Blood Brothers: Could Osama Have Been Tamed?

New book asks whether Osama Bin Laden's big brother could have saved him.


April 3, 2008 — -- The hard-partying playboy, known for his practical jokes and his ostentatious charisma, was obsessed with women, fast cars and jetting around the world on private planes.

At the wild parties he threw at his Florida estate, he'd fly in cases of Dom Perignon and neighbors would complain about the stench of marijuana smoke.

Who's the decadent lothario? Salem Bin Laden, the oldest brother of Osama Bin Laden.

It may be hard to believe, but despite the al-Qaeda leader's condemnation of debauchery and licentiousness, Osama looked up to and respected Salem, his polar opposite in lifestyle and temperament, who once joked that he was going to hell.

And if Salem hadn't died in a plane crash in 1988, it's possible he could have steered his younger brother away from terrorism, according to Steve Coll, the author of "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century."

The two brothers, the zealot and the libertine, dominate Coll's epic account of the wealthy Saudi Arabian family whose construction industry fortune was amassed by their father, Mohamed. After their father's death in the 1960s, Salem became the patriarch of the family and was like a father to Osama, according to his mother.

"A lot of people who knew Salem believed that he would have prevented Osama for becoming so radicalized and so isolated that he would not have pulled off 9/11," Coll tells

"He had a strong relationship with Osama and sold him weapons [when Osama was funding the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s]. Any friend of Salem's he had to treat with deference and respect."

While Osama's own mother and his uncle and other brothers failed to coax him back to Saudi Arabia from his exile in the Sudan in the mid-1990s, Coll believes that Salem would have succeeded.

"Salem would not have abided it and if it meant bundling him up in a burlap sack and taking him back to Saudi Arabia, he would have done that."

A classic example of the bond between these brothers and the distance between their lives was an elaborate hunting expedition to Pakistan that Salem envisioned as "a blend of Arabian Nights and Dr. Seuss."

For the trip with a mixed group of Europeans and Saudis, Salem brought a hot-air balloon, a four-wheel drive Volkswagen camper equipped with all types of gizmos. After stopping at his estate in London, the group flew to Salzburg, where they went skiing at Kitzbuhel and Salem bought everyone skis, boots, parkas and pants and they went to a party at a villa belonging to arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi.

Salem then flew the group to Marbella, Spain and on to Cairo for New Year's Eve. Finally, they landed in Peshawar, where they were greeted by Osama, who was helping arm the Afghan resistance. While Osama showed them refugee camps for Afghan civilians, Salem recorded the scene on video.

What Made Salem So Different

Why did Osama turn out so different from Salem?

"Salem went to boarding school in England, where he played in a rock band and he had this great adventure," says Coll. "None of his brothers had that experience, the privilege. He had that confidence of the eldest son… And he was American in his outlook on life, drawn to open spaces, to sense of play and possibility."

Indeed, what is striking about the family is the degree to which America exerted an intense fascination and temptation. While Salem and other brothers and sisters became avid consumers, Osama was eventually repelled and retreated into a more austere existence.

From the beginning, America cast a spell on Mohamed's brood of children.

Osama's favorite TV shows included "Bonanza" and "Fury," which appealed to him since it featured a troubled orphan boy who goes to live on a ranch and tamed wild horses, especially a black stallion named Fury. Osama later became passionate about horses, owning as many as 20 on his own ranch south of Jeddah.

Later, he took his half-brothers to cowboy and karate movies while he attended boarding school in Beirut. Osama bought fancy cars, including a Lincoln and a Mercedes sedan, wrecking one of them when he drove too fast.

But after falling under the influence of Islamic scholar-teachers and becoming religious, Osama rejected Americana and Western influences.

He would not let his own children drink from a straw because they did not exist during the time of Mohammed, refused to let them put ice in their drinks because it would soften them, and banned Tabasco sauce because it was an American product.

Coll writes that Osama may have once traveled to America to get medical attention for one of his sons. The experience reportedly was not pleasant — sitting in an airport lounge, waiting for their connecting flight with his fully-covered wife Najwa, other passengers stared at them and took pictures.

The Charming Bin Laden Brother

Salem, on the other hand, embraced the freedoms, luxuries and attitude of the West.

A show-off who wore blue jeans, T-shirts and a leather jacket, Salem was proud of his farting skills, once passing gas in front of the governor of Riyadh, telling him, "I just farted, Prince. Don't you fart sometimes?"

Lacking any sense of modesty, Salem wanted to videotape his hemorrhoid surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. When the hospital refused, a friend brought a Polariod camera and Salem later created a multimedia show of photos set to music which he showed off at parties.

And he loved pranks, once dumping his American business partner and a colleague out of a Jeep in the middle of the night in the middle of the Saudi desert.

The American got his revenge by dropping Salem off in the middle of Harlem one night with no money in his pocket. Hours later, Salem sauntered back in to the hotel with two new African-American friends, telling him "Bob, you do have a sense of humor."

America was a shopper's paradise for Salem. He paid stores at his local shopping mall in Florida to stay open late to accommodate his impulses. For one party, he bought up all the Dom Perignon in Panama City but ran out so he sent a pilot to Columbus, Ga., to pick up a few cases and fly it back.

He used to ship home dozens of Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals, five thousand cases of Tabasco sauce and vast quantities of the kids' drink Mello Yello.

The ultimate extrovert, he once paid a bandleader at an Oscar party in Los Angeles to let him sing "House of the Rising Sun" in seven languages. And he often flew members of the family to Las Vegas to gamble and drink while staying at Caesar's Palace, tipping dealers with thousands of dollars of chips.

On a bet with Saudi's King Fahd, Salem said he could persuade four young European and American girls to marry him simultaneously. When he invited the women to his English estate, he unveiled his offer: a four-house compound in Jeddah, with one flying an American flag, one a German flag, one a French tricolor and fourth a British Union Jack and each house would have a car from that home country and each wife could have a home in their native countries.

He almost succeeded, marrying the British woman and remaining friends with the others.

Doing Business With Bush's Pal

Salem employed his charisma in business deals with Americans, once claiming that he was talking to Brooke Shields about a movie deal.

One of his business partners was Jim Bath, an old friend of George W. Bush from their days as pilots in the Texas Air National Guard who also invested $50,000 into Bush's oil-drilling fund.

Bath's estranged business partner later claimed that Bath was a CIA operative and was asked to conduct "covert intelligence gathering on his Saudi Arabian business associates," and possibly shipped construction equipment and weapons to Osama. Bath later called those stories a "fantasy."

One of his business partners was Jim Bath, an old friend of George W. Bush from their days as pilots in the Texas Air National Guard when they went carousing together in the early 1970s.

Bath, who sunk $50,000 into Bush's oil-drilling fund, also created companies for Salem, including offshore firms.

Bath's estranged business partner later claimed that Bath was a CIA operative and was asked to conduct "covert intelligence gathering on his Saudi Arabian business associates." White believed that Bath used his charter aircraft business to ship construction equipment and possible weapons to Osama. Bath later called those stories a "fantasy."

Salem also talked to Donald Trump about opening a Trump Tower in Riyadh, according to Coll. Trump demanded $25,000 in cash and two first-class tickets to show that he was serious but Salem was insulted and refused. Trump's spokeswoman denied to Coll that the incident happened. When asked about the incident by, the spokeswoman has not replied for comment.

Strange Twists of Fate

The Bin Laden family story is also full of strange twists of fate, especially involving plane crashes from the deaths of Mohamed and Salem to 9/11.

In September 1967, Mohamed Bin Laden died in a plane crash in the dusty desert region of Asir due to an error made by his American pilot, Jim Harrington, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Like the rest of the family, Osama Bin Laden was always told that his father died due to an apparent error by his American pilot. In an eerie symmetry, five of the 9/11 hijackers recruited by Bin Laden came from Asir.

Salem crashed his single-seater plane into the power lines outside of San Antonio in 1988. When he was rushed to Brooke Army Medical Center, American medical doctors could not save him and pronounced him dead.

Although Osama never discussed his brother's death on American soil, some of his brothers believed that Salem might have been murdered in a conspiracy. Ghabli Bin Laden, who was close to Osama, flew to the airfield in Texas, obtained the autopsy report and eventually concluded that it was truly an accident.

Since 9/11, the family is doing better than ever.

While lawsuits filed by families of 9/11 victims have fizzled, family members sold their American properties for millions, vacationed around the world, competed in motorbike contests and landed huge contracts in Saudi Arabia. Among their projects: the $27 billion King Abdullah Economic City, the massive Millenium Seaport, the kingdom's first world-class 18-hole golf course, an Education Zone filled with universities and condominiums.

"They certainly are doing very well, certainly have not suffered any punishment for the notoriety that Osama created for their family name," says Coll.

They even profited from the security concerns of the kingdom, prompted by Osama's terrorist allies. When the Saudi government announced a project to build nine new prisons across the country, the Bin Ladens landed the $1.6 billion construction contract.

Meanwhile, Osama's eldest son, Abdullah, runs an advertising company in Saudi Arabia that contains a juice bar, designer furniture, and framed photographs of cable cars in San Francisco. In 2002, he showed up in jeans and a baseball cap at the American consulate for a July 4th celebration.

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