by Neil MacKay
THERE isn’t a doubt in the mind of Arabella Warburton. “The bin Laden family are thoroughly good people,” she says. “They’ve castigated Osama bin Laden. They’ve distanced themselves from him and they’ve issued statements condemning the attacks on America. It’s just unfair to cast doubt on them. It’s guilt by association.” In the recesses of the Middle East where extremes meet, dismay at the loss of innocent lives was tempered with happier emotions ranging from quiet satisfaction to open celebration.
The Great Satan had been made to suffer. Wall-to-wall satellite coverage of the stricken burning towers provided easy confirmation that the world’s only superpower was vulnerable to the strikes of the righteous; that it might be possible to eliminate its evil monopoly of power, influence and greed. Fearing that any outburst of enthusiasm might damage them in Washington’s eyes Arab leaders from Yasser Arafat to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak clamped down on any dancing in the streets but the censorship did not extend to what went on inside people’s minds. Half a century ago the American-Jewish writer Ben Hecht infamously said that every time a British soldier fell victim to a Jewish terrorist in the last days of the British mandate in Palestine, he took “a little holiday in his heart” In the past few days some Arabs, not all of them fundamentalists or terrorists, have indulged in a long vacation.
It was not a widespread feeling and it was expressed by a small minority but throughout the Middle East and within the Islamic world in general it was fired by a brooding dislike of the US and all its works. Much of it is caused by poverty and dispossession, not least in the teeming Palestinian refugee camps, and the mood of those caught up in the web of suffering is heightened by a belief that a US- led conspiracy is the reason for all their misfortunes. The dilution of Islamic religious and cultural values is another reason for the widespread anti-American feeling: the downgrading of Islamic religious law, ignorance about the teachings of the Koran and the break-up of the Islamic community with its concept of inclusiveness, all of which have encouraged the extremists. When Palestinians drove through Gaza waving flags and firing off Kalashnikovs they were expressing a rumbling belief that the US had it coming to them and that the use of airliners as missiles was a suitable payback for years of western repression and a long history of betrayal by the great powers.
Their joy had nothing to do with the huge loss of life in Washington and New York City — Islam deplores unnecessary killing, especially of the innocent, and outside the extremists suicide is not regarded as a virtuous act — but it has everything to do with the fact that the US had been discomfited as mayhem came to the streets of Manhattan. On one level their schadenfreude was fuelled by ideological and religious differences, an abhorrence of Coca-Cola culture, contempt for the half-witted pornography which clogs the internet and disdain for the greed-is-good outlook which seems to them to characterise so much of American life to the exclusion of simpler values. On another related level, many Arabs in the Middle East cannot understand the unstinting support which is granted to Israel and which allows ordinary Palestinians to be gunned down without a smidgen of international protest. In their judgment, by backing Israel’s policy of colonisation in Palestinian territory, the US has engaged in a hostile act which fully justifies the antagonism and the violence.
Both reasons combine to provide a focus for the burning sense of injustice which underpins any discussion about the US amongst hardline Muslims in the Middle East. All around them can be found examples of interference and the recent history of the region provides ample fuel to stoke those embers. Israel came into being in May 1948 largely as a result of Washington’s prompting — President Truman’s administration exerted tremendous pressure on Britain to end its UN mandate in Palestine and in so doing half a million Palestinians were expelled from their homes as the new state was born. Ever since that violent birth the country has enjoyed favoured client-state status, giving the impression that US and Israeli interests march hand-in-glove and that Israel is little more than the 51st state. Throughout the years of confrontation with the neighbouring Arab states, including three major wars, and the peace process which tried to end it, the US has stood accused of favouring Zionist interests while ignoring the claims of Islam. And allied to this has been the not unfounded suspicion that the Jewish lobby within the US has been an important source of votes for successive presidents.
“The link between Israel and American Jewry is vital to both sides,” argues David A. Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee. “This link, however, cannot simply be taken for granted. If it begins to fray, it could have catastrophic consequences. Israel is absolutely indispensable to the Jewish identity of American Jews. Israel makes American Jews stand taller. Israel’s miraculous rebirth, sheer survival and remarkable development should be sources of immense pride to Jews everywhere.”
As with most injustices, real and imagined, the grounds for the argument are easily proved but the problem itself is less easily solved. Weapons and military muscle are the most obvious point of connection. In 1962, fearing that the Soviet Union was gaining a strategic advantage in the Middle East by supplying Egypt with strategic bombers President John F. Kennedy agreed to sell Hawk anti- aircraft missiles to Israel, thereby overturning the State Department’s objections that Israel was strong enough to defend itself. The sale began a a trend which culminated in the supply of Patriot missiles at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, a move which was instrumental in dissuading Israel from taking unilateral action against Baghdad after it had been attacked by Scud missiles.
The benefits of that special relationship became apparent in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, a conflict which could have been lost but for US intervention. After a week of heavy fighting and setbacks Israel was running out of supplies and ammunition and facing the possibility that the Soviet Union might intervene with airborne forces to save the surrounded Egyptian Third Army on the east bank of the Suez Canal. Anguished calls for help were answered on October 24 when President Richard Nixon put the US on a heightened state of war readiness — DefCon 3, the same level ordered by President George W Bush last week — and ordered two carrier task forces into the eastern Mediterranean. Two days later Moscow backed down, Israel was saved and just as importantly it did not carry out a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons.
“For Israel, the special relationship with the United States has been of fundamental importance,” claims Professor Robert J Lieber of Washington’s Georgetown University. “During the height of the Cold War this worked to counterbalance what could otherwise have been dangerously strong intervention from the Soviet Union.”
Finance was also part of the equation. In the last 25 years Israel has received over $50 billion in US aid and during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure at the White House a free trade treaty was signed, a move which opened up the entire US market so that by 1995 the volume of trade was worth $11 billion. To put that piece of diplomacy into perspective the treaty was agreed long before similar agreements were reached with neighbouring Mexico and Canada. The wellspring of sympathy shown by post-war presidents also cemented the relationship: asked by the Soviet leader Aleksei Kosygin why the US supported three million Israelis when there were 80 million
Arabs, President Lyndon B. Johnson replied, “Because it is right.” Only George Bush senior(who positively disliked his opposite number Yitzhak Shamir) and Dwight D. Eisenhower were considered to be lukewarm to Israeli aspirations while President Jimmy Carter had a passionate emotional attachment which sprang from his reading of the bible.
One result of that empathy was the Camp David agreement of September 1978 which brokered a courageous deal with Egypt but Carter always insisted that in wanting to intervene in the Middle East to create peace he saw the scriptures as less of a religious text and more of a living history: “The bible stories are woven into into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of prosecution is also woven into our souls . . . I consider this homeland for the Jews to be compatible with the teaching of the bible, hence ordained by God. These moral and religious beliefs made my commitment to the security of Israel unshakable.”
Carter’s role in bringing together the age-old enemies Israel and Egypt began a lengthy involvement in the peace process which stretched into the next two decades and which resulted in the Oslo peace accords of 1993. As the talks progressed the US was seen, rightly so, as the only powerbroker which could effect an agreement and so it proved. With Washington’s support the land for peace deal came into being and with it a belief that Israeli and Palestinian interests could be harmonised. As it turned out most of the optimism of that heady period was illusion and the high hopes quickly ran into the sands, mainly as a result of Israeli concerns about the security of the homeland. With the election last year of the hardline Ariel Sharon a new clash became inevitable and when it came Palestinians started being killed in droves as civilians faced Israeli armour on the streets. All this violence was laid at America’s feet and the images of Israeli brutality only seemed to confirm the view held by many Arabs — that by refusing to condemn these actions the US was colluding in them. Even when Israeli tanks rumbled into Jericho and Jenin last week, bringing the Palestinian death toll in the current intifada to 573 the attack received little attention from a world still focussed on events in downtown Manhattan. Arafat protested as best he could but his voice was ignored and to rub in salt Sharon told the US Secretary of State Colin Powell that the Palestinian leader was no better that Osama bin Laden and his “coalition of terror”.
That failure to bring Israel to heel has also put strains on Washington’s relationship with Arab states which remain nominally friendly and have been partners in the peace process. Neighbouring Jordan has strong historical ties with the US and Britain but it also possesses a large Palestinian population whose patience is being tested by events on the other side of the River Jordan. The new leader, King Abdullah II has shown himself to be a deft performer in balancing his Israeli links with opinion in the rest of the Arab world but at this crucial juncture he dare not enter into too close a relationship with the US. The same holds true for Egypt where Mubarak has had to contend with his own battle against hostile Islamic fundamentalist groups and has enemies in the wider Arab world. Both men have expressed their revulsion for the attacks on New York and Washington but their loyalty would be stretched if the US makes a retaliatory strike which produces large numbers of Arab casualties.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are in similar positions, being oil-rich and therefore in a strategic partnership with the west. Their interests are bound up with, and protected by, that relationship but they, too, have to keep it at arm’s length. Opponents of the regimes have lambasted the failure to put pressure on the US over its perceived bias towards Israel and the criticism could grow shriller. Their governments know that there will be further strains in the coming weeks as they face calls for support from Bush and growing demands from their own people to ignore them. With nothing to lose, as he is still a pariah as far as Washington and London are concerned, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein applauded the attacks but across his eastern border the dilemma facing many Arabs was expressed by Iran’s reformist leader Mohammad Khatemi. For years, under the rule of the extremist ayatollahs, Iran was the focus of the bulk of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East but under the new regime there has been a softening in the approach with words of comfort being sent from Tehran to Washington but the generosity would never survive any attack on a fellow Islamic country.
Underpinning that unease is the wider belief that the west and the US in particular must bear a responsibility for much of the violence which has disfigured the Middle East in recent years — the bloody Israeli war against Lebanon in 1982, the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and the the sanctions regime and the bombing campaign which followed it. As has become all too painfully clear, that policy is not only failing to achieve anything but it has led to incredible hardship for thousands of ordinary Iraqi people while Saddam and his henchmen remain relatively unscathed. The absence of medical care, the lack of funds and equipment to restore the infrastructure and the indifference to local suffering have combined to create conditions which younger Iraqis will neither forget nor forgive. There is also a growing belief in the Arab world that the sanctions are not even- handed and are being imposed simply to bring down a rogue regime by whatever methods come to hand. As for the routine bombing of targets in the air-exclusion zones in northern and southern Iraq these are rarely reported even though the attacks produce casualties, not all of them military.
For many Arabs there seems to be one rule for them and another for the west and its ally Israel. In 1988 a US Aegis class destroyer, the USS Vincennes, mistook an Iranian airliner for an attacking warplane and shot it down, killing 290 passengers and crew but the incident was only the cause of “deep regret” and no US commander was punished. This was in stark contrast to an Israeli attack on the intelligence- gathering ship USS Liberty in 1967: although 34 sailors were killed the incident was hushed up and forgotten in order to protect Israeli interests at the time. That feeling of exclusion extends to the way events are reported and the past is remembered. In the aftermath of last week’s attacks other “Islamic atrocities” were recalled — the destruction of the three western airliners at Dawson Field in Jordan in 1970 and the execution of a US naval diver during the hijacking of a TWA airliner 15 years later — but no one resurrected the attack by Jewish terrorists on the King David Hotel in June 1946 which killed 91 and injured many more. As for the subsequent hanging of three British sergeants in an orange grove by way of retaliation for the execution of Jewish terrorists, that is remembered not at all.
Not that the US has not suffered itself at the hands of Arab terrorism and, of course, in the past few weeks dozens of Israelis have fallen victim to Palestinian suicide bombers. In recent years the US has had three of its ambassadors murdered, 49 people were killed when the embassy in Beirut was car-bombed in 1983, an atrocity which was overshadowed by the killing of 24 marines in the same city a few months later, in December 1988 a Pan Am airliner was blown up over Lockerbie and 270 lost their lives and in 1996 19 marines were blown up in their barracks at Khubar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. All were by-products of US involvement in the region — the support for Israel, the attacks on Iraq, the naval and military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf — yet far from appeasing the hatred, the attacks and the retaliation only served to inspire the extremists.
Small wonder that so many younger Arabs in the Middle East are attracted to the groups which exist on the verges of the world of
Islam and throw in their lot with terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, all of which are prepared to use violence as a means of achieving their aim of winning a Palestinian homeland. When they see the failure of the peace process and the inability of their leaders to gain any ground in the discussions with Israel they turn their thoughts to other means of confrontation, with predictable results. The suicide bomber might be a terrible manifestation of their frustration but at least he gains headlines and takes the battle to the heart and soul of the perceived enemy, Israel. At a time when Arafat and his cohorts from the once revered Palestine Liberation Organisation had completed the familiar transition from terrorists to statesmen a growing army of young and disillusioned Arabs see nothing terribly wrong with joining the alliance of fellow Palestinians who want to avenge their plight through the use of more violent methods.
And yet, it would be a dangerous folly to suppose that all Arabs in the Middle East operate under an unconditional hatred of the US or nurse violence in their hearts. The words “Islamic fundamentalist terrorist” are not the same combination as “pepper and salt” or “oil and vinegar” and there is a danger that in demonising the world of Islam or making wild and vengeful calls for retaliation the west will only reinforce the cycle of mistrust which creates the conditions for violence. One simple fact remains true: to react to any atrocity by abandoning the self-control imposed by the democratic state is to give comfort and a cause to the terrorist.
Warburton, the private secretary of former Tory Prime Minister John Major, needs to be confident about this. Her boss is, after all, the European chairman of the Carlyle Group, an international merchant bank that took nearly (pounds) 1.5 million directly from the bin Laden family. Not everyone shares her confidence, however. Intelligence sources say they are in the dark about the exact nature of the relationship between bin Laden and his huge extended family, which includes more than 50 brothers and sisters of him alone from the four wives of Osama’s father.
The vast majority of the bin Ladens have truly disowned Osama, as the family have continually told the world since 1994. But there is proof that a few rogue members are still in contact with Osama and may hold dangerously similar political beliefs. The lingering fear is whether or not this means Osama still has some sort of financial link to the family or even, through them, access to the corridors of power in Saudi Arabia and beyond.
This isn’t a family with just one aberrant son. If you look below the surface, Osama is not the only member of the family with links to terrorism. One of Osama’s brothers was involved in an attack in Saudi Arabia, another helped Osama flee the country when he was under effective house arrest, and a brother-in-law has been linked by the CIA to the attack last year on the USS Cole in Yemen by Osama’s terror group, al-Qaeda (“the base”).
While the family say publicly that they have no contact with Osama, that is not quite the case. Certainly, the world’s most wanted man is still close to some of his relatives. He phoned his stepmother, Al-Khalifa bin Laden, two days before the terrorist attacks on America to tell her “something big” was about to happen. Osama and his stepmother, who raised him after the death of his natural mother, had been planning a meeting in the Middle East somewhere, say wire-tappers with the US National Security Agency, who listened in on the call. Bin Laden told her they would be unable to meet and she wouldn’t hear from him for a while.
Following the phone call, which Al-Khalifa received while on holiday in Damascus — the suspected venue of her proposed meeting with Osama — she and her family party were interviewed by police and intelligence officers on their return to Saudi Arabia on September 12, a day after the attacks. According to security sources, most of the rest of the family, who are scattered across America and Europe, also returned to Saudi Arabia after the attacks, for fear of reprisal.
There are also reports that Osama’s step-mother and other family members attended the marriage of his son in Kandahar in Afghanistan earlier this year.
The bin Laden family is one of the richest and most influential clans on earth. They tap into a worldwide network of wealth and power, which in turn connects bin Laden to some of the most heavyweight figures of influence on the globe.
United States officials believe that at least two of the more junior members of the family have maintained contact with Osama. Two brothers-in-law — Mohammed Jamal Khalifa and Saad al-Sharif — are alleged to have financial connections to al-Qaeda. Khalifa, who is based in Saudi Arabia, is suspected by US intelligence of using a charity called the International Islamic Relief Organisation to finance Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. These terror groups are also connected to al-Qaeda. Vincent Cannistraro, the former CIA chief of counter-terrorism, said Khalifa may also have funded the Islamic Army of Aden, which claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole. Khalifa was detained briefly in the US in 1994 after immigration officials discovered that he had been sentenced to death in Jordan in absentia for “conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts”.
One of bin Laden’s brothers, Mahrous — who was once arrested over his connections to armed Islamists in Saudi Arabia — is currently manager of the Saudi Binladin Group, the family’s multibillion- dollar business, at its branch in Medina.
After studying in England in the 1970s, Mahrous struck up a friendship with members of the Muslim Brothers, a Syrian Islamic fundamentalist organisation then in exile in Saudi Arabia. Members of this organisation used bin Laden company trucks to get weapons into the city of Mecca in 1979 when at least 500 dissidents invaded and seized the Grand Mosque. The organisation justified the attack by saying the Saudi regime had lost its legitimacy through “corruption, ostentation and mindless imitation of the West”.
All the men who took part in the attack were later beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities but Mahrous was freed from prison after a period of detention. Saudi intelligence later said that the bin Ladens were the only people in possession of full maps of Mecca. It is believed that the bin Ladens’ close relationship with the Saudi royal family saved Mahrous.
The bin Laden dynasty was founded by Osama’s father, Mohammed. He emigrated to Saudi Arabia from Yemen early in the 20th century and cosied up to King Abdul Aziz by doing a bargain-basement construction job on a royal palace. He later pulled off a series of contracts that would cement the family’s position as one of the most powerful clans on the Arabian peninsula — the exclusive rights to renovate the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
This established an industrial, financial and political empire that today stretches around the globe. Mohammed even became minister of public works for a time. With their father’s position consolidated in Saudi, his children began to create an international network of power-players for themselves. The bin Laden boys were sent to study in Egypt’s prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria, where their schoolmates included Prince Hussein, who later became king of Jordan, the actor Omar Sharif, and the Khashoggi brothers, whose family were infamous for arms dealing.
Osama’s brother, Salem bin Laden, took over as head of the family after his father’s death in a plane crash in 1968. He was one of Saudi ruler King Fahd’s closest friends until he also died in a plane crash in Texas in 1988. Salem was educated at Millfield boarding school in Somerset and he acquired US properties in Florida and New England. A number of family members live in Boston.
The bin Ladens also cannily befriended t
he Saudi king’s sons and helped them get their first start in the business world — a surefire way of keeping the clan right at the heart of Saudi power for future generations.
Since the death of Salem, the command of the business empire has rested with his eldest son, Bakr. He and 13 of Salem’s brothers — including Mahrous — make up the board of the Binladin Group. Salem’s other son, Ali, who studied in Paris, at one time held discussions with French weapons companies about strengthening links to the Saudi defence ministry.
Most of the bin Laden sons were educated at private schools in England and expensive universities in Britain and America, but Osama stayed to study in the Middle East. He did, however, flirt with a Western lifestyle for a short while in the late 1970s when compatriots remember him drinking and fighting over women in the then decadent Lebanese capital, Beirut.
By the 1980s, the Binladin Group was representing foreign companies in Saudi Arabia, ranging from Audi and Porsche to the UK’s Hunting Surveys Ltd. In London, the Binladin Group took over Evered Holdings but most of its international activities were routed through the Geneva offices of the Saudi Investment Company (SICO), which was set up in May 1980.
The Saudi Investment Company is chaired by Beatrice Dufour, of Iranian origin and sister-in-law of one of the bin Laden brothers, Yeslam. In 1983, her co-chairman, Baudoin Dunant, represented Swiss banker Franois Genoud, who had helped finance Arab extremists in Algeria and was on trial for participation in international terrorism.
The board of directors included members of the Shakarshi family, linked to a money-laundering scandal and drug-trafficking in Zurich. A member of the Shakarshi family was also a director of the SICO office in London. There have been allegations that the Zurich company was a CIA front used to finance Afghan resistance — in which bin Laden was a prime mover — during the Soviet occupation of the country. Yeslam bin Laden continues to maintain relations with the Shakarshis.
The bin Laden family — and Yeslam in particular — have long- standing links to Al Bilad, a London-Geneva company used as part of the negotiations over the Anglo-Saudi Al Yamama arms-for-oil agreement, which was worth (pounds) 21.5 billion. Present at the negotiations was the now disgraced former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, sent by John Major to represent the UK. Major claims he has no connection to the bin Laden family, despite his links to them through his job as European chairman of the Carlyle Group. Mark Thatcher was also involved in the Al Yamama deal.
Major is not the only significant world leader to be dragged into this mess. The Carlyle Group also counts former US President George Bush senior among its team. The former president even met the bin Laden family in Jidda in November 1998.
Current President George W Bush is also tangentially linked to Osama. Bush’s lifelong friend James Bath acted as a representative in Texas for Osama’s older brother, Salem, between 1976 and 1988. Bath bought real estate for the family, including Houston Gulf Airport.
Other companies and organisations connected to the Binladin Group family business include General Electric — the most valuable US company — and Citigroup, the biggest US bank, as well as Motorola, Quaker, Nortel, Unilever, Cadbury Schweppes and the investment bank ABN Amro. Judicial Watch, the Washington DC legal watchdog, said any company dealing with the Binladin Group was “disloyal to the US”. The UK mobile phone group, Multitone, suspended business with the Binladin Group immediately after the September 11 attacks.
Then there are the academic institutions linked to the family. Dale Eickelman is the current bin Laden visiting fellow at Oxford University’s Centre for Islamic Studies, which is financed to the tune of $150,000 ((pounds) 100,000) by Osama’s family. Harvard University has fellowships endowed by the family worth $2m ((pounds) 1.35m), and Tufts University in America received $300,000 ((pounds) 200,000) from the bin Ladens.
The irony of the bin Laden network is hard to miss. A few years ago, when Saudi Arabia was in fear of attacks on its soil by al- Qaeda, signs outside Prince Sultan Air Base, where US service personnel are stationed, read: “Security upgrades by Binladin Group”. The same signs were in Aden last year when FBI agents arrived to investigate the bombing of the USS Cole. The bin Ladens, it seems, are on both sides of the terrorist war. He blows things up and his family rebuild them.
Sitting in his office at Boston University, Professor Adil Najam — one of the world’s best authorities on bin Laden and his relatives — came up with a rather neat little aphorism to explain the strange relationship between the world’s most wanted man and his “unfortunate” family.
“The bin Ladens,” he said, “must look at Osama with the same horror and disbelief that a Rockefeller would see one of their own errant sons if he became a communist.”
It is a well-turned phrase but it doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, the Rockefellers — despite being the capitalist dream made flesh — have long been plagued with allegations that they sent funds to Russia’s Bolsheviks to protect their own interests, which came primarily in the shape of barrels of crude oil. As one former intelligence source said: “Who the hell knows what goes on inside families?”