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|09/25/02 at 00:05:49|
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An Interview with Abdullah Mohammed Binladin the half-brother of Usama Bin Laden
In Cambridge, a Binladin breaks family silence
By Marcella Bombardieri and Neil Swidey, 10/7/2001
The woman behind the counter at Starbucks was crying. Between sobs, she said
something about a plane, something about the World Trade Center.
The man grabbed his tall latte and rushed back to his apartment, turning on the
television just before the second jetliner crashed into the second tower.
For a while, the nightmare of Sept. 11 was the same for him as it was for so many
others in the United States. He was anxious about his friends in New York. He
wondered how anyone could harm so many people.
It was only when that name surfaced on television, the name of the suspected
terrorist behind the attacks, that Abdullah Mohammed Binladin began to understand
that he was not all right, and that his life was about to change forever.
''I felt sad, that this is a tragedy for humanity,'' said Abdullah Binladin , who
has lived in Cambridge for much of the last decade, earning a master's and
Ph.D.doctorate from Harvard Law School. ''And I felt, this is a tragedy for our
family. How will people look at our family?''
The 35-year-old Binladin is among the youngest of 54 children born to numerous
wives of the late Mohammed Bin-Awad Binladin. Only 50 of those children are still
with the family. Three have died. One is accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin
Laden, whom the family disowned in 1994.
The success of the $5 billion-a-year Binladin family business has come from
linking the Western and Islamic worlds, from expanding the mosque in Mecca to
building military support facilities for US forces in Saudi Arabia during the
Gulf War. Now, everyone from scholars to average citizens are is pondering that
link: How such an international family, most of them educated in the West,
produced a son who represents the opposite of has declared war against so much
that the family holds important.
It's a question the lean, soft-spoken Abdullah has struggled with in the lonely
period since Sept. 11. His life since then has become almost unrecognizable: The
man who loved jogging along the Charles has avoided any interactions with
strangers who could ''hear the name and get angry or upset or horrified.'' He has
stopped using his credit card and suspended his hobby of flying single-engine
planes, for fear of reactions he might get. ''I've tried to keep a low profile
and use cash as much as possible,'' he said.
All 11 other Binladin relatives in the Boston area, Abdullah's nieces and
nephews, boarded a chartered Saudi jet and left Boston on Sept. 19.
Abdullah stayed behind.
On Thursday, he spoke to the Globe for five hours in his Cambridge apartment, the
only interview any Binladin, anywhere, has granted since Sept. 11. Abdullah spoke
mostly about his family's educational ties to Boston and his fondness for the
city. There were many topics on which he did not speak, saying those should be
left to other family members with greater knowledge, who may comment later.
While most of Abdullah's comments were in person, he chose to make a few
statements in writing about particularly sensitive matters for example, to
underscore his denunciations of Osama bin Laden. (Abdullah said most of the
family uses the Binladin spelling.) He also gave a glint of insight into what it
was like for the family to grapple over many years with the transformation of one
of their own into a dangerous extremist.
''It is my understanding that in the early 1990s the family repeatedly reached
out and made attempts to plead with Osama to moderate his views,'' Abdullah said.
''After these attempts failed, there was a reluctant but unanimous consensus that
Osama should be disowned.''
Now Abdullah, wearing a white dress shirt and silk tie and fingering prayer beads
as he speaks, can only look toward the day when neighbors in the adopted city
that he loves will hear the name Binladin and think of something other than
''Our name is being hijacked,'' he said.
A charismatic father's stunning success story
Abdullah's apartment is tastefully appointed but unexceptional, except for the
large framed photograph in the living room. Taken sometime in the 1960s, it shows
Abdullah's father, Mohammed, standing beside King Faisal, as the Saudi ruler
points to the distance.
Under Faisal, Saudi Arabia built up its infrastructure, connecting vast stretches
of desert through complicated highway and dam projects. Looking at this photo
today the King's confidence in Binladin is palpable. Theirs was a shared vision
for a modern Saudi Arabia.
Asked about it, Abdullah looks closely at the photo, and his pursed lips give way
to a proud smile. His father's legacy continues to be a dominant force in the
lives of his children, even Abdullah, who was an infant in 1967 when his father
was killed in a plane crash.
''My father didn't know how to read or write, but God blessed him with a
wonderful memory,'' said Abdullah, ''and he was a great visionary.''
How an illiterate immigrant from the Hadramaut region of Yemen could become one
of the closest associates to Saudi's founding ruler, Adul-Aziz, is still not
clear. There are few historical records, and the Binladin family has always
guarded its privacy. So lore fills the vacuum. Stories abound of Mohammed
Binladin's computer-like memory for figures. Or how he won the ruler's favor by
devising an easier way for him to get around his palace in his wheelchair.
When Abdul-Aziz was consolidating power, he wanted people close to him who did
not have competing loyalties to other established families from Arabia, so
Binladin's Yemeni heritage worked to his advantage, said Andrew Hess, a professor
with Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who runs its
Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization program.
''As is always the case in Saudi Arabia, the relationship was based on personal
interaction and trust,'' said Hess.
In the 1950s, Binladin designed and built the al-Hada road, which allowed Muslims
from the highlands and Yemen to make the pilgramage to Mecca more easily. That
led to the family's biggest coup: the contract to rebuild the mosques at Mecca
and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam. This raised the Binladins' prestige
across the Muslim world, setting the stage for the company's expansion beyond
After Mohammed died in 1967, control of the family business passed to son
Salemcq, and then to another son Bakrcq, after Salem's death, also in a plane
crash, in 1988.
The Saudi Binladin Group's ascent seemed unstoppable. But as it expanded, the
family came to symbolize the often conflicting demands of doing business in the
Middle East. Success has meant working with Arab regimes that are unpopular with
many of their own people and entering into joint ventures with Western companies
that are resented on the Muslim streets.streets of the Muslim world.
It is unclear how many wives Mohammed Binladin had. Abdullah and Osama are
technically half-brothers. Abdullah grew up in a villa with his mother in Jiddah,
and attended a government school. It was the norm in a large polygamous family
for children to live with their mothers. (Such practices have gone out of style,
and Abdullah's brothers, with the exception of Osama, each have only one wife.
Abdullah is single.)
While Abdullah said it was his own desire to study law, the head of the family
monitors the choices made by each member, especially with an eye out toward
protecting the business.
''Bakr, I think, decides everything physically possible, who you marry, where you
work in the busines, business, what you study,'' said Frank Vogel, director of
the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. ''How many lawyers do we
need? How many engineers do we need?''
The last time Abdullah saw Osama was in 1988, at their brother Salem's funeral.
By that time, Osama had already strayed far from the yoke of the family business.
''He had been living most of the time in Afghanistan,'' said Abdullah. ''I
personally didn't know him very well.''
Osama had spent much of that decade raising money for, and then participating in,
the fight by Muslims to repel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. There is every
indication that Osama received the support of the family in this cause, which was
a popular one in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world.
When Osama returned to the family home base of Jiddah, riding high after the
retreat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, tensions between him and his siblings came
to a boil. He began to denounce the Saudi regime as oppressive and hypocritical.
Soon came the buildup to the Gulf War, which changed so much in Saudi Arabia.
Iraq's effortless toppling of Kuwait had the Saudi ruling family so worried that
it reversed the kingdom's longstanding policy of not allowing a foreign military
force, even an ally like the US, United States, on its soil.
That decision opened a ferocious fault line between Osama and the family
business. The Binladin Group got many of the con tracts to build military support
facilities for the US forces, said Charles Freeman, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia
during the Gulf War, now with the Middle East Policy Council.
Osama saw the move as an unforgivable abdication by the Saudi royal family of its
most sacred obligation: protecting the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammed, and
the religion he founded, from crusading outsiders.
Osama's attack on Saudi King Fahd was stunning, considering the family's long,
tight association with the royal family. ''Here is a Binladin opposing the
king,'' said Adil Najam, professor of International Relations international
relations at Boston Univer sity who has studied the family. ''That's like someone
with the last name of Rockefeller turning communist.''
For many, it was hard to avoid the notion that, in his fiery anti-Western
rhetoric, Osama was in some way talking to his siblings.
''My own sense,'' said Najam, ''is Osama Bin bin Laden is fighting just as much
against his family and who he was, as against anything else.''
The Saudi government forced Osama into exile in 1991, and the family renounced
him. From his outpost in the Sudan, Osama intensified his campaign against the
Saudi government, and in 1994, it stripped him of his citizenship and his family
''It is a big family,'' Abdullah said. ''There is a black sheep in every big
Binladen connection to Boston dates to '70s
During the years when Osama was becoming more radicalized, Abdullah was getting
to know Boston. As a boy, he said, he dreamed of attending Harvard.
The Binladin connection to Boston had begun when one of his older brothers came
to the city to study civil engineering in the early '70s. Another brother came in
the late '80s to study business admin istration at Northeastern University.
When Abdullah visited Boston in 1990, he already had a law degree from King Saud
University in Riyadh, and he was looking for a place to advance his studies. Not
only did he like Harvard, he was also smitten by the city in fall.
''I was fascinated by the city, by its charm. I felt it was the best of both
worlds America and Europe,'' Abdullah said. ''I think, `This is the place. I
shouldn't go anywhere else.'''
Those familiar with the Binladins often comment on how devoted they are to
working hard and getting a good education. ''They put an immense emphasis on
achievment,'' achievement,'' Vogel said. ''That's what their father stood for.''
Abdullah's research compared Western and Islamic approaches to finance and
banking law, often concluding that the modern Islamic approaches are either
impractical or not true to the ancient Islamic precepts they claim to follow,
said Vogel, his adviser. ''It's a very scholarly piece,'' Vogel said. ''We were
extraordinarily pleased with it.''
In 1994, Vogel traveled to Saudi Arabia and negotiated with the family a $1
million donation. It has been used to bring fellows from the Middle East to study
The Binladins also made a $1 million donation to the school of design at Harvard,
and gave $300,000 to Hess's program at the Fletcher School. They have funded
another fellowship program at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. And every
year, the Saudi Binladin Group donates tens of thousands of dollars to the Middle
East Policy Council, which helps train educators on how to teach about the Middle
East and Islam. ''The main idea is really to further the understanding between
Western and Islamic cultures, at least to bridge the gap,'' said Abdullah about
the family's charitable goals.
But as Osama's profile as a terrorist grew, following the bombings of American
embassies in Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, the
Binladins found it more difficult to conduct business around the world and in
Hess, of the Fletcher School, said that over dinner in 1999 Abdullah described
the drain on the business that Osama's activities were causing. ''It was a
disaster for them,'' said Hess. The problems have accelerated dramatically since
Sept. 11. Several Western companies have ended their joint ventures with the
Binladin Group, though they have said the decision was not related to the
And there has been considerable speculation in the press that some members of the
enormous Binladin family continue to have contacts with Osama, a charge the
family flatly rejects.
''I totally support my family's statement that expressed condolences and deepest
sympathy for the victims of the attack and unequivocally denounced and and
condemned the attacks and all those behind them,'' Abdullah told the Globe in
writing. ''I also affirm that the Binladin family and the Saudi Binladin Group
have no relationship whatsoever with Osama or any of his activities. He shares no
legal or beneficial interests with them or their assets or properties, and he is
not directly or indirectly funded by them.''
The Boston Binladens maintain close bonds
When Abdullah arrived in Boston, his English was not yet very strong, and he
sometimes slept only two hours a night, studying intently at several of Harvard's
''I was intimidated, and the first semester was very tough for me, learning a new
language and a new method of thinking,'' he said. Abdullah. ''Back home when we
studied law, we used to memorize. Here I learned to think when you talk about the
law.'' The Boston-based Binladins have stuck close together, gathering more or
less every week. Abdullah would make sure they were going to class and getting
good grades. They might get take-out Chinese or dinner in the North End, . They
might or stay at home and cook Middle Eastern dishes like stuffed grape leaves or
They would play chess, cards, or the board game ''Risk.'' Last fall, they went
apple picking. In the winter, they'd go skiing. at Attitash.Last year, they all
went to the Six Flags amusement park in Agawam.
They hope fervently to return to their life here, Abdullah said. He believes
Americans will come to understand the difference between the most famous Binladin
and all the rest.
''I've been telling all my nieces and nephews, `Believe me, if any society is
going to understand your case, is going to differentiate between good and evil,
it is here,''' he said. ''I'm here, a member of my family is being accused, and
still I'm being treated as a human being.''
|09/25/02 at 00:07:34|
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