A Family Affair


The Western world still understands little about the motivations behind the September 11, 2001 attacks nearly seven years after the fact. American journalist Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize winner, foreign correspondent, Washington Post managing editor and contributor to the New Yorker, details in his acclaimed 2004 book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001, that the events of that fateful September day were both predictable and would probably not have happened without the former assistance of the CIA.

"As the years passed", he argues, "these radical Islamic networks adopted some of the secret deception-laden tradecraft of the formal intelligence services [Western and Pakistani], methods they sometimes acquired through direct training."

In his new book, The Bin Ladens: The Story of a Family and its Fortune, Coll continues his thesis about the expansive Bin Laden family and its intimate relationships with the highest echelons of the American political elite. Osama Bin Laden is only one small part of the puzzle, his influence greatly exaggerated by a Western media keen to find a bogeyman for the rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

Just this week it was announced that Tarek bin Laden, a half-brother of Osama, plans to build a bridge from Yemen to Djibouti, forming a man-made link between the Middle East and Africa.

Speaking exclusively to newmatilda.com, Coll says that his impression of Afghanistan, where he was based in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was of a nation abandoned by the entire world. "It was like a ghost country", he recalls. The Cold War had ended, the Soviets had lost and the West ignored the rumblings of the Afghan people. Coll believes that America should have remained engaged and assisted the re-building, something that could have possibly even averted September 11. "We had a responsibility to help and we failed. This was clear to see during the late 1980s in Kabul and elsewhere."

Although he hasn’t seen the recent film Charlie Wilson’s War – the story of a US Congressmen and his band of merry men who provided weapons for the mujahadeen in the 1980s – he is highly critical of successive American administrations that ignored Afghanistan "until it was too late." Now, with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calling the situation in the country "grim", Coll wonders what it will take to refocus the Western mind back to the "good war". Like many liberal interventionists, he believes some wars are worth fighting. Iraq is not one of them, he regularly stresses.

Coll was in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001 and initially didn’t recognise the severity of the attacks. It soon became clear, however, that "Bin Laden was sending a strong message to America". Having read, "everything [Bin Laden] has ever written" Coll says that his message to the Muslim world was widely accepted because he was expressing publicly what many people thought privately. The Western perception, incorrectly in Coll’s views, that Bin Laden only "discovered" the Palestinian cause in the years after September 11 is contrary to his family’s long association with the occupied nation. The 1973 Yom Kippur war was a turning point for him, Coll explains in the book, "as a touchstone of his anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic viewpoints".

At the beginning of the book, Coll compellingly reveals the close association of the Bin Laden family to the Reagan administration and its possible funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. He also details Saudi support for the Afghan rebels against the Soviets consolidated the tight bond between the two nations. Osama flew to London in 1986 to help negotiate the purchase of surface-to-air missiles for Arab fighters. His brother, Salem, is said to have told participants at the meeting: "Don’t do any jokes with my brother. He’s very religious."

The Bin Ladens, probably under pressure from the Saudi regime in 1993, expelled Osama from ownership of the family business. This event, and subsequent pressure by the regime on the Sudanese to kick him out of the country, began his gradual path to violent anger against the United States.

The monarchy’s brutality – its gender apartheid confirmed recently by Human Rights Watch – was inconsequential to elites in both countries who thrived on the successes of the other. "Oil is what holds them together, and always will", Coll told newmatilda.com. Occasional mistrust didn’t greatly dent the closeness – including the planting of a listening device in the desk presented to Saudi Prince Nayef in the 1970s – though the author notes the interior minister had a long memory and reduced his co-operation with the US after the September 11 attacks.

The author tells newmatilda.com that he would love to meet Osama Bin Laden "and ask about his personal life", something rarely discussed in the public record. "I’d want to know how his upbringing shaped his view of the West and Saudi Arabia." Coll’s fascination with the Bin Laden family started well before September 11, but has only intensified in the years since.

I ask him if, like Robert Fisk – who now argues that Osama "is partly irrelevant … The monster has been born. It’s al-Qaeda we have to deal with" – he believes that capturing Osama is almost an irrelevance. "Iraq has done more to help al-Qaeda than anything else", Coll responds.

He believes that Osama is hiding on Pakistani soil in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, near the city of Miram Shah. Coll told Der Spiegel: "Bin Laden knows the area like the back of his hand. It is controlled by the Haqqani clan, in which he has deep roots. Pakistan’s army doesn’t dare enter the region."

Coll, softly spoken and determined to paint a balanced view of a family he calls "one of the great stories of the 20th century", is convinced that more terror attacks against America are inevitable. "This is certainly the year for the Democrats", he says, "unless, of course, something major happens."

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