The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

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Overview

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the national bestseller Ghost Wars, Steve Coll presents the story of the Bin Laden family's rise to power and privilege, revealing new information to show how American influences changed the family and how one member's rebellion changed America

The Bin Ladens rose from poverty to privilege; they loyally served the Saudi royal family for generations-and then one of their number changed history on ...
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Overview

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the national bestseller Ghost Wars, Steve Coll presents the story of the Bin Laden family's rise to power and privilege, revealing new information to show how American influences changed the family and how one member's rebellion changed America

The Bin Ladens rose from poverty to privilege; they loyally served the Saudi royal family for generations-and then one of their number changed history on September 11, 2001. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll tells the epic story of the rise of the Bin Laden family and of the wildly diverse lifestyles of the generation to which Osama bin Laden belongs, and against whom he rebelled. Starting with the family's escape from famine at the beginning of the twentieth century through its jet-set era in America after the 1970s oil boom, and finally to the family's attempts to recover from September 11, The Bin Ladens unearths extensive new material about the family and its relationship with the United States, and provides a richly revealing and emblematic narrative of our globally interconnected times.

To a much greater extent than has been previously understood, the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama ultimately declared war-shopping centers, apartment complexes, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much more. They financed Hollywood movies and negotiated over real estate with Donald Trump. They came to regard George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family. And yet, as was true of the larger relationship between the Saudi and American governments, when tested by Osama's violence, the family's involvement in the United States proved to be narrow and brittle.

Among the many memorable figures that cross these pages is Osama's older brother, Salem-a free-living, chainsmoking, guitar-strumming pilot, adventurer, and businessman who cavorted across America and Europe and once proposed marriage to four American and European girlfriends simultaneously, attempting to win a bet with the king of Saudi Arabia. Osama and Salem's father, Mohamed bin Laden, is another force in the narrative-an illiterate bricklayer who created the family fortune through perspicacity and wit, until his sudden death in an airplane crash in 1967, an accident caused by an error by his American pilot.

At the story's heart lies an immigrant family's attempt to adapt simultaneously to Saudi Arabia's puritanism and America's myriad temptations. The family generation to which Osama belonged-twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters-had to cope with intense change. Most of them were born into a poor society where religion dominated public life. Yet by the time they became young adults, these Bin Ladens found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and changing sexual mores-a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, because they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. How they navigated these demands is an authentic, humanizing story of Saudi Arabia, America, and the sources of attraction and repulsion still present in the countries' awkward embrace.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Steve Coll's 2004 Ghost Wars won its author his second Pulitzer Prize and set the standard for books on al Qaeda. The Bin Ladens, his first work since that masterpiece, is a portrait of an extended family, a dynasty founded by an illiterate bricklayer who died in a plane crash caused by his American pilot. (Indeed, Coll shows that the Bin Laden chronicles have been marked repeatedly by airplane disasters.) These Arabian building pioneers carelessly straddled two incompatible cultures; partying and globetrotting even as family members bankrolled extreme religious fundamentalists. With the same dazzling reportorial precision that marked Ghost Wars, the former Washington Post associate editor documents the Bin Ladens' narrow and brittle involvement with their "western friends."
Michiko Kakutani
Steve Coll's riveting new book not only gives us the most psychologically detailed portrait of the brutal 9/11 mastermind yet, but in telling the epic story of Osama bin Laden's extended family, it also reveals the crucial role that his relatives and their relationship with the royal house of Saud played in shaping his thinking, his ambitions, his technological expertise and his tactics…It is a book that possesses the novelistic energy of a rags-to-riches family epic, following its sprawling cast of characters as they travel from Mecca and Medina to Las Vegas and Disney World, and yet, at the same time, it is a book that, in tracing the connections between the public and the private, the political and the personal, stands as a substantive bookend to Mr. Coll's Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2004 book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the C.I.A., Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The bin Ladens are famous for spawning the world's foremost terrorist and building one of the Middle East's foremost corporate dynasties. Pulitzer Prize-winner Coll (Ghost Wars) delivers a sprawling history of the multifaceted clan, paying special attention to its two most emblematic members. Patriarch Mohamed's eldest son, Salem, was a caricature of the self-indulgent plutocrat: a flamboyant jet-setter dependent on the Saudi monarchy, obsessed with all things motorized (he died crashing his plane after a day's joy-riding atop motorcycle and dune-buggy) and forever tormenting his entourage with off-key karaoke. Coll presents quite a contrast with an unusually nuanced profile of Salem's half-brother Osama, a shy, austere, devout man who nonetheless shares Salem's egomania. Other bin Ladens crowd Coll's narrative with the eye-glazing details of their murky business deals, messy divorces and ill-advised perfume lines and pop CDs. Beneath the clutter one discerns an engrossing portrait of a family torn between tradition and modernity, conformism and self-actualization, and desperately in search of its soul. (April 1)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date books in English to tell the rags-to-riches story of the Arabian Peninsula's house of Bin Laden. In a fascinating read, Coll (former managing editor, the Washington Post), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, provides a detailed account of the Bin Ladens and their myriad business enterprises. Coll traces the history of Mohammed Bin Laden, a young illiterate Yemeni bricklayer who went to the newly established country of Saudi Arabia and became a key figure in building the country's infrastructural projects, including roads and mosques. In the process, the scion of the Bin Laden family became a multimillionaire and transformed his entrepreneurial skills into establishing numerous business ventures that tied him to the world's rich and famous. The Bin Laden family's symbiotic relationship with the Saudi royal family served as a critical factor in bolstering the Bin Laden fortunes and shielding the family from its adversaries. The author's portrayal of the Bin Ladens is greatly readable while also sophisticated in its complexities. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
—Nader Entessar

Kirkus Reviews
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 uber-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 withthe 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. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114819
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/31/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 688
  • Sales rank: 433,535
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Coll
Steve Coll is a writer for The New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. He is president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. Previously he served, for more than twenty years, as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and ultimately as managing editor of The Washington Post. He is also the author of On the Grand Trunk Road, The Deal of the Century, and The Taking of Getty Oil. Coll received a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism and the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for outstanding international print reporting and the 2000 Overseas Press Club Award for best magazine reporting from abroad. Ghost Wars, published in 2004, received the Pulitzer for general nonfiction and the Arthur Ross award for the best book on international affairs.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2011

    Excellent portrait of a complex family

    This book adds an important and unique angle to the traditional reading list about the "war on terror" and 9/11. A highly recommended and fair portrait of a surprisingly secular Saudi family and the formative years of Osama, the exiled and evil "black sheep" among them.

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  • Posted March 9, 2011

    This is an exhaustive study of the Bin Ladens

    As the 20th century begins, the Bin Laden saga does as well. The book examines the rise and fall of this prominent family beginning with the line of Ali. Mohammed and Abdullah are the early focus. At first, it reads almost like a fairytale as their very survival seems to depend on magical moments or accidents of fate. Since much of the history is handed down orally, it is really hard to separate fact from fiction, sometimes. The Bin Laden family fell into the good graces of the King by sheer force of events, unplanned and unchoreographed. When Abdulaziz wanted help to build shelters for his ever growing fleet of cars, the Americans and the British refused. Had they accepted, perhaps Mohammed Bin Laden would not have stepped up to fill in the construction gap which eventually brought him prominence and fortune. Perhaps the clan would have deteriorated into oblivion instead of infamy. Mohammed Bin Laden was either a business genius or the hapless recipient of accidents of fate. I think he was very clever and inserted himself into situations which provided him the advantage he needed with the royal family. Even if he was unprepared and not up to the task presented to him, he accepted it. He took the risk, carved out deals which projected him into the spotlight, married strategically and made influential alliances. Sometime in 1958, his 14 year old bride, Alia, gave birth to Osama Bin Laden. Salem, Osama's brother, rose to power after the death of Mohammed, in a plane crash. He was more fun loving and as the brother in power, managed to endear himself to many of the Saudi princes in power and to King Fahd. Although, he too liked to play a lot, he was pious and professed to do everything for Allah.. He had ruder manners and behavior, loved the party life, the night life and also took many wives and had many children. I was struck by a comment made by Carmen, wife of Yeslam, ½ brother to Salem. She noted that when the brothers came together, you never knew when they would turn from carousing to being very pious. One minute you would think they were westernized but then small things made you realize that they were not. She said they cannot cut the bond that is embedded in them. She said her own husband cannot cut the bond that is his early childhood. Osama became a radicalized member of the Muslim Brotherhood at around the age of 15 because of the influence of his teacher, Ahmed Badeeb, who was active in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization believing in Sharia law and violence. Osama was a quiet and well behaved young man, easily swayed by the teacher. Osama was more religious than most and even believed in ancient traditions and modes of dress. In Saudi Arabia, Islam is part of the culture and even in more moderate households, it is a major theme of life. Someone in every home believes in Islam and there is always a Koran evident. The Brotherhood messages were filled with political dissent and preached teaching and proselytizing. Obama was a devout and obedient follower. As a young man, he disliked America and its policies toward Jews and Christians which he felt certain was a policy intent on destroying Islam. He believed wholeheartedly in Jihad. Osama's connections with the Brotherhood mentors is kismet and coupled with his influential connections, make it possible for his love/hate relationship with the United States to begin. His declaration of war against America provides the reason to plot its destruction in the name of All

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  • Posted July 27, 2010

    Excellent- Detailed look @ Saudi History and Muslim Values and Society

    Where did this family come from to gain such great power in the Saudi Kingdom. This book traces the rise of the House of Saud as well as the family Ben Ladin. A must audio book for anyone who needs to know the nature of power struggle between arabia and the west.

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  • Posted February 2, 2010

    One of, if not, the best book written about the Bin Laden's..

    Just finished reading....have to say this book is packed with culture insight.

    The author keeps things well balanced and seems to avoid mixing opinons in with his research.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    A reviewer

    I am reading The Bin Ladens and enjoying it very much. The reading is interesting and very informative. HOWEVER, where in the world are the maps that desperately need to accompany a book such as this? The maps are an integral part of one's understanding of the events taking place. Most people can't find Yemen, much less the Hadhramawi section of Yemen. The book, 'Three Cups of Tea' which is on the top best seller list has an excellent map which shows where everyting takes place. Next time, or in a subsequent edition, please add maps to this book making it more interesting and informative. This lack really should put the rating even less than my '4'. Dee Phelps

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