Bookmarks Issue: 
Steve Coll
Award Year: 

A-The Bin LadensSteve Coll’s last book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001, won the Pulitzer Prize—Coll’s second win. Coll is a staff writer for the New Yorker and president of the New America Foundation.

The Topic: Shortly after 9/11, several members of Osama bin Laden’s family were flown out of the United States for their own safety. The Bin Ladens tells the story of this curious extended family—large enough to fill a jumbo jet and wealthy enough to own several. The family made all of its money through cultivating the favor and lucrative building contracts of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Their most infamous son (one of his father’s 54 children by many wives), it turns out, is actually something of a black sheep: most of the Bin Ladens are Western-educated and live lavish, secular lifestyles (though, as Coll explains, not without an undercurrent of Islamic values). By exploring the origins of the family, its rise to power, and the psychological dynamics that created the most wanted man in the world, Coll adds necessary depth to a man and a culture that are often portrayed too simplistically.
Penguin. 688 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201641

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"History as good as the sort Coll has written here sobers as well as enlightens. … The Bin Ladens now joins Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and Mary Habeck’s too-often overlooked Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror as the books that ought to be read by anyone who really wants to understand the origins of the current crisis." Tim Rutten

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Coll’s story is a family biography rather than a portrait of Osama, but in the telling much is revealed about the young man who grew up in a family almost as secular as it was pious, ‘one degree separated from Mecca and two degrees from Las Vegas.’ … Coll’s exhaustively researched and elegantly written account shows the bin Ladens to be consummate survivors." Chuck Leddy

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"By any standard, The Bin Ladens is a remarkable book. [Coll’s] reporting and writing skills are magnificent. … During a confusing era of high-stakes international politics, religious strife and the globalization of corporate power, Coll has produced a guide to reality that should be required reading." Steve Weinberg

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a book that possesses the novelistic energy of a rags-to-riches family epic, following its sprawling cast of characters as they travel from Mecca and Medina to Las Vegas and Disney World, and yet, at the same time, it is a book that, in tracing the connections between the public and the private, the political and the personal, stands as a substantive bookend to Mr. Coll’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2004 book, Ghost Wars." Michiko Kakutani

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Coll never lets the taint that Osama bin Laden has brought to this family color his writing. Instead, [he] spins a straightforward family tale full of intrigue, close connections to the royal family, and in so doing tells us more about the man behind al-Qaida than any other book published to date." John Freeman

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"There are no really new insights in Steve Coll’s many details, but there is a window into the two very different paths that a generation of Gulf Arab families has to choose between. We need to understand that tension in their families because the path they select can greatly affect the future of our families." Richard A. Clarke

Critical Summary

Most reviewers were extremely impressed by The Bin Ladens and found it much more than a supplement to the array of existing Osama biographies. They praised Coll’s choice of the family as framing device, which allows him to explore a century’s worth of geopolitical intrigue, economic forces, and cultural change in the Middle East while also constructing an engaging personal story that helps explain recent events. A few reviewers named The Bin Ladens as one of the most important books for helping readers understand 9/11, and nearly all reviewers endorsed it as required reading. While some critics acknowledged that Coll’s work does not bring many new facts to light and relies, in part, on previous works (such as Peter Bergen’s two books on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda), most thought that the intergenerational structure of the narrative added a perspective lacking in previous books.

Cited by the Critics

Knowing the Enemy Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror | Mary Habeck (2006): Habeck holds that Muslim terrorists are not jealous of the West’s consumer culture—but that it is their particular strain of religion (wholly distinct from moderate Islam) that drives them to jihad. She traces the evolution of this radical vision of Islamic thought from the 14th century to the present.