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Family ties; The Bin Ladens

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?”


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