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A wealthy clan and its renegade

cover image

The bin Laden family

One week after two flights took off from Boston's Logan airport and began a sneak attack on New York City, a chartered 727 left Logan with several members of Osama bin Laden's extended family onboard, headed for Saudi Arabia. The FBI had warned them it was not safe to stay in the U.S. Many Americans were probably surprised to learn that relatives of bin Laden had been living in the U.S. for years, that his brother Abdullah practiced law in Boston, that his nephew Faisal was at the University of New Hampshire. But this family has little in common with their notorious relation. They are an economic dynasty, created by a self-made man. Osama has been the family's shame, as if some renegade Rockefeller decided to become a terrorist.

Osama's father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden emigrated from Yemen to Saudi Arabia as a bricklayer and slowly built the largest Saudi construction firm. His secret was winning the trust of the Saudi King, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, who reigned from 1932 to 1953. The King asked bin Laden to rebuild the sacred city of Mecca, and ever since, the bin Ladens have been responsible for construction in Mecca and Medina. After Mohammed's death in a plane crash in 1967, his sons built Saudi BinLaden Group into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Recent ventures include building a freeway around Riyadh, expanding King Khaled Airport and constructing a base for U.S. troops. According to the Wall Street Journal, the family has invested $2 million in an investment fund run by the Carlyle Group, a merchant bank specializing in buyouts of defense companies. Former President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker have ties to the investment house, and both have visited the family in Saudi Arabia over the past three years.

Today the Saudi conglomerate is run by 13 of Osama's 51 siblings. They remain close to the royal family, which has given them crucial contracts. Several Saudi princes have begun their careers in business chaperoned by the bin Ladens. But that relationship was tested when Osama began advocating rebellion after King Fahd allowed American troops into Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The government exiled Osama, and his family quickly renounced him. Not long after the Sept. 11 attack, Osama's uncle and family patriarch Abdullah, speaking from his home in Jidda, declared the family's "strong denunciation and condemnation of this tragic incident."

Osama is hurting business. Saudi BinLaden Group, which has joint ventures with companies ranging from General Electric to Snapple, is now suffering the indignity of having a $2 million donation to Harvard criticized by Cambridge's city council, which has called the money tainted and is urging the school to pass it on to relief efforts. A British cellular firm suspended its partnership with the group.

Osama has four wives and more than 10 children. He married his first wife, a Syrian girl, when he was 17. More recently he has used marriage as a strategic tool. He married one of his daughters to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden's eldest son, Mohammed, wed the daughter of bin Laden lieutenant Mohammed Atef. The 19-year-old bin Laden is reportedly learning his father's business by guarding Osama's tent at night with an AK-47.



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Cover Date: October 8, 2001

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