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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bin Laden's Family Made Itself a Name

Several years ago, at a time when Saudi Arabia was awash with talk of terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden, a large billboard appeared outside Prince Sultan Air Base, home to thousands of U.S. servicemen stationed in the kingdom, advertising "Security upgrades by Binladin Group."

Similar signs -- this time advertising construction of a new airport terminal -- greeted FBI investigators who went to the Yemeni capital, Aden, last December following the suicide bombing of the USS Cole, widely attributed to bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida.

The startling juxtaposition of international terrorism and international capitalism reflects the duality of an extraordinary and very large family that amassed one of the largest fortunes in Saudi Arabia in two generations.

The family's success story began with Osama's father, an illiterate bricklayer named Mohammed Bin-Awad bin Laden, who walked out of the Hadramawt mountains of southern Yemen in 1925 on a harrowing 1,600-kilometer journey to the Hijaz region of what is now Saudi Arabia. According to family tradition, Mohammed came to the notice of the future Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, while working on one of his palaces in the Hijaz, and suggesting ways to make it easier for Aziz to get around the property in his wheelchair.

Whatever the story, the bin Laden clan owes much of its phenomenal success to Saudi royal patronage and its skill in exploiting connections to win lucrative construction contracts throughout the Middle East. Most important of all were the contracts, awarded to the bin Ladens in the 1960s, to rebuild the mosques at Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in the Arab world. This honor left a great impression on the young Osama, according to an interview he gave to an Arab journalist in 1999.

Mohammed was killed in 1968 when his private jet crashed into the mountains in southern Saudi Arabia. Osama, then 10 years old, received an inheritance estimated at $30 million to $60 million, according to U.S. officials. But while he worked in the family construction business from a young age, he had little to do with management of the company, which was firmly in the hands of his older brother, Salem.

Educated at Millfield, an exclusive private boarding school in southern England, Salem spoke fluent English and was thoroughly Westernized, "brilliant and fun-loving," according to his former lawyer, an American named Wayne Fagan.

An enthusiastic pilot, Salem was killed in San Antonio in 1988 after flying his one-man, ultra-light plane into power lines.

After Salem's death, control of the business shifted to a half-brother, Bakr, who today runs what has become an international conglomerate with annual revenues of about $5 billion and offices in many countries.

Osama's rebellion has been a huge embarrassment to most of his family, which includes at least 50 brothers and sisters from Mohammed's four official wives. The rest of the family -- some of whom spell their names Binladin rather than bin Laden -- formally disassociated itself from Osama in 1994 after he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for campaigning against the stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil during and after the 1991 Gulf War.

Intensive investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies over the past two years have failed to turn up any evidence of financial ties between the Binladin Group and Osama, according to Wyche Fowler, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996 to earlier this year. Fowler said that the bin Laden family had "cooperated fully" with U.S. efforts to trace Osama's bank accounts and other sources of funding in the wake of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, which were widely attributed to al-Qaida.

Although the leaders of the bin Laden clan have disowned Osama, there is little doubt that the fugitive Saudi millionaire has used his family background to promote jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

"His name is a huge asset," said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University, who has studied the bin Laden family. "It is like someone called Rockefeller becoming a communist."

One of the younger bin Laden siblings, Osama was the only son of a Syrian woman, the last of Mohammed's four official wives. The other wives were Saudis. According to a family friend quoted in a January 2000 New Yorker profile, this made Osama "a double outsider" in "a country that is obsessed with parentage." His paternal roots were in Yemen, his maternal roots in Syria.

Osama's mother is reported to have kept in at least sporadic contact with her son since he fled to Afghanistan in 1996. Some experts believe that the rest of the family might have used Osama's mother as an intermediary to try to bring her son back into the fold.

U.S. officials believe that at least two of the more junior members of the family might also have maintained contact with him. Suspicion centers on two brothers-in-law -- Mohammad Jamal Khalifa and Sad al-Sharif -- who are alleged to have had financial connections with the al-Qaida network.

Khalifa, who is based in Saudi Arabia, is suspected by U.S. officials of using a charitable group known as the International Islamic Relief Organization to finance Islamic extremists in the Philippines. He has denied the charges.

According to Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism, Khalifa may also have helped to fund the Islamic Army of Aden, which claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole. Khalifa was detained briefly in the United States in 1994 after immigration officials discovered that he had been sentenced to death in Jordan in absentia for "conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts." He was deported to Jordan, put on trial again, found not guilty and allowed to leave for Saudi Arabia.

Researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.