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BOOK REVIEW

A legacy of money, blood

The Bin Ladens An Arabian Family in the American Century Steve Coll The Penguin Press: 672 pp., $35

April 01, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Life, as Kierkegaard pointed out, can only be understood retrospectively, but we must live it prospectively.

It's a disjunctive paradox, as true for the lives of nations as it is for those of individuals. Steve Coll's stunningly researched and grippingly told new book, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century," is the kind of history that naturally gives rise to such large thoughts.

In essence, it proposes not so much an alternate history of the 20th century but an account of one that occurred simultaneous to our usual collective recollection of the last 100 years. While the great struggles of the American Century -- world wars, depression, imperialism, the fights with right- and left-wing totalitarianisms -- were preoccupying us, out of sight and beyond our Western and essentially secular understanding, men, ideas and appetites born of a desert waste were conjoining in ways that created the first great challenge of this new era, the confrontation with Islamic jihadism.

Could this have been foreseen? Could something different have been done? It's possible, though not likely. One can't realistically imagine the degree of disinterested foresight and wisdom that would have made the difference. History as good as the sort Coll has written here sobers as well as enlightens. The author brings formidable credentials to his task. He's the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret operations in Afghanistan -- "Ghost Wars" -- and won another Pulitzer for explanatory journalism while a reporter for the Washington Post, where he later served as a foreign correspondent and managing editor.

"The Bin Ladens" now joins Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" and Mary Habeck's too-often overlooked "Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror" as the books that ought to be read by anyone who really wants to understand the origins of the current crisis.

Coll's book is important because -- the title notwithstanding -- it's really a history of two families, the Bin Laden and Al-Saud, whose patriarch Abdulaziz Ibn Saud "walked out of Kuwait in 1902 with a sword, some camels and a small band of followers to reclaim, in his family's name, the mud-walled town of Riyadh in the central Arabian plateau, and the paltry realm it oversaw." Thirty blood-soaked years later, he "announced at last the formation of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." A few years after Abdulaziz stormed out of Kuwait, an impoverished, one-eyed teenage boy named Mohammed Bin Laden walked north out of his native Yemen to the Arabian port city of Jeddah in search of work. Eventually, he would found a construction and trading company that would become Saudi Arabia's largest, with holdings that, today, extend around the globe -- including the United States.

There are hundreds of Bin Ladens -- survivors from among Mohammed's more than 50 children and their descendents -- and Coll's book gives ample attention to the most infamous of the patriarch's progeny, Osama.

Careful readers of the torrent of post-9/11 journalism and book-length studies won't find too much that's new or surprising here, though a couple of very important facts about Al Qaeda's co-founder are nailed down conclusively. One has to do with precisely when and how he became radicalized. Coll reports that it occurred while he was attending an elite high school in Jeddah and came under the profound influence of an Egyptian instructor, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama apparently joined the brotherhood as a teenager. Given the way he ultimately turned on the Sauds, it's ironic that the teacher was one of a large number of Egyptian and Syrian exiles to whom the Saudi royal family had given shelter, believing that their religious ideology might be used as a counterweight to the secularism of Nasser and the Baathists. (Thus, the Saudis have suffered from "blowback" no less than the Americans did in Afghanistan or as did those elements of the Israeli Likud who thought Hamas could be encouraged as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Radical Islam turns out to be a tiger nobody can safely ride.)

Osama bin Laden was predisposed to accept such influence, a shy and deeply religious boy who moved somewhat on the fringes of his family because his mother -- whom his father quickly divorced -- was herself a Syrian, whose family may have had ties to that country's heterodox Alawite sect. (Osama was but one of seven sons born to Mohammed and his various wives in one year.) The very orthodox Bin Ladens looked down on Alawites, just as the Sauds -- natives of the geneology-obsessed Nejaz region -- always have looked down on the Bin Ladens, as Yemenites.

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