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Pulitzer-winning author sheds light on Osama bin Laden's wealthy, global upbringing

Steve Coll

One of 54 children, Osama bin Laden grew up in an elite business family that his practically illiterate father built from the ground up. Despite his massive wealth, his father "was very much afraid that his sons would be spoiled," said Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author who spoke on campus March 8. So he didn't give his sons much of an allowance and encouraged them to work hard. "There was a very strong sense of belonging in the bin Laden family," Coll added.

Coll, a New Yorker magazine staff writer, delivered the talk, "Osama bin Laden and the Age of Globalized Terror" in Goldwin Smith Hall as the part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

According to Coll, who has been a foreign correspondent, a senior editor at The Washington Post for 20 years and has authored six books, "al Qaeda is meaningfully an expression of Osama's gifts as a leader." Bin Laden understood "the technologies of global integration" from his youth, when his family invested in satellite communication technology even before cell phones were around. And he also learned the importance of "building brands and marketing an identity," techniques he used to make al Qaeda a brand name, while serving as a junior executive at his father's company.


Since they were so wealthy, the bin Laden children traveled to the Western world while growing up in the 1970s. Exposed to more open cultures than the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia, "each of them made different choices," Coll said, some becoming very devout, others turning away from Islam and their homeland. Osama, however, had always "belonged to the most conservative wing of his family" since his indoctrination by the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of 14.

As the owners of a large construction company with contacts inside the Saudi royalty, Coll noted that the bin Ladens "were the sole authorized renovators of Mecca and Medina," the primary destinations of the annual Islamic pilgrimage. Osama bin Laden grew up with "this notion of a unified community, glorious in its diversity, that was larger than the borders of nation-states."

Surrounded by their father's workers, who were from as near as Yemen and as far as Germany, the bin Laden sons also experienced a global "sense of mobility and possibility and technology," Coll said. When Osama formed al Qaeda in 1988, he carried this idea of "a world that is bigger than national identity" with him. Al Qaeda's diversity partly explains its military resiliency, he said.

Stephanie Selvius '12, a psychology major, said after the talk that she was startled to learn that Osama bin Laden grew up in such a Westernized and wealthy family. "The thing that surprised me most," she said, "was Osama's background."

Joel Anderson, a graduate student in medieval studies, agreed, adding that it was "really fascinating to think about Osama bin Laden living in this incredibly Western and billionaire family that had access to all this technology."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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