The events of September 11, 2001, changed the world—or at least, most Americans' perception of it. In his 2004 bestseller, Ghost Wars, Steve Coll put that event in context by detailing the history of foreign involvement in Afghanistan, explaining why it was the perfect place for Osama Bin Laden to pull together a radical organization like al Qaeda.
Now, Coll puts Osama Bin Laden himself into context with The Bin Ladens, a comprehensive look at a sprawling family tree. Not even Tolstoy had to handle this large of a cast—Osama is one of 54 children sired by Mohamed Bin Laden, though of course not all of them are introduced here—but readers will find their concentration rewarded with a new understanding of a dynasty that has strongly influenced the modern world.
The Bin Ladens is an incredibly dense and information-packed narrative. Did the topic ever overwhelm you with its complexity and depth?
It was very hard work. It was hard to track down the people who could help me understand the family as fully as possible—they were scattered literally all over the world. And it was hard to spread my research over time in a way that would support writing in depth about an entire century. My goal was to try to write something fresh and specific that was located in the history of Saudi Arabia—not just a narrative of the royal family, which has been done before. So that meant digging under a lot of rocks that had not previously been turned over.
If Americans could take away one lesson from your book about the rise of Osama Bin Laden and his influence in the Muslim world, what would it be?
I think it's important to see him as a modern figure, not as a medieval figure in a cave. He represents not only a reaction against the West and against globalization, but also an adaptation of Western ideas and technologies for anti-Western ends. These are the layers of complexity in his identity, his appeal and his actions that I think are too often neglected in analysis of Osama and Al Qaeda.
What would you identify as the key factor that radicalized Osama?
He was initially recruited by a Muslim Brotherhood gym teacher in his elite prep school in Jeddah. But in some way his early beliefs, while puritan and rigid, were rather orthodox in a Saudi context. His violence arose from his experiences in war in Afghanistan, where he met violence-minded volunteers from across the Islamic world.
Do you see Osama as a product of the Bin Laden family as a whole or an extreme departure from it?
Both. He is a Bin Laden in the sense that his talent as a leader and his understanding of border-crossing technologies, among other things, are derived from his membership in his own family, as was his wealth. He is not the only Bin Laden of his generation to have become deeply religious. But his embrace of violence and war against the United States and Saudi Arabia is an extreme departure from his family's interests and values—in the end, he declared war, in a sense, against his own family.
What is the one thing most people should know about the Bin Laden family, but don't?
The diversity of views and lifestyles within it. The Bin Ladens include some brothers and sisters of Osama who were as enthusiastic about America as he was hostile to it.
You note that although Saudi Arabia makes up less than 2 percent of the world's Muslim population, it has had a pervasive influence on Muslim thought. Do you see that trend continuing in the future? Or will another nation usurp Saudi Arabia's role?
Oil wealth, and the centrality of Mecca and Medina to the Islamic world, will ensure that the kingdom will continue to have influence greater than the size or proportion of its population. But I do think that there will be—and may already be—a gathering backlash in the Islamic world itself against the extreme religious and political beliefs that emanate from the kingdom's most conservative clerics.
You write that in the late 1990s, The U.S. intelligence community simply did not know very much about the Bin Laden family, and an important aspect of what it claimed to know was wrong. Without these intelligence failures, do you believe we could have prevented the 9/11 attacks?
If the U.S. intelligence community understood the family and Osama's wealth better than it did, it might have helped shape a more intelligent, more effective campaign to cut off Al Qaeda's resources and restrict its operations, but I don't think it would have prevented the 9/11 attacks.
What ties, if any, currently remain between Osama and the rest of the Bin Ladens?
The main branch of the Bin Laden family says that all ties are completely broken. His mother and one of his stepbrothers visited him in Afghanistan as recently as early 2001. Osama's wives have left him behind since the 9/11 attacks. But he has more than 20 children and some of those seem to still be in exile and perhaps some of them are in contact with him from time to time.
What do you foresee for the third generation of the Bin Laden family?
There are so many of them—hundreds—and it will be a challenge for them to develop the leaders and the cohesions to continue the extraordinary business success of their parents' generation. But I think they are generally a more worldly generation than their parents, more comfortable with the West and all of its pressures, and so many of them may be able to enjoy fully the success and wealth they have inherited.
Do you feel Osama continues to play a crucial role in the world of terrorism? Or is he a figure of the past?
Al Qaeda has revitalized itself along the Afghan border and its leadership plans and supports attacks in Europe and elsewhere from that sanctuary. Osama himself is surely more isolated within Al Qaeda than he used to be, but he remains an important media spokesman and source of visibility and, for some, at least, a source of inspiration. He is not a figure of the past—not yet.
What are you working on next?
I have the kernel of an idea about American foreign policy that I intend to work on, but I'm in the very early stages and it will be another long research road ahead.