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Bin Laden’s family business roots

Like most news junkies, I've read a great deal about the death of Osama bin Laden since the news broke on May 1 that a special team of U.S. Navy SEALs had killed the al-Qaeda founder in the Pakistan compound where he had been hiding. I've been paying particular attention to descriptions of bin Laden's family business background, which have figured prominently in his obituaries.

Osama's father, Muhammad bin Laden, was a penniless emigrant from Yemen who in 1931 founded a construction firm in Saudi Arabia; through his efforts, it became the Saudi Binladen Group, the royal family's favorite contractor and one of the world's most successful family businesses. Osama's mother was a teenager when she married Muhammad; she was his tenth wife, according to The Guardian. Osama was Muhammad's 17th child (there were 52 total) and seventh son.

Muhammad soon divorced Osama's mother and arranged for her to remarry one of his employees; Osama grew up with four stepsiblings and visited his father's family on weekends. The New York Times' obituary noted:

All of the Bin Laden children were required to work for the family company, meaning that Osama spent summers working on road projects. Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash in 1967, when Osama was 10. The siblings each inherited millions -- the precise amount was a matter of some debate -- and led a life of near-royalty.

Osama seems to have been an outsider within the family. Notably, he was the only one of his siblings who never studied abroad. While the other bin Laden children were exposed to Western culture, Osama was educated in a strict, anti-Western sect of Islam, the Times obituary said. As a student at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he studied civil engineering, he became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical group.

The Washington Post's obituary noted that Osama left the university to take a job with the family business as a Mecca-based manager. The company, under leadership of Salem, an older brother of Osama, had been awarded the job of renovating the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Osama at first "served essentially as a philanthropic activist," the Post article said. In the 1980s, he "threw himself more actively into the war."

An obituary in the Financial Times said that at the time, according to those who knew him, Osama had two motivations:

He was imbued by a pride in his family construction company's role in refurbishing the holy places of Mecca and Medina. And he was fired by Islamic duty to liberate Afghanistan....

The Post obituary noted:

Using equipment supplied by his family's firm, he helped build roads north toward Tora Bora, a mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan, and a warren of caves to serve as shelters and arms depot.... Even after Moscow announced plans in 1988 to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, bin Laden hoped to develop a larger Arab force and employ it in a broader jihad.

In late 1989, Osama returned to Saudi Arabia and the family business, which by that time had become a global conglomerate with interests in industrial and power contracts, oil exploration, mining and telecommunications, according to the Post. Osama's brother Bakr had taken over after Salem's death in a plane crash in Texas.

Tensions began to mount between Osama and Saudi authorities. The Saudis were concerned about his support for Islamist rebels in Yemen and his opposition to the government. Osama was opposed to the Saudis' acceptance of U.S. troops in the country during the Iraq-Kuwait war in the early 1990s. Osama moved to Sudan, set up businesses that would help finance al-Qaeda, and ... you know the rest of the story.

The New York Times obituary noted that Osama's family, "which had become rich on its relations with the [Saudi] royal family, denounced him publicly after he was caught smuggling weapons from Yemen." A U.S. attorney representing the Saudi Binladen Group wrote in a 2004 letter to Thomas Kean, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon the United States:

"By taking aggressive, well-publicized steps against a member of their own family as early as 1994, the Binladen family sought to do what it could to limit the influence of [Osama] and his followers.... In addition, [the Saudi Binladen Group] has a clear record of support for and cooperation with the U.S. government." 

Khaled Batarfi, a childhood friend of Osama's, told Bloomberg after the terrorist's death:

"The general mood in the family is that this was a page of history that's closed and that family members hope there will be no violent responses."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the U.S. government confirmed Osama's death by DNA analysis that "compared material collected from the body with that from (so far unspecified) bin Laden relatives."

Would Osama bin Laden have become a terrorist if his family background had been different? We can't know the answer to that. Certainly, other factors were involved, among them Osama's exposure to religious extremism and his experiences during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

We can speculate, however, that without his connection to the giant Saudi Binladen Group, Osama probably would not have had the means to go as far as he did in creating what the Post called "one of the most ruthless, far-flung terrorist networks in history."

And indeed, it seems that Osama may not have entirely renounced the trappings of wealth, after all. As Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin pointed out, "The image of the indomitable ascetic has been smashed as we learn he was living comfortably in an urban mansion."

Bloomberg Businessweek's Brendan Greeley put it this way:

Remember him as a thug and a murderer, but also as a self-obsessed diva with a gift for timing and spectacle. Bin Laden was a trust funder who took up performance art.

It's no secret that wealth and privilege have their dark side. Perhaps because of his family background or perhaps despite it, Osama bin Laden took that dark side to its most hideous extreme.

Redefining tradition

The recent Passover/Easter holiday season got me thinking about family traditions. Several years ago, when I took over the responsibility of hosting our family's celebration, I realized I had the opportunity to create new traditions that might make the holiday more meaningful for my generation -- but I also had the obligation to honor the memory of our past celebrations around my parents' dining table.

The dichotomy of tradition and reinvention was a topic of discussion at the recent "Transitions 2011" conference, sponsored by Family Business Magazine and Stetson University's Family Enterprise Center. As each new generation assumes leadership roles in the family and the business, they must determine which parts of the legacy should be preserved and which are actually hindering family unity or business growth.

Charlotte Lamp, an owner of the Port Blakely Companies, told conference attendees that one of her family council's most important -- but sensitive -- tasks was "de-mything" the family's long-held myths. (She also wrote about this in Family Business Magazine's Autumn 2007 issue.) Scott Livingston, president and CEO of Horst Engineering in East Hartford, Conn., noted that family legacies of traditionalism and frugality can actually impede business progress. Family business stakeholders must continually monitor which legacies are propelling the business forward and which might be holding it back.

My family seems to be pleased with my incorporation of a few new twists into our holiday ritual. It took some scouting around to find the recipes and readings that would make our meal memorable, but judging from the feedback, my search was worth it.

Of course, setting a multigenerational business family on a new course is much more complicated than reinterpreting a holiday celebration. While I could unilaterally decide to put a new appetizer on my table, setting a new course for a business family requires consultation and consensus building. But, as our conference speakers told us, the rewards might well outweigh the risks.

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