he had subsidized the flying lessons, he was not involved in picking the flight school. He said that he has had no contact with his half brother for more than twenty years, has never supported him either politically or financially, and has not been back to Saudi Arabia for thirteen years. "As you know," he said, "I come from a large family, where my father had several wives. Every wife had her own house and lived with her own children. He and I do not come from the same mother."
The remarkable rise of the bin Ladens begins with Osama's father, Muhammad bin Oud bin Laden. "His people were either Yemeni slaves or Yemeni laborers," Stanley Guess, a former United States military test pilot who flew the father around the kingdom in the early nineteen-sixties, said. "Either way, you couldn't get much lower." Although Muhammad was illiterate, Guess told me, "he was a genius in many ways. His mind was like a computer for figures." He was a talented engineer, and Guess believes that in the nineteen-fifties Muhammad won the favor of King Saud, who was confined to a wheelchair, by building him a ramp so that he could be pushed up to the second floor of his palace. Other sources have pointed to Muhammad's skill at building a road full of hairpin turns up a nearly sheer cliff, in order to shorten the royal family's commute to the summer palace in At Taif.
When Faisal ascended the throne, in 1964, the new king thanked Muhammad by giving him the contract to build virtually every road in the country, which at the time, according to Guess, had only one well-paved route, from Riyadh to Dhahran. Generous though these contracts were, they don't compare with the contract that the bin Laden family was given by the royal family in 1973 to rebuild the Islamic holy sites at Mecca and Medina, a project so prestigious and ambitious that it has been likened to rebuilding Vatican City. The renovation, which began as the kingdom experienced a rush of oil dollars and is estimated to have cost seventeen billion dollars so far, continues with no completion date in sight.
Guess and others said that although Muhammad was an observant Muslim, he "was certainly not a fanatic." And because Muhammad had eleven acknowledged wives during his lifetime—four at once, as is allowed under Islamic law—Osama almost certainly grew up in a separate household from his father. Indeed, the patriarch moved freely among the households of his various wives. "Muhammad was peculiar about his women," Guess said. The pilot recalls that Muhammad once brought three or four wives on a trip with him, but that he insisted that they not return together to Jidda until nightfall, "because he didn't want anyone seeing them." Much speculation has been printed about the psychological dynamics within the bin Laden family; sources in the Saudi royal family have painted Osama as a stigmatized outsider, because he was the only child of a less favored, foreign-born Syrian wife. But Yeslam's estranged wife, Carmen, told me that she never detected any distance between Osama and the rest of the family: "In front of me, they never disowned Osama. They spoke of him as a brother." She acknowledged, however, that she has not seen much of the family in years.
In the late sixties, when Osama was about eleven, Muhammad was killed in a plane crash. Osama's oldest brother, Salem, by most accounts a debonair and Westernized figure, who had attended Millfield, the English boarding school, took over the family empire. Salem brought the family into the modern world; he was, one American friend says, "as at home in London and Paris as he was in Jidda." A former United States diplomat in Saudi Arabia says, "I used to call him the playboy of the Western world." An enthusiastic amateur rock guitarist, Salem loved to jam with bands and go disco dancing when he was in the United States on business trips, in the nineteen-seventies. He was married to an English art student, Caroline Carey, whose half brother Ambrose is the son of the Marquess of Queensberry.
Salem's ties to America may have been not just cultural and commercial but political as well. During the nineteen-eighties, when the Reagan Administration secretly arranged for an estimated thirty-four million dollars to be funnelled through Saudi Arabia to the Contras, in Nicaragua, Salem bin Laden aided in this cause, according to French intelligence. Salem was reportedly one of the two closest friends of the King, and was frequently sought out by American diplomats and businessmen. (In 1993, the family hired Philip Griffin, the former American consul-general in Jidda, to work as its American representative in Washington.)
In 1988, Salem was killed outside San Antonio, Texas, when an experimental ultralight plane that he was flying got tangled in power lines. Leadership of the family business passed to the next eldest bin Laden brother, Bakr, whose style and orientation were more conservative. The family's commercial ties to the West, however, burgeoned. Currently, the company employs some thirty-two thousand people in thirty countries. A veteran lobbyist in Washington who knows the family well said, "The bin Ladens understand capitalism and the West better than I do, and they've made a lot more money, too."
Over the years, there have been warm, substantial ties between members of the bin Laden family and leaders of the foreign-policy establishment in America and Britain. Until late last month, the family had a stake amounting to two million dollars in the Washington-based Carlyle Group, a private equity firm with a large interest in defense contracting. The Carlyle Group is known for its politically connected executives such as former President George H. W. Bush, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former British Prime Minister John Major. In the nineteen-nineties, both Bush and Baker visited the bin Laden family when they were prospecting for business in Saudi Arabia. The chairman of the firm is former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, who has been a trusted friend of the current Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, since their days on the Princeton wrestling team. Sources inside the firm suggest that there was a spirited discussion among the partners about whether to sever connections with the bin Ladens, with some believing that to penalize the family for guilt by association was, as one put it, "monstrous." But the prospect of President Bush's father being in business with the half brother of Osama bin Laden was politically untenable, and, when "the irony became too much," as one insider in the firm put it, the bin Ladens recouped their initial investment, plus five hundred thousand dollars.
The family continues to have a stake, estimated by one source at about ten million dollars, in the Fremont Group, a private investment company, on whose board of directors sits another former Secretary of State, George Shultz. Much of the family's private banking is handled by Citigroup, which is chaired by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. The family has equity investments with Merrill Lynch and Goldman, Sachs. Among the family's business partners is General Electric. A spokesman for Jack Welch, the chairman of G.E., says that the family threw a party for him in the nineteen-nineties in Saudi Arabia, and that Welch "considers them good business partners." One American diplomat says, "You talk about your global investors, it's them. They own part of Microsoft, Boeing, and who knows what else." Others note that the family has been awarded contracts to help rebuild American military installations, including the Khobar Towers, which were damaged in a terrorist attack that killed nineteen servicemen in 1996.
The family's embrace of the West occurred as many in Arab intellectual circles were recoiling from it. Yossef Bodansky, in his biography of bin Laden, writes that the sudden increase in wealth among the Saudi élite, and the concomitant exposure to the West, "led to confusion and a largely unresolved identity crisis resulting in radicalism and eruptions of violence." Osama, who was born in 1957 and was raised largely in the seaport of Jidda, would have been bombarded by anti-Western material from Egypt, which, by 1977, when Anwar Sadat was making a separate peace with Israel, had become a center of radical dissent. In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, King Faisal was assassinated, in 1975, by a worldly nephew, an act that further stoked suspicions of the West. Bin Laden has cast himself as a messianic religious authority, but his degrees are in civil engineering and economics. Several sources close to the family hint that Osama had wanted to play a major role in the company after college but was marginalized by other brothers, either because he lacked business skills, as one source contends, or because he tried to mount an unsuccessful takeover from his elder brothers. "He started picking fights in the family business having to do with management control," an American friend of the family said. Either way, bin Laden was not welcomed at the helm of the Saudi Binladin Group.
In early 1979, as he was finishing college, the Islamic revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah; the following November, the radical movement swept into Saudi Arabia itself, with the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by armed Islamic extremists. (It has been reported that one of Osama's half brothers was arrested as a sympathizer of the takeover but was later exonerated.) The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year gave Osama new direction and purpose. On the advice of the royal family, he threw himself into providing financial, organizational, and engineering aid to the mujahideen, who were also heavily funded by the United States. In 1989, he returned home to Saudi Arabia a hero. But, in 1990, when American troops came to the aid of Saudi Arabia, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Laden turned against the throne for inviting infidels into the Islamic holy land. He had hoped to persuade the Saudi government to let him organize a Pan-Arab force, as he had in Afghanistan. But, in an interview with "Frontline," Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, said that when he first met bin Laden, in the nineteen-eighties, "I thought he couldn't lead eight ducks across the street."
When bin Laden turned against the United States, his fortune was still interwoven with the family's, which was invested in many American businesses. "It's not as cynical as it sounds," Jack Blum, a former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. "I've met some of the bin Ladens. They're quite nice. You'd have no problem at dinner with them. They are themselves conflicted. They are a contradiction. If you tried to peer into their souls, you'd see two of them."
Additional reporting by Chris Szechenyi.