AMY GOODMAN: The United States launched the war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. The stated purpose of the invasion was to capture Osama bin Laden and remove the Taliban regime, which had provided support and safe haven to al-Qaeda.
Osama bin Laden is known worldwide as the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of 9/11, but much less is known of his sprawling Saudi family and their multiple ties to the United States. A new book by award-winning journalist Steve Coll details the complicated family history of Osama bin Laden, one of fifty-four children born to Mohammed bin Laden.
Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Previously, he was managing editor of the Washington Post and has been a reporter, a foreign correspondent, an editor at the paper since 1985. He was awarded a Pulitzer, his second, for his previous book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. His latest book is The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.
Today, we spend the hour with Steve Coll. I began by asking him, when we sat down together here in the firehouse studio, to talk about the story of the bin Laden family.
STEVE COLL: Well, they’re an immigrant family that emerged from one of the poorest places in Arabia, a canyon in an area of what’s now southern Yemen called the Hadhramaut, which I visited in the course of doing the research for this. It’s an astonishing place. The landscape is like the Grand Canyon—steep walls and desert—and at the time, at the turn of the twentieth century, a very, very poor place, where the few thousand who lived there farmed when flood rains came in, and they’d try to hold the water in place for a few months and plant, harvest a few staples and then survive the long period where no rain came. And the bin Ladens lived in this canyon. They lived in a sort of a family village organized around a little fort, and there were perhaps 300 or 400 of the clan there.
And the grandfather of Osama bin Laden, from those circumstances, migrated after receiving death threats, because an ox he had borrowed died. He migrated to a neighboring canyon and, from there, married, had several children. And one of those turned out to be the father of Osama, a man named Mohammed bin Laden, who was essentially orphaned, maybe at around age eight or nine or ten, lived in very difficult circumstances in another remote valley, where there were no schools other than religious schools. And at age fourteen, he left, as many people in the Hadhramaut did when they had no other choice. And he walked out to the sea and boarded a ship and found his way to what we now know as Saudi Arabia, and that’s where the family fortune was seeded, through his migration.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he do?
STEVE COLL: Well, he arrived in Jeddah, which is the port that pilgrims arrive in when they go on the Hajj to Mecca. It’s about a hundred kilometers from Mecca. And he turned up on foot with his younger brother, with no resources, and they slept in the street for awhile and looked for work. I think his first job, by family oral history accounts, was as a bag carrier who worked for pilgrims arriving by ship. And then he just hustled, and he became a bricklayer, taught himself masonry, taught himself small contracting repair jobs. And there was a long period after he arrived, at the cusp of the Great Depression, between his arrival, 1929, 1930, and the end of the Second World War, fifteen years, where he just scraped by as a bricklayer and eventually as a small contractor. But it was a very difficult time. The economy was in desperate straits through the ’30s, and then the Second World War disrupted international sea lanes, and so pilgrims couldn’t come for the Hajj, and so there was not a lot of business in Arabia.
So, by the time the Second World War ended, however, he had just started out as a small builder, a guy who had gotten a few palace jobs and who had ingratiated himself with the royal family of Saudi Arabia. So when the war ended and Saudi Arabia’s oil economy began to take off, he was in a position to profit from it.
AMY GOODMAN: How did he become a construction magnate?
STEVE COLL: Well, he started out doing palaces, essentially. Saudi Arabia in 1945, when the war ended, had virtually nothing by way of national infrastructure. It was a desert society that had never been colonized during the imperial period; its interior portion had never been occupied or colonized. And it was a forbidding place governed by the Al Saud family of tribal emirs and who consider themselves a royal family. And they had just consolidated political control over the whole peninsula. But their idea of what they would do now that they were an independent nation was kind of underdeveloped. So they didn’t think, well, let’s build a government, let’s build a health ministry, let’s build schools; they thought, let’s build some palaces to live in.
And they brought in some American corporations, because the Americans were there pumping oil. But the international corporations who came in to build things quickly became frustrated with the style of business that they found, where they might bring a bulldozer in to do a road contract, and they’d be out on the job for a month or two, and the phone would ring, and it would be a prince saying, “My refrigerator is broken. Would you please come over and fix it? Oh, and by the way, bring your bulldozer. I’ll need it for three weeks, because I want to dig my garden in the backyard.” And Bechtel, which was one of the American corporations that was there early on, eventually said, “You know, life is too short. We’re not making enough money, and dealing with the whims of princes is not for us. We’ve got other work we can do.”
Well, Mohammed bin Laden essentially exploited this opportunity. He saw an opportunity to make money where the international corporations were leaving contracts behind—American corporations, British, German—and he was willing to deal with the whims and the peccadillos of the Saudi princes and to give them whatever they wanted. He learned to act as a kind of concierge service for the self-indulgent Saudi royal family. And if they wanted to repair their refrigerators instead of build a road, if they wanted a palace filled with kitchen gadgets from Paris, if they weren’t going to pay him for eight months or to pay him in oil instead of cash, he would just adapt to the circumstances. And he was also very talented, in an intuitive sense, about building and about bringing together groups of workers from all over the Arab world who he could organize and sort of swarm a jobsite with and get things done. So, he did get things done.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about his family. He had fifty-four children, one of them Osama bin Laden. Where was Osama in the lineup?
STEVE COLL: Osama is reckoned to be about his seventeenth son. He had twenty-five sons and twenty-nine daughters. He was inspired by the example of the Saudi royal family and many sheikhs in Yemen, where he had come from, men who took multiple wives and had many children by them. But he took that example to extremes, even by Arabian standards. He wasn’t the only prominent sheikh in the peninsula at that time who did so, but it was not, on the other hand, common to do what he did, which was he married at least twenty-two times, probably more than that, and by these wives had fifty-four children, twenty-nine daughters and twenty-five sons.
Each time one of his wives became pregnant, he recognized her as legitimate, and he recognized the children as legitimate, and he treated them all, according to Islamic law, as equals. But there were sort of two classes, in an informal sense, of children. There were a couple of senior wives who stayed married to him for many years, decades, and bore a number of children and lived with him on a big compound. And then there were other wives—and Osama’s mother was such a wife—who were typically married to him for a short period of time, perhaps a couple or three years, and then, after the divorce, he would arrange for the wife’s remarriage to someone with a good income, often a manager in his own company. And so, there were many children who were essentially singleton sons or daughters of short-lived marriages. And yet, they were not outcasts or, you know, discriminated against in law or even in the way he organized his family. They just had a somewhat lesser status than the children of the senior wives.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was Osama bin Laden closest to, of his brothers and sisters?
STEVE COLL: Well, he had two families, in effect, because his mother remarried a manager in Mohammed bin Laden’s company and then had a rather conventional, by Saudi standards, nuclear family in a suburb in Jeddah where Osama was the step-child, as the mother now had four or five children by this more conventional marriage. And so, Osama was a member of that household, the special child whose inheritance, whose allowance of several hundred thousand dollars a year, whose status as a son of Mohammed bin Laden conferred great privilege on this step-family. And at the same time, he was a member of the larger Mohammed bin Laden family, which would gather on more formal occasions. On weekends, the father would teach them the Koran, take them into the desert, teach them the values that he wanted to convey to his sons. And so, Osama had these two families.
In the larger Mohammed bin Laden family, he was eventually close to his elder brother Salem, who ran the family after Mohammed’s death in an airplane crash in 1967. And Salem and Osama were a very odd pair, because Salem was a very westernized secular character, and Osama, after middle school, became an increasingly devout and eventually radicalized Islamist.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that trajectory that Osama bin Laden took and where it took him.
STEVE COLL: Well, he—as a child, he went—we don’t know every year of his schooling, but possible to get a glimpse of him being sent off to boarding school at a Quaker school in Lebanon, where a number of his siblings went. That didn’t seem to take at about age eight or nine. Perhaps he just didn’t like being away from home.
In any event, he came back to Jeddah and enrolled at about age twelve or thirteen in the only truly international standard school in Saudi Arabia, a prep school, a day school in Jeddah called the Al-Thagher Model School. And it was modeled on a British boarding school. The boys—it was all boys, and the boys wore grey slacks and blue blazers, and they assembled on the yard every morning, and they played soccer. And they had teachers from England and Ireland to teach them English, and they had a modern scientific and math curriculum.
And in that school, some of the teachers were Syrians and Egyptians affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an international sort of Islamist network started as an anti-colonial movement in Egypt. By the time that Osama encountered these teachers, it was a sort of a source of organizing and political dissent in the Arab world, built around Islamist revolutionary ideas. Hamas today is an expression of the Muslim Brotherhood, to get a sense of its character. And these teachers, typical of the way the Muslim Brotherhood worked, looked for elite students and recruited them at school in after-school study groups, and Osama was recruited by his Syrian gym teacher into such a group at about age thirteen or fourteen and was essentially radicalized there, being taught a particularly political form of conservative Islamic theology. That’s the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and, say, normal Saudi conservative orthodoxy, is that the Brotherhood has a political vision of changing governments. And Osama was indoctrinated in those views from a young age.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did Osama bin Laden, Steve Coll, end up in Afghanistan?
STEVE COLL: Through the Brotherhood, essentially. After he was recruited through these study groups, he became part of a Brotherhood clique at his high school. His prep school had cliques like our schools. And there was essentially a Nasirite secular group, and then there was a Muslim Brotherhood conservative group, and he was in the latter and prominent in it. And through his contacts in the Brotherhood after the Soviet invasion of 1979, he gradually became part of the sort of international networks of volunteers who, through the Brotherhood’s connections and transnational sort of proselytizing and political networks, he traveled to Pakistan, initially to provide humanitarian aid and to participate in Brotherhood-organized support networks for the Afghan refugees who were pouring out of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. So that’s where he began.
AMY GOODMAN: And training with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, where did he get the support? Talk about his relationship with the United States. And then we’ll talk about a trip he took to buy arms with his brother—
STEVE COLL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —in England.
STEVE COLL: Well, his—one thing to keep in mind about his involvement in the Afghan war during the 1980s—and I was really reminded of this in the research for this book, even though I’ve been sort of working on his biography, on and off, for fifteen years; there was a way in which, I think, until this round of research, I didn’t quite appreciate—that in Saudi terms, in the 1980s, when he was participating in the Afghan war, working with the Mujahideen, he was an entirely orthodox figure. I mean, this was an entirely authorized effort up until 1989 or so.
So he was there under the good graces—good graces of his family, with his family’s support. They provided him money. They provided channels of importing construction equipment. They provided company engineers to support his work on the frontier. And the government, the Saudi government, supported him, as well. The bin Ladens, by the 1980s, were sort of the Halliburton of Saudi Arabia. They had a tradition of doing no-bid contracts on sensitive defense and intelligence projects. In the ’60s, they had built the entire kingdom’s defense infrastructure along the Yemen border during a war with Egypt, and in Afghanistan they were doing the same thing. There was a lot of government support for what he was doing.
AMY GOODMAN: And didn’t they have US support also?
STEVE COLL: They had US support, but it was sort of running in parallel. The US and the Saudis made an agreement at the beginning of the war to match each other’s support dollar for dollar. Much of the official Saudi government cash support was funneled through the CIA, which then passed it through the Pakistan army and intelligence services, which then passed it on to the Afghan Mujahideen.
AMY GOODMAN: And these are the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets.
STEVE COLL: Fighting the Soviets. But the Saudi government, in addition to that sort of formal channel of aid that passed from government to government and finally ended up in the hands of Pakistani intelligence for distribution to fighters—
AMY GOODMAN: ISI.
STEVE COLL: ISI. In addition to that, the Saudis had their own unilateral channel of support. And Osama seems to have fit in that channel, where they had, in addition to that, which ran through the army in Pakistan, their own clients, their own projects, their own priorities. And some of this was religious volunteerism, and some of it was semi-government policy, and some of it was the Saudi intelligence service just working its own networks on the Afghan frontier, and that’s where Osama and his family, I think, primarily fit during the 1980s.
AMY GOODMAN: And Osama bin Laden’s views toward the United States at that time?
STEVE COLL: There’s not a ton of evidence about his views, but where they surface, he seems to hold conventional Saudi attitudes: anti-Zionist, informed by a strong streak of anti-Semitism; anti-American, but in the context of campaigning against Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: You have an interesting photograph in your book, The Bin Ladens, where his father Mohammed bin Laden’s home in East Jerusalem, purchased during the ’60s, later taken over by Israeli owners after the 1967 war.
STEVE COLL: Yes, it was a really interesting discovery during this research. It was known that the father had perhaps done some work in Jerusalem, and Osama had talked about his father’s work in Jerusalem with pride, but very little understanding of what that was about. It turned out that his father was very deeply involved in Jerusalem as a builder. He was the authorized builder of Mecca and Medina by the early 1960s. And when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which then controlled East Jerusalem and the Islamic holy sites—the Dome of the Rock and the related sanctuaries in East Jerusalem—decided to take a big renovation project, Mohammed bin Laden won the contract.
And he spent years in East Jerusalem, flying back and forth on his private aircraft. He bought a home. He may have taken some local Palestinian wives. And he abandoned that property in June of 1967 during the ’67 war, and ultimately that home was taken over by the Israeli Land Authorities and sold to Israeli tenants. It was owned for a time by an officer in the Israeli navy. And so, in a technical sense, at least a legal sense, the bin Ladens are among those with a claim of return, one of the unresolved claims of return that so stymie attempts to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank.
AMY GOODMAN: Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll. His latest book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue the conversation with Steve Coll, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the Washington Post and now writes for The New Yorker magazine. His latest book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. I asked him to talk about the trip Osama bin Laden took with his brother Salem to England in 1986.
STEVE COLL: It involved arms—an arms transaction. This was something also that I had never been able to penetrate—where did Osama get his weapons from exactly?—since they didn’t seem to come down the straight pipeline that the CIA was running. They were in a parallel pipe. And it turns out that it involved his brother Salem, who was a great adventurer and a pilot and perhaps as enthusiastic about America as Osama later proved hostile to it. And—but Salem was a collaborator of the Saudi government and believed in—whatever the Saudi royal family wanted, he wanted, and Osama’s work in the Afghan war was an authorized project, so he, through a German friend who had lived in Afghanistan as the son of a diplomat and who had contacts with German arms companies, arranged a brokered transaction in which Osama wanted shoulder-fired missiles, because he knew that the Americans were giving out Stingers to some of the Afghan groups, and he wanted a piece of that technology, and he also wanted ammunition for assault rifles.
AMY GOODMAN: Not that he was fighting them. It was going—he was fighting on the same side.
STEVE COLL: He was on the same side, yeah. So he wanted these—he wanted a piece of the same weaponry that his colleagues had, but he didn’t have a direct line to the Stinger, so he arranged with his brother to buy SA-7 Soviet-made shoulder-fired missiles. And this deal was brokered in a hotel in London in 1986 with these sort of German salesmen. And apparently the missiles were acquired in South America and then brought into Pakistan. He also bought some ammunition. And apparently he was also dealing with South African arms dealers. This was in the era of apartheid, and the Saudis in the late Cold War period were heavily involved in Africa working with anti-communist governments, whatever their shape and character.
AMY GOODMAN: The German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch?
STEVE COLL: Koch, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Koch—were also—had offices here in the United States?
STEVE COLL: They do now. I’m not sure whether they did in 1986. And they—it was salesmen in their Middle East operation, according to the man who was in these meetings and who’s talked about it on the record in the book, who arranged these brokered transactions involving the missiles.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened after the 1980s with Osama bin Laden? When does he leave Afghanistan? When does he go from being an ally of the United States to an enemy?
STEVE COLL: It happens gradually between 1989 and 1996, I would say, is the period where he moves from an ally, who is skeptical about the United States but is nonetheless working in alignment in the Afghan war, to a man who declares war on the United States in the summer of 1996.
And the journey has a few stages. He leaves Afghanistan in 1989, as the Soviets have gone and the fighting now is descending into a civil war among Afghan factions. And he leaves and goes back to Saudi Arabia. And initially he seems a bit adrift. He is interested in getting involved in a jihad in Yemen. He’s working in his brother’s offices, back in business in the construction trade, doing a little bit of junior executive work, making some films about his time in Afghanistan, using company offices to show the documentaries to his journalist friends. And “Do you think this is a good film? Should we edit it?” I mean, he’s playing around with different jihad projects, but in a rather kind of passive context in Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: And who are his journalist friends?
STEVE COLL: Well, a guy name Jamal Kashoggi, who’s now a Saudi government official, who had interviewed him on the frontier a few times. These were people who were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement at the time. Jamal has since changed his views about Islamist politics, but at the time, they were all kind of in the same sphere. And so, there was a sort of a romanticized revolutionary environment that attracted both Osama and some of his chroniclers in the Arab world at that time.
And—but the next big event was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which brought hundreds of thousands of American and other Western troops into the kingdom. And this was when Osama began to finally break with the orthodoxy that he had adhered to even during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, in the sense that he began now to question the Saudi government more openly than he had ever done before. For all of his attitude about the United States in the 1980s, he had never questioned the authority or the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family. Now that begins. And it makes his family uncomfortable, because their whole fortune is derived from collaboration with the Saudi royals. And it begins to annoy the Saudi government, as well. He makes various propositions about how he should be appointed to expel Saddam from Kuwait. He starts speaking in mosques and among friends about his fears that the Saudi royal family is on the wrong track by collaborating with the Americans. He still tries not to break completely with either the Saudi government or his family, but nonetheless the pressure mounts, and eventually he leaves voluntarily to essentially go his own way.
He’s not thrown out. He’s not stripped of his citizenship yet. But he leaves. And he ends up in Sudan and then begins to build his jihadi militias up again, brings some people over from Pakistan, goes into business, buys some land, and he starts to build his own little subsidiary of the bin Laden organization, but with a much more Islamist sort of character.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Sudan. What happens in 1996?
STEVE COLL: Well, in 1996, he—is the culmination of a period of increasingly vitriolic attacks by Osama on the Saudi government. He starts writing pamphlets and faxing them into the kingdom, denouncing the Saudi royals as corrupt. He really breaks with the interests of his family by 1993, 1994. He’s stripped of his shareholdings in the family companies. He’s stripped of his Saudi passport.
And all this—they keep trying to bring him back into the fold. They send family delegations over to him. They say, “Look, you can be—we’re not against your religion. We respect your piety. Come back. You can have our Medina office. You can live in the holy cities of Islam. You can consort and help lead Islam from the seat of your own religion. And, by the way, you’ll get a great salary, and you’ll be restored to legitimacy.”
And he’s very stubborn at these entreaties. He keeps saying, “No. I’m on my own march, and it’s ordained by God. And I’m going to see it through.” And eventually, they give up on him. And he gets angrier and angrier. And the United States government finally becomes aware of him in this period and puts pressure on the Sudanese government, which is trying to find its way back from the margins of geopolitics.
AMY GOODMAN: This is during the Clinton years.
STEVE COLL: This is during the Clinton years. And they put pressure on the Sudanese government to do something about Osama, because the Sudanese government wants relief from some sanctions that it’s under. And the Americans essentially say, “If you want such relief, you’ve got to do something about this guy. He’s causing trouble all over the Maghreb and Egypt and elsewhere. He’s involved in violence.” And so, they – the Sudanese eventually go to him and say, “Look, reluctantly, not because we want to, but because the Americans are forcing us to do so, we’ve got to ask you to leave.” And so, off he goes to Afghanistan in a very bitter mood.
At this point, he loses—at least one, perhaps two, of his wives decide they’ve had enough of this life in exile. His eldest son goes to him one day and says he wants to go back to Jeddah. His cousins have motorcycles and jet skis, and he’s tired of living a life of hardship in exile. And Osama grants him permission, says, you know, “Look, I recognize that I’m on a journey that not everyone wants to be on, but I must continue.” And so, off he goes. And at each step of the way, you can feel the sense of commitment to this cause and the anger sort of deepening. There’s a kind of an inevitability of it building up.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Coll, how many children does he have?
STEVE COLL: Nobody knows the exact number, but by this time, somewhere between a dozen and twenty.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a picture from 2001, before September, of Osama bin Laden at Mohammed, his son’s wedding—
STEVE COLL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —in Afghanistan.
STEVE COLL: Yeah. And remember, he had this—these two families back when he was a child: his step-family, which was a sort of suburban nuclear family with a TV and a nice kind of house in Jeddah, and then his larger Mohammed family. Well, that step-family—his mother and one of his step-brothers came to that wedding in Afghanistan in 2001. He invited them, even though at this point he had attacked the US embassies in Africa; he had hit the USS Cole; he was—you know, there was a reward out for his capture, and the Clinton administration was trying to find him in order to kill him or capture him. And yet, he managed to have a family wedding with a video camera.
And, of course, the Taliban—one difference between Osama and the Taliban was that Osama has always been a student of technology and sort of a gadget hound in his own way, and he’s used technology to be very effective in his violent operations. He used satellite phones in a very innovative way to create a lot of his attacks. And the Taliban, on the other hand, adhering to a different school of Islamic theology, believe that all of this technology is forbidden, because it wasn’t present during the life of Mohammed, and so, therefore, it shouldn’t be used. And Osama, at this wedding of his son, wanted a video. You know, he wanted a record of it, but he had a lot of Taliban guests, so he was essentially hiding his video camera under his robes and sort of sneaking around trying to take these pictures.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the evidence of his involvement in the USS Cole bombing and Nairobi and Tanzania?
STEVE COLL: Well, in the case of the Africa bombings, there’s both technical evidence and a lot of testimony about how the plot was organized by participants in the plot. That was a—in the last big case that was actually tried in open US courts under the US, you know, system in a normal way—no special detentions or—and the evidence in that trial is massive, overwhelming, and I find it quite convincing, a lot of open testimony, a lot of phone records and other documentary evidence to support.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he boast about it?
STEVE COLL: He did eventually take responsibility for it, though more indirectly than he ultimately took responsibility for 9/11 in that—in that one video from November, where he talks in a quite open way about his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
And in the USS Cole, he’s also—he’s not only talked about his involvement in it; he’s written a poem celebrating his role in that attack, which he recited at his son’s wedding before the cameras. And, in fact, he recited the poem once, and then he went into a little room to look at the video of how he had done, with the guy who was secretly filming so the Taliban wouldn’t catch him, and he looked at it, and he said, “Oh, I really didn’t do that well, did I?” And he said, “I’m going to do another take.” And so, they went back out, and he recited the poem again. And then he went back in and looked at the—
AMY GOODMAN: And again, this poem talks about…?
STEVE COLL: The USS Cole. I mean, his—you know, it’s a poem about how the mighty warriors sunk the great battleship, and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this is 2001. This is the year.
STEVE COLL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Mohammed, his son’s wedding in Afghanistan. So, what happens then?
STEVE COLL: Well, eventually, I hope we’ll have a fuller record of exactly what the experience of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks and its immediate aftermath in Osama’s inner circle was really like. But there are bits and pieces of, I think, reliable testimony about that from people who were with him who have come out and who speak not under sort of pressure, but, you know, in some kind of—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean not tortured.
STEVE COLL: Not—yeah, not tortured. People who have – well, they may have—who knows exactly what their experiences in Yemeni detention and otherwise has been? But they have emerged as kind of, I think, fairly reliable, credible interlocutors, and some of them were around Osama in the summer of 2001. And also some of his wives have come out, and they’ve never been in detention, and they’ve talked about their experiences and what he told them as the attacks were approaching.
And essentially, the picture you get is that in the summer of 2001, from a—he knew that the clock was ticking, and he seemed to be thinking about what the consequences of this would be for the world that he had built—his wives, his children, his bodyguards, so on. And it’s not exactly clear what he thought would happen after 9/11, but he seemed to know that something was going to change. And so, he went to his wives and said, “I think you ought to get out of Afghanistan, go to Pakistan,” and gave them sort of instructions. He said, “I’m going to have to disappear for awhile.” But whether he thought this might just be for six months or twelve months, not clear. But eventually they went to Pakistan and all went home.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the reaction of September 11th? What is—what have you picked up about Osama bin Laden?
STEVE COLL: Well, he—I mean, the most sort of authentic, I guess, video that describes his reaction to the events was made by a visiting Kuwaiti sheikh, religious teacher, with whom Osama had a prior acquaintance. And in the style of Osama, this is not unusual; while during their visit in roughly October or November of 2001, they videoed dinner. It was an informal conversation. They’re sitting around a kind of Diwaniya setting, and they speak about 9/11.
And Osama’s essentially talking about what he experienced as he monitored the attacks unfolding on the radio or on the television. It’s not clear whether he’s got a television or he’s got a radio. And he describes how he had—as an engineer with a lot of experience in building construction, he had made certain calculations about what would happen when a plane went into the World Trade Center. And he had thought that a number of floors might melt and collapse because of the fire, but he hadn’t expected that the whole buildings would fall down and that he was delighted by that result, and so forth. And he talks about the celebration that he went through.
And then it’s also woven into a thing that’s sort of typical of his discourse, which is a lot of dreamscapes he had dreamed and prophecies. He had had a whole series of dreams, which he relates to his guests. And some of the dreams were a little bit abstract, but they seem important to him as the way he thinks about how God communicates to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll, he writes for The New Yorker magazine. His latest book is The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. If you’d like a copy of today’s hour, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. We’ll be back with the final part of our conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, talking to Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote for the Washington Post for many years, managing editor there, now writes for The New Yorker magazine. His latest book is The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.
I asked him to describe how the bin Ladens were flown out of the United States.
STEVE COLL: There were three groups of Saudis in the United States at the time of 9/11 that the Saudi government decided it should evacuate. Two of them were essentially groups of royal family members. They happened to be on vacation. One of them was in—one of the groups was in Las Vegas. Another was in Kentucky buying thoroughbred horses. And then there was the bin Laden family, which had a number of members of Osama’s generation, perhaps four or five brothers and sisters—I’d have to count them—one, two, three, at least four—five brothers and sisters who were in the United States, and their—some of their children and some cousins, and so forth, all scattered around the United States, in L.A., Florida, D.C. and Boston.
And the initial inquiries that were made by Saudi ambassador, Bandar bin Sultan, occurred as early as two or three days after 9/11, when airspace was shut down, but it’s a myth that the planes flew when all other planes were grounded. In fact, the planes flew at a time when airspace was opening up again. But the arrangements were made when everything was shut down, and the authorization was given by the White House and by the FBI.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there are the descriptions of the Logan Airport officials, those who ran Logan, being shocked when they were told that they were to bring this family onto a plane.
STEVE COLL: Yes. Well, I mean, there was a lot of shock. It’s quite an amazing story, and we were able to interview some security guards that were assigned to this. They had rent—they leased a plane that was used for sports teams, that had like a special configuration and a round—and a bar. And they flew the plane out to Los Angeles to pick up the first of the bin Ladens, actually a remarkable woman, one of his sisters who was a pilot there, lived a very sort of L.A. lifestyle. She was distraught and had gone into Bullock’s with her credit card and been screamed at by the clerks and just wanted to get out, even though she really had nothing to do with Osama and his ideology. So, they put her on the plane, and she’s the only passenger, and they have one security guard. And they’re going to fly from L.A. to Orlando to pick up some other family members.
And they’re up in the air, and the security guard goes up into the cockpit, and he says to the pilot, you know, “How’s it going?” And it becomes clear to him that the pilot doesn’t know that he’s going to be flying bin Ladens. So the security guard figures, “Well, I’d better tell him. He’s the pilot.” So they—he explains that there’s a bin Laden out there and there’s going to be a whole bunch more bin Ladens coming aboard. Well, the crew revolts. They say, “We’re not flying bin Ladens.” They’re afraid. They demand more money. They go on strike on the tarmac in Orlando, while other bin Ladens are milling around saying, you know, “We need to get moving here.” And the whole thing has a kind of—
AMY GOODMAN: Were they at Disney World?
STEVE COLL: They were living in a family—a bin Laden family compound just outside of Disney World called “Desert Bear” that had been bought many years before by Osama’s adventurer elder brother Salem. And so, another brother, Khalil, was living there with his Brazilian-born wife and some children who were—they spent summers there, typically.
And so, they were very—he showed up at the—Khalil showed up in a designer suit and sunglasses and was very apologetic to the security guards and the pilots, saying, you know, “I’m really sorry that you have to do this, but, you know, we need to get moving.” And there were some TV reports that something was happening at the airport, and the security guards started to get afraid that somebody was going to show up and start taking potshots at them. And he’s on the phone with his charter company trying to negotiate some new pay package for the pilots to get them to take off again. And it was a mess.
Eventually, the family does come aboard, you know, in groups—one group in Orlando, another in Washington, another in Boston. And it takes on this air, by the accounts of people who were aboard, of a sort of mournful family reunion, some people crying, some people quietly reacquainting, because they hadn’t seen each other in awhile. And everybody’s smoking cigarettes, the plane sort of filling up with cigarette smoke. And some of the college students complaining that they had just gotten fake IDs and were—you know, now had no use for them in Saudi Arabia. I mean, there’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did President Bush authorize this? I mean, you think about the aftermath of September 11th and all that a president would have to deal with, and yet here he is involved with the logistics and not even bringing in intelligence or the FBI to question all of those.
STEVE COLL: Well, they did bring in the FBI, in fairness, to question just about everybody. And my assessment is that there may have been one person aboard that plane who had been the subject of a previous and aborted FBI inquiry into a proselytizing organization that published anti-Semitic materials out of northern Virginia, not an organization that’s ever been accused of participating in terrorist violence, but which had been, because of its radical preaching materials, the subject of previous inquiries that had been shut down. So that person, perhaps, was not interviewed, as it’s a little bit difficult to tell from the documents that I’ve been able to obtain.
But, in any event, to go to your question—why did the White House authorize this—the White House—the counterterrorism director, Richard Clarke; the director of the FBI, Louis Freeh; the President—they had—they had been conditioned by American foreign policy to have very close and cooperative relations with the Saudi royal family. Prince Bandar bin Sultan had extraordinary access to the White House. So he smoked cigars on the balcony of the White House with the President two days after 9/11, and—
AMY GOODMAN: Known as “Bandar Bush.”
STEVE COLL: Bandar Bush, yes. And he had very close relations with the Vice President Dick Cheney dating back to the first Gulf War in 1990. So it would have been natural to accommodate an urgent request from him saying, “Hey, these people are innocent. They’re members of our government. We need to get them out.” And so, it almost happened without a second thought.
AMY GOODMAN: I assume there would have been lots of urgent requests at that point—
STEVE COLL: Yeah, you might think so.
AMY GOODMAN: —given that 3,000 people had died, and the Pentagon had been hit, and the World Trade Centers were down.
STEVE COLL: Yes, yes, you might think so.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Steve Coll. He is author of The Bin Ladens. And so, afterwards, in this six-year period since—almost seven years since the 2001 attacks, where is bin Laden? How did he get around? Of course, if you could tell us, I guess you wouldn’t be sitting here.
STEVE COLL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But how significant is he today?
STEVE COLL: I think he’s still of some significance. I think there are several aspects to that. He continues to make a lot of video and audio tape statements in which he tries to hold on to a narrative line about the war he believes that he’s waging and urge his followers in certain directions. He identifies targets. He talks about the legitimacy of his cause in ways that some people respond to, in any event. And so, it’s not the only voice on the jihadi media networks, but it is an important voice.
AMY GOODMAN: How did he elude the Americans in Afghanistan? And what is the role of Pakistan, the Pakistan government, military, intelligence services?
STEVE COLL: Yeah, he—I think the last—so far as I know, and it’s possible that we’ll learn more about things that have not come out since 9/11, but the last time the United States government had a clear angle to capture or kill him was in December of 2001, when he was up on the mountains at Tora Bora. And even by his own account that he’s now put out on some of his video and audio statements, he was under bombardment and under a lot of pressure, thought he was at the end. He wrote a will, and he was hunkered down. But the American military decided not to put its own troops on that hillside and used Afghan militia forces that weren’t very well motivated. They were essentially rented out for the operation, and they were facing an enemy in this group around Osama that was prepared to commit suicide rather than surrender. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And why did the US military not use their own soldiers?
STEVE COLL: Well, Tommy Franks, who was the commander of CENTCOM at the time, has said that the option he had was—there was a group called the 10th Mountain Division that was in Uzbekistan, trained, as you can tell by the title of the division, for fighting in altitude and in circumstances like Tora Bora. And the option was to take them and airlift them down behind this position where Osama was or was believed to be and kind of block him and then kind of close in on him from there. And Franks has said that he didn’t do it, because he was afraid that when he put American troops down into this population that he would enflame an uprising and sort of mess up the whole equation that they were trying to build as they overthrew the Taliban. Now, you know, that, in retrospect, turns out to have been a mistake in judgment about how the local population would have reacted, but, you know, nobody knew what they didn’t know at that time. Anyway, that was the decision. He was responsible for that decision. He’s defended it under criticism since then.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, do you believe that Osama bin Laden is alive?
STEVE COLL: Yeah, I do. I think he’s almost certainly in Pakistan. And to go back to your—the other part of your question, between Tora Bora, when he escaped into Pakistan, and today, he has benefited from the political-military context in Pakistan. He has many friends along that border. He’s worked there, on and off, for two decades. Many of the Islamist and radicalized clans, local clans, networks and leaders, militia leaders, Taliban leaders, are people he’s known, in many cases, or who he’s worked with for a long while and has a lot of confidence in. He was, certainly in the early period after 9/11, a very popular figure, almost seen as a spiritual, mystical figure that no one wished to betray. And he, at the same time, was, I think, sheltered by a Pakistani military and intelligence establishment that, because of the perverse bargain that the United States made with Pakistan’s military leader—
AMY GOODMAN: Pervez Musharraf.
STEVE COLL: Pervez Musharraf, they essentially had no incentive to find bin Laden. They came to believe—I think they had every reason to believe that if they found bin Laden, that more than $10 billion in direct US aid that the United States was providing to the army, much of it for essentially rental of counterterrorism operations, essentially un-audited money flowing at very large amounts from month to month—you would have every reason to believe that if you actually caught bin Laden, that pipeline would end or at least be restructured in some way that would deprive you of those funds. And so, it was a strange policy that essentially had the effect, in my judgment anyway, of incenting the Pakistan army not to find Osama.
And so, between the fact that he was among friends, that he was seen as a spiritual and righteous leader, and that the army and the intelligence services didn’t have incentives to find him, he has enjoyed—or, you know, what, just listening and reading in the texts of his messages, you know, is increasingly sort of peaceful exile. You can infer—safely infer some aspects of his life in exile. He has access to the news. He seems to watch satellite television or surf the internet. He seems to be reading books, probably in English. He took English in prep school. And I don’t know—I’m anxious to learn eventually what his exile has really been about. It’s possible that we could be surprised. Perhaps he’s living in Paris and has just been running the greatest deception operation in history. But I think he’s in Pakistan and most likely up along the border in some compound where he’s hunkered down, probably remarried, probably has a new family of some sort to keep him company.
AMY GOODMAN: And Mullah Omar?
STEVE COLL: Mullah Omar, I think, was for—almost certainly for a long while, between about 2002 and last year, in and around Quetta as part of a kind of passive strategy of the Pakistan army not to push too hard against the Taliban leadership. He was essentially allowed to lay low, by multiple accounts, in and around Quetta. I think, more recently, because of pressure on the Pakistan government to do something about the Taliban, he’s probably left Quetta and perhaps is now up on the border areas or someplace else. But obviously, if I knew…
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Osama bin Laden will ever be captured?
STEVE COLL: I do, actually. I actually think that it’s more likely that he’ll be captured in the next year or two than at any time since late 2001. That doesn’t mean he will be, but I think it’s more likely, because two things have happened that are really new and significant as context for his exile. One is, public opinion in Pakistan has changed dramatically in the last six or eight months. His personal approval rating, as measured by reliable polling, has collapsed because of this campaign of suicide bombings on Pakistani soil that he is seen to be inspiring and supporting. So his approval rating has fallen from the seventies down to the twenties, and in the frontier area, it’s in the single digits. That means that he no longer enjoys the broad popular support that has girded his exile, and it means that somebody may drop a dime on him, in a way that wasn’t true a little while ago.
And then, the other thing that’s happened is that the restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan has broken this crazy incentive structure at least some. Now you have a democratic government that came to power arguing, particularly in Washington, where they needed support for this restoration of democracy and for a change in policy that had been so heavily oriented towards Musharraf, they came to power arguing, “Look, we’re a much better counterterrorism strategy than the one you have. You should rely on us, not on authoritarian leaders, because if government is broadly based in Pakistan, then we will ultimately isolate and defeat the Islamists, because they are not a popular movement here. And you have to trust democracy to be a mechanism of this kind of political approach to the problem of terror.” And so, this civilian government actually has now an incentive to prove their case, and I think that they’ll be motivated to do what the army and the intelligence services weren’t motivated to do, which is to demonstrate that they can succeed where Musharraf failed. Now, that doesn’t mean they will, but at least somebody has an incentive in Pakistan to get back to the work.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Coll is the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His latest book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. If you’d like a copy of today’s broadcast, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. You can also go to the website to see our previous interview with Steve Coll on his previous book, Ghost Wars.
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