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In Cambridge, a Binladin breaks family silence

This article was first published in The Boston Globe on Oct. 7, 2001.

CAMBRIDGE - The woman behind the counter at Starbucks was crying. Between sobs, she said something about a plane, something about the World Trade Center.

The man grabbed his tall latte and rushed back to his apartment, turning on the television just before the second jetliner crashed into the second tower.

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For a while, the nightmare of Sept. 11 was the same for him as it was for so many others in the United States. He was anxious about his friends in New York. He wondered how anyone could harm so many people.

It was only when that name surfaced on television, the name of the suspected terrorist behind the attacks, that Abdullah Mohammed Binladin began to understand that he was not all right, and that his life was about to change forever.

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“I felt sad, that this is a tragedy for humanity,” said Binladin , who has lived in Cambridge for much of the last decade, earning a master’s and doctorate from Harvard Law School. “And I felt, this is a tragedy for our family. How will people look at our family?”

The 35-year-old Binladin is among the youngest of 54 children born to numerous wives of the late Mohammed Bin-Awad Binladin. Only 50 of those children are still with the family. Three have died. One is accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, whom the family disowned in 1994.

The success of the $5 billion-a-year Binladin family business has come from linking the Western and Islamic worlds, from expanding the mosque in Mecca to building military support facilities for US forces in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Now, everyone from scholars to average citizens is pondering that link: How such an international family, most of them educated in the West, produced a son who has declared war against so much that the family holds important.

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It’s a question the lean, soft-spoken Abdullah has struggled with in the lonely period since Sept. 11. His life since then has become almost unrecognizable: The man who loved jogging along the Charles has avoided any interactions with strangers who could “hear the name and get angry or upset or horrified.” He has stopped using his credit card and suspended his hobby of flying single-engine planes, for fear of reactions he might get.

“I’ve tried to keep a low profile and use cash as much as possible,” he said.

All 11 other Binladin relatives in the Boston area, Abdullah’s nieces and nephews, boarded a chartered Saudi jet and left Boston on Sept. 19.

Abdullah stayed behind.

On Thursday, he spoke to the Globe for five hours in his Cambridge apartment, the only interview any Binladin, anywhere, has granted since Sept. 11. Abdullah spoke mostly about his family’s educational ties to Boston and his fondness for the city. There were many topics on which he did not speak, saying those should be left to other family members with greater knowledge, who may comment later.

While most of Abdullah’s comments were in person, he chose to make a few statements in writing about particularly sensitive matters - for example, to underscore his denunciations of Osama bin Laden. (Abdullah said most of the family uses the Binladin spelling.) He also gave a glint of insight into what it was like for the family to grapple over many years with the transformation of one of their own into a dangerous extremist.

“It is my understanding that in the early 1990s the family repeatedly reached out and made attempts to plead with Osama to moderate his views,” Abdullah said. “After these attempts failed, there was a reluctant but unanimous consensus that Osama should be disowned.”

Now Abdullah, wearing a white dress shirt and silk tie and fingering prayer beads as he speaks, can only look toward the day when neighbors in the adopted city that he loves will hear the name Binladin and think of something other than Osama.

“Our name is being hijacked,” he said.

A charismatic father’s stunning success story

Abdullah’s apartment is tastefully appointed but unexceptional, except for the large framed photograph in the living room. Taken sometime in the 1960s, it shows Abdullah’s father, Mohammed, standing beside King Faisal, as the Saudi ruler points to the distance.

Under Faisal, Saudi Arabia built up its infrastructure, connecting vast stretches of desert through complicated highway and dam projects. Looking at this photo today the King’s confidence in Binladin is palpable. Theirs was a shared vision for a modern Saudi Arabia.

Asked about it, Abdullah looks closely at the photo, and his pursed lips give way to a proud smile. His father’s legacy continues to be a dominant force in the lives of his children, even Abdullah, who was an infant in 1967 when his father was killed in a plane crash.

“My father didn’t know how to read or write, but God blessed him with a wonderful memory,” said Abdullah, “and he was a great visionary.”

How an illiterate immigrant from the Hadramaut region of Yemen could become one of the closest associates to Saudi’s founding ruler, Adul-Aziz, is still not clear. There are few historical records, and the Binladin family has always guarded its privacy. So lore fills the vacuum. Stories abound of Mohammed Binladin’s computer-like memory for figures. Or how he won the ruler’s favor by devising an easier way for him to get around in his wheelchair.

When Abdul-Aziz was consolidating power, he wanted people close to him who did not have competing loyalties to other established families from Arabia, so Binladin’s Yemeni heritage worked to his advantage, said Andrew Hess, a professor with Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who runs its Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization program.

“As is always the case in Saudi Arabia, the relationship was based on personal interaction and trust,” said Hess.

In the 1950s, Binladin designed and built the al-Hada road, which allowed Muslims from the highlands and Yemen to make the pilgramage to Mecca more easily. That led to the family’s biggest coup: the contract to rebuild the mosques at Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam. This raised the Binladins’ prestige across the Muslim world, setting the stage for the company’s expansion beyond Saudi Arabia.

After Mohammed died in 1967, control of the family business passed to son Salem, and then to another son Bakr, after Salem’s death, also in a plane crash, in 1988.

The Saudi Binladin Group’s ascent seemed unstoppable. But as it expanded, the family came to symbolize the often conflicting demands of doing business in the Middle East. Success has meant working with Arab regimes that are unpopular with many of their own people and entering into joint ventures with Western companies that are resented on the streets of the Muslim world.

It is unclear how many wives Mohammed Binladin had. Abdullah and Osama are technically half-brothers. Abdullah grew up in a villa with his mother in Jiddah, and attended a government school. It was the norm in a large polygamous family for children to live with their mothers. (Such practices have gone out of style, and Abdullah’s brothers, with the exception of Osama, each have only one wife. Abdullah is single.)

While Abdullah said it was his own desire to study law, the head of the family monitors the choices made by each member, especially with an eye out toward protecting the business.

“Bakr, I think, decides everything physically possible, who you marry, where you work in the business, what you study,” said Frank Vogel, director of the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. “How many lawyers do we need? How many engineers do we need?”

The last time Abdullah saw Osama was in 1988, at their brother Salem’s funeral. By that time, Osama had already strayed far from the yoke of the family business. “He had been living most of the time in Afghanistan,” said Abdullah. “I personally didn’t know him very well.”

Osama had spent much of that decade raising money for, and then participating in, the fight by Muslims to repel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. There is every indication that Osama received the support of the family in this cause, which was a popular one in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world.

When Osama returned to the family home base of Jiddah, riding high after the retreat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, tensions between him and his siblings came to a boil. He began to denounce the Saudi regime as oppressive and hypocritical.

Soon came the buildup to the Gulf War, which changed so much in Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s effortless toppling of Kuwait had the Saudi ruling family so worried that it reversed the kingdom’s longstanding policy of not allowing a foreign military force, even an ally like the United States, on its soil.

That decision opened a ferocious fault line between Osama and the family business. The Binladin Group got many of the contracts to build military support facilities for the US forces, said Charles Freeman, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, now with the Middle East Policy Council.

Osama saw the move as an unforgivable abdication by the Saudi royal family of its most sacred obligation: protecting the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammed, and the religion he founded, from crusading outsiders.

Osama’s attack on Saudi King Fahd was stunning, considering the family’s long, tight association with the royal family. “Here is a Binladin opposing the king,” said Adil Najam, professor of international relations at Boston University who has studied the family. “That’s like someone with the last name of Rockefeller turning communist.”

For many, it was hard to avoid the notion that, in his fiery anti-Western rhetoric, Osama was in some way talking to his siblings.

“My own sense,” said Najam, “is Osama bin Laden is fighting just as much against his family and who he was, as against anything else.”

The Saudi government forced Osama into exile in 1991, and the family renounced him. From his outpost in the Sudan, Osama intensified his campaign against the Saudi government, and in 1994, it stripped him of his citizenship and his family disowned him.

“It is a big family,” Abdullah said. “There is a black sheep in every big family.”

Binladin connection to Boston dates to ‘70s

During the years when Osama was becoming more radicalized, Abdullah was getting to know Boston. As a boy, he said, he dreamed of attending Harvard.

The Binladin connection to Boston had begun when one of his older brothers came to the city to study civil engineering in the early ‘70s. Another brother came in the late ‘80s to study business administration at Northeastern University.

When Abdullah visited Boston in 1990, he already had a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh, and he was looking for a place to advance his studies. Not only did he like Harvard, he was also smitten by the city in fall.

“I was fascinated by the city, by its charm. I felt it was the best of both worlds - America and Europe,” Abdullah said. “I think, `This is the place. I shouldn’t go anywhere else.’ “

Those familiar with the Binladins often comment on how devoted they are to working hard and getting a good education.

“They put an immense emphasis on achievement,” Vogel said. “That’s what their father stood for.”

Abdullah’s research compared Western and Islamic approaches to finance and banking law, often concluding that the modern Islamic approaches are either impractical or not true to the ancient Islamic precepts they claim to follow, said Vogel, his adviser. “It’s a very scholarly piece,” Vogel said. “We were extraordinarily pleased with it.”

In 1994, Vogel traveled to Saudi Arabia and negotiated with the family a $1 million donation. It has been used to bring fellows from the Middle East to study at Harvard.

The Binladins also made a $1 million donation to the school of design at Harvard, and gave $300,000 to Hess’s program at the Fletcher School. They have funded another fellowship program at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. And every year, the Saudi Binladin Group donates tens of thousands of dollars to the Middle East Policy Council, which helps train educators on how to teach about the Middle East and Islam.

“The main idea is really to further the understanding between Western and Islamic cultures, at least to bridge the gap,” said Abdullah about the family’s charitable goals.

But as Osama’s profile as a terrorist grew, following the bombings of American embassies in Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, the Binladins found it more difficult to conduct business around the world and in Boston.

Hess, of the Fletcher School, said that over dinner in 1999 Abdullah described the drain on the business that Osama’s activities were causing. “It was a disaster for them,” said Hess.

The problems have accelerated dramatically since Sept. 11. Several Western companies have ended their joint ventures with the Binladin Group, though they have said the decision was not related to the terrorist attacks.

And there has been considerable speculation in the press that some members of the enormous Binladin family continue to have contacts with Osama, a charge the family, and many people familiar with its workings, flatly rejects.

“I totally support my family’s statement that expressed condolences and deepest sympathy for the victims of the attack and unequivocally denounced and condemned the attacks and all those behind them,” Abdullah told the Globe in writing. “I also affirm that the Binladin family and the Saudi Binladin Group have no relationship whatsoever with Osama or any of his activities. He shares no legal or beneficial interests with them or their assets or properties, and he is not directly or indirectly funded by them.”

The Boston Binladins maintain close bonds

When Abdullah arrived in Boston, his English was not yet very strong, and he sometimes slept only two hours a night, studying intently at several of Harvard’s libraries.

“I was intimidated, and the first semester was very tough for me, learning a new language and a new method of thinking,” he said. “Back home when we studied law, we used to memorize. Here I learned to think when you talk about the law.”

The Boston-based Binladins have stuck close together, gathering more or less every week. Abdullah would make sure they were going to class and getting good grades. They might get take-out Chinese or dinner in the North End, or stay at home and cook Middle Eastern dishes like stuffed grape leaves or stuffed zucchini.

They would play chess, cards, or the board game “Risk.” Last fall, they went apple picking. In the winter, they’d go skiing. Last year, they all went to the Six Flags amusement park in Agawam.

They hope fervently to return to their life here, Abdullah said. He believes Americans will come to understand the difference between the most famous Binladin and all the rest.

“I’ve been telling all my nieces and nephews, `Believe me, if any society is going to understand your case, is going to differentiate between good and evil, it is here,’ “ he said. “I’m here, a member of my family is being accused, and still I’m being treated as a human being.”

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached by email at Bombardieri@Globe.com.Neil Swidey can be reached by email at NSwidey@Globe.com
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