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Empire Builders: Coll's new epic chronicles the powerful Bin Laden clan

They descend from a patriarch who made a fortune in the wild west of early 20th century capitalism. Their family history is haunted by airplane

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They descend from a patriarch who made a fortune in the wild west of early 20th century capitalism. Their family history is haunted by airplane crashes, illegitimate children, and the great expectations of a public life. Many of them were educated at elite preps schools and America's best universities. They are not the Kennedys, but another dynasty of sorts - the bin Ladens.

 
In this fascinating, well-told new book, Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll paints a vivid portrait of Saudia Arabia's most visible merchant class family. Americans became aware of them after one of Mohammed Bin Laden's 54 (legitimate) children, Osama, masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11th. But their name would not be news to anyone around the Middle East.

In Saudia Arabia, the bin Laden name was synonymous with building. Mohammed left the desert wild of Yemen and came to Saudi Arabia and earned a fortune as a foreman, at first through sweat labor and talent, and later by skillfully manipulating his connections to the royal family.


If the King needed a power station, Bin Laden would underbid the contract and build it - even if he had no experience in the realm. His small army of workers built roads and dams and even, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, Saudi military bases. Ultimately, Bin Laden's company helped renovate and restore some of the holiest sites in Islam.

Coll never lets the taint which Osama Bin Laden has brought to this family to color his writing. Instead, "The Bin Ladens" spins a straightforward family tale full of intrigue, close connections to the royal family, and in so doing tells us more about the man behind Al Qaeda than any other book published to date.

Given how many children he sired, Mohammed Bin Laden was an aloof, out-of-touch father. But he wasn't uninvolved. He met with his children annually, brought them to his construction sites, encouraged them to go to the best schools in the Middle East, and travel abroad.

One of the key figures to emerge from the portrait is not Osama, but his eldest half-brother Salem, a fast-living prankster educated in England who became the family hub after his father's plane crash. Unlike the quiet and shy Osama, he had the stamina and gregarious desire to keep the large family together.

But he has apparently done it his own way. Salem branched out into American real estate, buying up tracts of land outside Orlando, taking relatives to Disney World. After hemorrhoid surgery in the U.S., he liked to show pictures of his rear to the royal family. He dated Western women, collected small aircraft, and dolled out family allowances (which run toward $300,000 a year for heirs).

He's a striking contrast to Osama. He has managed being Saudi in the American century - even though he and his brothers were educated in cosmopolitan settings. Coll has done some serious digging and turns up some new information about Bin Laden's adolescence, which wasn't as wild and playboy as previously assumed.

Like Craig Unger, in "House of Bush, House of Saud," Coll correctly places Bin Laden at the prestigious Quaker Brummana High School in Lebanon, which several bin Ladens attended. But he gets some of the information about his classmates incorrect. That's a minor quibble in a large narrative, but it caused this reader to question what other small, but telling details might be slightly off-base.

Like "Ghost Wars," "The Bin Ladens" relies upon such details. Many of them here point to the importance of family in Bin Laden's life, of revenge, of the inherited ambition to something for the Kingdom. Here's one, though, that will be hard to forget. Five of the nineteen hijackers involved in 9/11 were recruited from the Saudi village where Bin Laden's father died in an airplane crash. The pilot of that plane was American.

John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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