Meet The Bin Ladens

Boston real-estate agent Ellen Signaigo Brockman was paging through the newspaper one day in the early 1990s when a story about a little-known terrorist named Osama bin Laden caught her eye. A few days later, she showed the article to a business acquaintance. "Isn't this name similar to yours?" she asked Mohammed Binladin. Yes, he told her. The man in the newspaper was his brother. Osama, he explained sadly, was the black sheep of their wealthy Saudi family. Many of the clan's 54 children, heirs to a vast construction fortune, traveled the world, studied abroad and developed a taste for American food, music and clothing. But Osama had chosen a much different path. He became a radical Islamic fundamentalist, hid in mountain caves, obsessed endlessly about destroying Western infidels. Many of the other brothers and sisters used their inheritances to buy businesses to fund lavish lives. Osama used his to buy businesses to fund suicide bombers. Osama "had gotten a little out of control," Mohammed lamented. "My brother never really found a place for himself."

Nearly a decade later, the sadness Osama bin Laden's siblings may have once felt for their wayward brother has hardened into anger. The family "feels shattered, feels abused, feels tortured" by Osama's crimes, says friend Mouldi Sayeh. In recent years his relatives tried repeatedly to persuade him to give up his holy war on the West and return to the family fold. He angrily rebuffed the pleas. Just as Osama's siblings lamented his narrow fundamentalism, he certainly despised their modern Saudi cosmopolitanism. His brothers and sisters, with their uncovered heads and American condos, came to embrace everything in the world he wished to destroy. By the mid-'90s, he had severed most ties with his family and began plotting more audacious attacks. The family began using a different spelling, Binladin, in part to distance themselves from their notorious relation. The once studious, well-mannered son became an outcast in his family as he became an outlaw in the wider world.

Growing up in a family of 54 brothers and sisters, young Osama bin Laden was something of an only child. The 17th of 24 sons, he barely knew his older brothers. His father, Muhammad bin Laden, kept four wives at a time, divorcing one to add another. The kids of each mother formed tight clans, competing for the stern father's attention and approval. But Osama's mother had no children after him, leaving him without allies. Also, his mother was Syrian, a rarity among Muhammad bin Laden's wives--who were mostly Saudi and Egyptian--further isolating young Osama from his siblings.

The legend of Muhammad bin Laden was a powerful presence in the household. As the story had it, Muhammad was an illiterate bricklayer from Yemen who had walked to Saudi Arabia as a young man in 1925. Working on a palace construction project, he is said to have caught the attention of the founder of the kingdom, Abdul Aziz, who was impressed with his design ideas. In time, Muhammad bin Laden used his royal connections to turn his modest bricklaying business into a $5 billion construction company, the largest and richest in the country. The king awarded the bin Ladens prized contracts for construction on the royal palace--and, later, ambitious renovations of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites. "If you look out over Mecca, every single thing, every minaret, every bit of marble, has been built by the bin Ladens," says Ambrose Carey, who married into the family.

At home, the bin Laden boys adhered to strict Sunni Muslim custom. Their father taught them to be suspicious of Israel and supportive of Palestine. But the children were not sheltered from the world around them. Osama's older brothers and sisters were scattered around the globe, living conventional lives. Before the September attacks, 15 of Osama bin Laden's siblings were living in Europe, and four of his brothers and 17 nieces and nephews were in the United States. One of Osama's brothers, Abdullah, studied at Harvard. In the '90s, the family company endowed $1 million Binladin Fellowships in both the design and law schools. Osama's oldest brother, Salem, who became head of the family after Muhammad bin Laden died in a 1967 plane crash, was educated in Europe and spent years working and playing in the United States. (A daredevil pilot, he too died in a plane crash, in 1988.) In Boston and New York, bin Laden's younger nieces and nephews were regulars in trendy restaurants and nightclubs, and told friends they were "embarrassed" by their uncle's notoriety.

Virtually alone among the children, Osama showed little interest in leaving home to live outside the Mideast. He attended a private Saudi school in Jidda, where he wore trousers and pressed shirts and learned English, but never traveled to the United States, according to a family member. Shunning Western universities, he studied civil engineering at nearby King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda, perhaps with plans to join the family business.

But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Osama bin Laden dropped everything and joined the mujahedin struggle against the occupiers. Others in the family didn't get into the fight, but they respected his devotion to the cause. "He was the hero of the family," says Abdal Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. "High officials used to praise and re-ceive him."

By the late '80s, Osama bin Laden had transformed himself into a full-time holy warrior. He started Al Qaeda, his secretive terrorist organization, using his inherited millions to recruit and train young Muslim radicals for a war against the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi king's decision to side with the United States infuriated Osama, to whom the choice was clear. Muslims could not support an American war against fellow Muslims--especially not on their own soil. But the rest of the family officially lined up with the anti-Saddam coalition. "Osama kind of forced the family to take sides, and they publicly took the only side that they really could--that of the king," says Adil Najam, an international-relations professor at Boston University. By 1994 Osama had become a pariah in his own country. Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship and the family formally cut him off--though investigators want to know if one or more of his siblings may be secretly helping him with funds and support. As the world condemns their brother's crimes, the Binladin family is furious at Osama for tarnishing what was one of their most precious assets: the family name. The clan condemned the strikes as "repugnant to all religions and humanity," and made clear that beyond their name, they share nothing with the man responsible for the atrocities. The family said they have no relationship at all with Osama bin Laden. After so many years of animosity, the feeling is probably mutual.