Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Bin Ladens

Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is one of my favorite nonfiction books of the past decade. It details CIA activity in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to 9/11. His follow up book, the Bin Ladens, is related in subject matter, it is quite a different book. Unlike Ghost Wars which deals mostly with governments and guerillas in conflict, the Bin Ladens reads like a tragic family story. Imagine reading Ron Chernow's House of Morgan, with the addition of a rogue scion who turns anarchist and tries to blow up Wall Street.

While the Bin Laden name in the West is associated almost exclusively with Osama, in the Arab world it is equally known for wealth and connection to power. Mohammed Bin Laden, father of 50+ children, formed the Bin Laden construction company and became a partner with the House of Saud in building the country. With the relationship came money and an expansion into other businesses.

The book's subtitle is An Arabian Family in an American Century and a key element of the book is the split in the Bin Laden family (representing in some sense a tension in the broader Arab world) between those who wanted to take advantage of the freedoms of the West and those that rejected the West and sought to live a pure Islamic life.

While the book is a tad too long, it reads well. In addition to the challenges of being Islamic in an American world, the Bin Ladens were (and are) fabulously wealthy. Coll details the unbelievable lifestyles, which included a fixation on aviation. That family trait would be taken up by many, including of course Osama.

While the book is in one sense a business family history, it is also the story of Osama. Coll discusses him here mostly in the context of the broader family. Given the huge number of children, it isn't too surprising that there would be outliers, but messianic mass murderers are in a special class of outlier.

This is a book well worth reading, but don't expect a lot of action. While the Afghan jihad plays a part, there is much more on business deals, airplane lessons and trying to be both Islamic and Western. I guess this one didn't sell as well as was hoped, as Amazon has the hardback for seven bucks. What a bargain.

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