The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century
by Steve Coll
(Penguin, $35)

Osama bin Laden founded al Qaida two months after his oldest brother, Salem, was killed while flying an ultralight in Texas. Salem bin Laden had lived in a world of luxury. As head of the Saudi Arabia­–based construction empire their late father had built, Salem enjoyed collecting guitars, cars, and women. To win a bet, he once proposed marriage to four Western girlfriends at once, losing the wager because only three accepted. Despite their lifestyle differences, Mohamed bin Laden’s first- and 17th-born sons remained surprisingly close, says author Steve Coll. Two years before Salem’s 1988 death, the playboy and the prayer leader paired up in London to negotiate an arms deal for Osama’s Afghan fighters. Had Salem lived to wield his influence over his younger brother, Coll says, Osama’s religious radicalism might not have bent itself toward mass terrorism.

Coll’s new history of the bin Laden family offers “the most psychologically detailed portrait” of Osama yet published, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. From the moment it introduces us to Osama’s father, as he begins seeking his fortune in the Saudi city of Jeddah, the book gives readers a “novelistic” sense of how oil wealth transformed the Middle East and eventually ignited Osama’s rage. Competence apparently wasn’t Mohamed bin Laden’s calling card, said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. He won the patronage of the Saudi royal family through “sycophancy and simple bribery,” and the family firm wound up botching the renovations of some of Islam’s holiest sites. It’s possible Osama came to see even his own family as corrupted by the West.

Coll’s “marvelous” book illuminates a “fundamental, perhaps unavoidable, misunderstanding” at the heart of the family saga, said Amir Taheri in the New York Post. Though Salem and many of Osama’s 50-odd other
siblings embraced American business opportunities, they generally shared Osama’s misperception that the U.S. was nothing but a hedonist’s bazaar, “a giant version of Ali Baba’s cave.” Salem liked America, in other words, but for “the wrong reasons.” Osama, of course, tried to destroy America, “also for the wrong reasons.”