Steve Coll


An Arabian Family in the American Century


TWO JOURNALISTS now on the staff of the Washington Post made extraordinary contributions to the research for this book. Robin Shulman conducted interviews and dug up documents in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Spain, France, and the United States. Her persistence, empathy, and eye for detail have made the book immeasurably stronger. After I drafted the manuscript, Julie Tate recontacted my interview subjects to deepen the research and recheck facts and interpretations. Her attention to detail and nuance, her passion for the subject matter, and her astonishing work ethic made an enormous difference.


Born from mid-1940s to 1950:

SONS: Salem, Ali, Thabit, Mahrous, Hassan, Omar, Bakr, Khaled, Yeslam, Ghalib, Yahya, Abdulaziz, Issa, Tareq

DAUGHTERS: Aysha, Fatima, Sheikha, Su’add, Tayyeba, Wafa, Nour

Born from 1951 to 1959:

SONS: Ahmad, Ibrahim, Shafiq, Osama, Khalil, Saleh, Haider

DAUGHTERS: Salma, Zeenat, Ruqqueiya, Randa, Zubaida, Najiah, Samiah, Muna, Saleha, Mariam, Fowziyah, Raja, Huda, Seema

Born from 1959 to 1967:

SONS: Saad, Abdullah, Yasir, Mohammad

DAUGHTERS: Raedah, Eman, Aetedal, Sahar, Ilham, Sana’a, Malak, Muneera


THERE IS NO uniform system for transliteration between English and Arabic. The spellings of Arabic-originated place-and proper names relied upon in these pages are to some extent arbitrary, typically chosen to employ the simplest or most common forms. Occasionally, to avoid changing the original text in a quoted document, names may be spelled inconsistently. The Bin Ladens themselves offer an acute case. It is not unusual for family members to render their names in two different spellings in the same English-language document, even in official court filings. “Binladin” has been one common formulation; it is the preferred English spelling for the family’s flagship company, the Saudi Binladin Group. Yet “Binladen,” “Bin Ladin,” “Bin Laden,” and even “Benladin” are sometimes employed. I chose “Bin Laden” as the primary form because that is most familiar to American readers and also because when the family’s name is written in Arabic script, it appears as two words. For the first names of Mohamed’s children, I relied upon the spellings in English-language shareholder documents submitted by the family to a U.S. federal court.


October 1984 to February 1985

LYNN PEGHINY played piano most mornings at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Hotel in Orlando, Florida. She was twenty-four, dark-haired, slim, and spirited. She had grown up in Melbourne, on the Atlantic coast, and studied music at the University of Central Florida. She was drawn to the piano and made a living at it, if barely. The breakfast shift in the Hyatt’s cavernous atrium was normally subdued—sleepy tourists fortifying themselves for a day at Disney World, businessmen murmuring about real estate. One morning in October 1984, however, a middle-aged man with bright eyes and a mop of black hair walked over and asked in an unfamiliar accent if she would play Beethoven’s Fur Elise. He listened appreciatively, then handed her a twenty-dollar tip. “Do you play private parties?” he asked.

They exchanged business cards. His name was Salem Bin Laden. He had a house just west of Orlando, he told her, not far from Disney World, and he happened to be entertaining some visitors from his native Saudi Arabia who were members of that oil-endowed country’s royal family. He owned a piano and hoped she would play at an evening party. A few days later, she drove out State Road 50, which ran due west through miles of orange groves toward Lake County. Salem’s home, near the decaying railroad town of Winter Garden, turned out to be an ochre- walled five-acre estate with horse stables, a tiled swimming pool, weeping willows, and palm trees. The main house, a Mediterranean Revival built during the 1920s, had russet Spanish-tile roofing, cupolas, and arched, shaded walkways; it rested on a knoll above a sparkling lake.

“Leeen! Leeen!” Salem exclaimed when she arrived, waving her into the dining room, where his guests were taking breakfast at four in the afternoon. “Come, come,” he said. “Sit with us.”1 He placed her next to his guest of honor. Abdul Aziz Al-Ibrahim was a brother of Princess Jawhara Al-Ibrahim, the fourth and reputedly the favorite wife of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. The Ibrahims had ascended from obscurity after Fahd fell for Jawhara; she left her husband for the king and gave birth to a son, Abdulaziz, upon whom Fahd doted. Princess Jawhara’s place at the king’s side created opportunities for her brothers. They became influential businessmen, exciting jealousy and gossip in royal circles; they had recently started to invest in Orlando real estate.2 Salem Bin Laden, whose family’s construction firm relied upon access to the king’s court, cultivated the Ibrahims’ friendship.

Lynn chattered freely; Ibrahim ate vigorously, but in silence. Salem leaned over and whispered, “You’re not allowed to speak directly to him.” Mortified, she fell silent; she wondered what she had gotten herself into.

Salem took her outside to show her the grounds. He was a slight man in his late thirties, about five feet and seven inches, slim but soft from a life without much exercise. He smoked cigarettes continually, and dark bags had formed beneath his eyes. Yet he radiated a magnetic energy that seemed, along with his money, to immediately attract people and hold them in his orbit. He was a skilled pilot who spoke passionately about flight; he mentioned that one of his brothers had recently injured himself in a crash near the lake. He seemed restless, in perpetual motion, yet also sweet and trustworthy. Gradually that afternoon Lynn came to understand that she had been invited into some sort of rolling intercontinental party over which Salem presided, a party that had no particular beginning or end. He told her that he would be leaving soon on his private jet for California; he had a meeting there, he said, about a possible movie project involving the actress Brooke Shields.3

As evening fell the estate began to fill, mainly with Saudi men who appeared to be on vacation. There were also a few middle-aged American women who were friends of Salem’s, or seemed to be in business with him. Lynn found a Yamaha upright piano in the living room and began to play. Eventually Salem told her that she should come back the next day; the party would carry on. “Bring your sisters! Bring your friends!” he urged. “We need girls!”

When Lynn did return with a girlfriend and two of her sisters, she found a band in the living room. Salem decided amid some fanfare to organize a talent show. He promised five thousand dollars in cash to whoever won

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