bin laden was broke -- 10/19/15

Today's selection -- from The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll. In 1995, Osama bin Laden was in Khartoum, Sudan, trying to build up al Qaeda, but he was plagued by financial reversal and family trouble:

"Osama's experience as a businessman in Sudan was similar to that of his half-brother Khalil's in Los Angeles, with America in Motion. His grandiose schemes did not pan out. His mentors took advantage of him. His employees misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars, money he could no longer afford to lose -- Jamal Al-Fadl, for example, took Osama for $110,000 in a series of manipulated land and commodity deals. Osama had reorganized his personal banking at the Al-Shamal Bank in Khartoum, but his accounts gradually dried up. In the past, his personal wealth had provided him a financial cushion, but much of the money he spent on jihad came from private donors, charities, or quasi-governmental channels. Now his access to family dividends and loans had been pinched, and, simultaneously, as an enemy of the Saudi state, his charity fundraising had become complicated. As early as 1994 or 1995, 'We had a crisis in Al Qaeda,' recalled L'Hossaine Kherchtou, one of his adherents. 'Osama bin Laden himself said to us that he had lost all his money, and he reduced the salary of his people.' He was forced to layoff as many as two thousand workers at his sunflower farm during 1995. It was an extraordinarily fast downturn -- Osama had blown through his lump sum inheritance, his dividends, and his charitable funds in just four to five years, a total of perhaps $15 million or more. In his essays, he denounced the Saudi royal family for corruption and financial malfeasance, but he had managed his own funds with all the prudence of a self-infatuated Hollywood celebrity' ...

Osama Bin Laden in 1993 on a road he was building in Sudan

"His problems at the office were compounded by his troubles at home. One of his wives, known as Om Ali, or the 'Mother of Ali,' traveled back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Sudan; she grew tired of Khartoum. She asked Osama for a divorce because 'she could not continue to live in an austere way, and in hardship' according to Nasir Al-Bahri, who later served as Osama's bodyguard.

"Osama's eldest son, Abdullah, a teenager, also chafed at being cut off from the privileges enjoyed by a Bin Laden in good standing. He had seen enough of his cousins' lifestyles in Jeddah -- the slick cars, the Harley motorcycles, the wave runners on weekends in the Red Sea -- to know what he was missing. He asked his father for permission to return to the kingdom and take up a job in the family business. He had already become engaged to one of his relatives 'because my father supports early marriage,' as he later explained, and in 1995 he pressed his father to return to Saudi Arabia:

He would ask me to be patient and wait every time. On one occasion, I went into his bedroom when we were in Sudan to wake him up to pray, and he said to me with no introductions: 'Abdullah, you can go to Saudi Arabia if you want.' I started crying for joy without saying a word. My father smiled calmly and said nothing, On the next day, I called my uncles in Jeddah and they helped in speeding up my arrival there. . . I wanted to be independent and build my life on my own, and according to my desires.

"The defection of his firstborn pained Osama, according to Al-Bahri. Thereafter he 'avoided mentioning Abdullah's name ... because he had been hurt by him.' ...

"In Khartoum he remained surrounded by other wives, children, employees, and followers, and his calendar of business and conspiracy meetings mitigated his isolation. Yet there was now a self-reinforcing quality to the narrative Osama was constructing around his exile. The more pressure he faced, the more readily he compared his circumstances to those of the Prophet Mohamed, who had been driven by political opponents to Medina, where he waged a righteous war and eventually returned home. 'Emigration is related to jihad, and jihad will go on until the Day of Judgment,' Osama wrote while in Sudan. It was not the sort of formulation likely to appeal to a restless wife or teenager with memories of Jeddah's better restaurants. Yet there is no reason to doubt that Osama believed precisely what he penned."


Steve Coll


The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century


Penguin Books


Copyright Steve Coll, 2008


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