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One or two of the bin Laden brothers are arrested over the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Medina. One of the brothers is Mahrous, the other is, according to author Steve Coll, “probably Osama.”
Inside Job? - The mosque had been seized by about five hundred rebels opposed to the Saudi royal family, led by a militant named Juhayman al-Otaibi. The rebels had apparently used Bin Laden company vehicles to stock ammunition and food in the mosque prior to its seizure, indicating some people at the company were sympathetic to them. According to one account, the two brothers are not held for long; a bin Laden company employee will say the arrest is a mistake as the arresting policemen wrongly think the two brothers are conspirators just because they are monitoring police radio traffic. (Coll 2008, pp. 225-228)
Mahrous bin Laden - Other accounts say that Mahrous, who joined a rebel group opposed to the Saudi government in the 1960s, is held for longer and only eventually released from prison because of the close ties between the bin Ladens and the Saudi royal family. Mahrous will abandon the rebel cause and join the family business, eventually being made a head of the Medina branch and a member of the board. He will still hold these positions on 9/11, although a newspaper will report that “his past [is] not forgiven and most important decisions in the [bin Laden family business] are made without Mahrous’ input.” (MacKay 10/7/2001; Mayer and Szechenyi 11/5/2001; Leibovich-Dar 12/18/2002)
Later Comment by Osama - Osama’s position on the seizure of the mosque at this time is not known, although he will later criticize the Saudi king for not negotiating a surrender. Coll will suggest that, although he is one of the most devout members of the bin Laden family at this time, he is not in league with the rebels as he is more concerned with his own material wellbeing. (Coll 2008, pp. 229)
Older Bin Ladens Assist Besiegers - In contrast to Osama, several other family members, including Salem, Mustafa, Yahya, and Yeslam, work extremely hard to take back the mosque. As the bin Ladens actually renovated the mosque, they are able to provide the Saudi government with detailed plans to help their assault. After the rebels retreat underground, the family brings in equipment to drill holes in the floor, so that government troops can drop grenades down on holdouts. (Coll 2008, pp. 225-226)
Salem bin Laden, Osama’s oldest brother, described by a French secret intelligence report as one of two closest friends of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd who often performs important missions for Saudi Arabia, is involved in secret Paris meetings between US and Iranian emissaries this month, according to a French report. Frontline, which published the French report, notes that such meetings have never been confirmed. Rumors of these meetings have been called the “October Surprise” and some have speculated that in these meetings, George H. W. Bush negotiated a delay to the release of the US hostages in Iran, thus helping Ronald Reagan and Bush win the 1980 Presidential election. All of this is highly speculative, but if the French report is correct, it points to a long-standing connection of highly improper behavior between the Bush and bin Laden families. (PBS Frontline 2001)
Salem bin Laden tells one of his employees, George Harrington, that his brother Osama, is, according to a later account by Harrington, “the liaison between the US, the Saudi government, and the Afghan rebels.” Salem, head of the bin Laden family, also says that he must visit Osama in Peshawar, a base inside Pakistan for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin, to check on what equipment the Saudi government is funneling to him. The two men fly up together with another employee, Bengt Johansson, and meet Osama that day. Osama also gives his brother and the two employees a tour of some facilities in Peshawar, including refugee camps, a hospital and an orphanage, and Salem films them to publicize his brother’s charitable work. (Coll 2008, pp. 7-9)
Quoting a French intelligence report posted by PBS Frontline, The New Yorker reports, “During the nineteen-eighties, when the Reagan administration secretly arranged for an estimated $34 million to be funneled through Saudi Arabia to the Contras in Nicaragua, [Osama’s eldest brother] Salem bin Laden aided in this cause.” (PBS Frontline 2001; Mayer and Szechenyi 11/5/2001)
According to author Steve Coll, US President Ronald Reagan may be given a briefing about Osama bin Laden’s charitable work in the Soviet-Afghan War, and may also see a video showing aspects of the work. If this is true, the briefing and video would come from Salem bin Laden, head of the bin Laden family, who made the video recently when visiting his brother Osama (see Early 1985).
Summit - Salem is in Washington at this time to attend a summit between Reagan and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. It is unclear what Salem’s role is at the summit, although one of the key areas of co-operation between the US and Saudi Arabia is support for the Afghan mujaheddin, and his brother Osama is a key figure who frequently travels between Saudi Arabia and mujaheddin bases in Pakistan. An attorney will later recall seeing a photograph of Salem and Reagan together at the meeting, but the photo will apparently be destroyed before it can be published.
Possible Briefing - Coll will comment: “It seems probable that when Salem reached Washington that winter, he would have passed to King Fahd, if not directly to the White House, the video evidence he had just gathered documenting Osama’s humanitarian work on the Afghan frontier.” Coll will add that Reagan takes pains to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s efforts to support Afghan refugees on the Pakistani frontier, saying: “Their many humanitarian contributions touch us deeply.… Saudi aid to refugees uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed here.” Coll will point out that the leading Saudi provider of such aid is Osama bin Laden, and that “Reagan’s language suggested that he had been given at least a general briefing about Osama’s work.” (Coll 2008, pp. 11-12)
Bin Laden family head Salem bin Laden asks the Pentagon to supply anti-aircraft missiles to Arab volunteers fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War. The request is made on behalf of Salem’s brother Osama, who is establishing a semi-autonomous group of Arab volunteers outside the direct control of local Afghan commanders and will set up a camp just for Arabs later this year (see Late 1986). The Pentagon is asked because the US is already supplying anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to the Afghans. However, it does not reply to Salem, and the reason for the failure to reply is not known. According to a business partner involved in Salem’s efforts to secure the missiles, he makes several attempts to contact the Pentagon, but is unable to locate the right person in the defense bureaucracy. Later research will indicate that there is no formal decision by the Reagan administration not to supply the missiles or other equipment to the Arab volunteers. Pentagon official Michael Pillsbury will later say he was not aware of any such decision, but if such a decision had been taken, he would have been aware of it. (Coll 2008, pp. 287)
Salem and Osama bin Laden hold a series of meetings with South African arms dealers to discuss supplies for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan. One meeting is held at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, and a person who attends this meeting will later discuss it with a lawyer acting for victims of the 9/11 attacks. The person’s name is not known. The meeting is attended by Osama bin Laden, Afghan commander Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and two South African officers. The attendees discuss weapons and training. There are other meetings in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between South African suppliers and Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother. Arms purchases are also discussed there. Reportedly, some of the financing for the weapons comes from the Saudi government. (Coll 2008, pp. 287)
Osama and Salem bin Laden purchase anti-aircraft missiles for Arab volunteers fighting in Afghanistan in a deal concluded at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The transaction results from a request by Osama that Salem help him with two purchases, of the anti-aircraft missiles and of equipment to refill ammunition shells for AK-47 assault rifles.
Middleman - Salem attempted to obtain the missiles from the Pentagon, but was rebuffed (see (Early-Mid 1986)), and brought a German acquaintance named Thomas Dietrich in to help him complete the deal. It is difficult to arrange as, even though the bin Ladens are backed by the Saudi government, they do not have clearance to buy the missiles from Western authorities. Dietrich has contacts at the arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch and also gets an arms salesman to meet Salem and Osama in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. However, the salesman tells Osama that refilling the ammunition makes no sense and it would be simpler to just purchase it on the international market. For the missiles, Osama, Salem, Dietrich and Dietrich’s contacts meet two or three times at the Dorchester Hotel over a period of six to eight weeks. Dietrich will later learn that his contacts help arrange the purchase of Soviet SA-7 missiles in South America, as well as the ammunition.
Paid in Oil - However, there is a problem with the deal because the bin Ladens want to pay for the weapons not with cash, but with oil, “just a tanker offshore,” according to Dietrich. This causes trouble as “a company like Heckler & Koch, they don’t want oil, they want money.” Dietrich is not aware of the source of funding for the purchases, but author Steve Coll will note, “The best available evidence suggests it probably came at least in part from the Saudi government,” because the bin Ladens are “working in concert with official Saudi policy” and “seem to fit inside a larger pattern.” This is a reference to the Al Yamamah arms deal (see Late 1985). (Coll 2008, pp. 284-288)
Prior to this year, President George W. Bush is a failed oilman. Three times, friends and investors have bailed him out to keep his business from going bankrupt. However, in 1988, the same year his father becomes president, some Saudis buy a portion of his small company, Harken, which has never performed work outside of Texas. Later in the year, Harken wins a contract in the Persian Gulf and starts doing well financially. These transactions seem so suspicious that the Wall Street Journal in 1991 states it “raises the question of… an effort to cozy up to a presidential son.” Two major investors in Bush’s company during this time are Salem bin Laden and Khalid bin Mahfouz. Salem bin Laden dies in a plane crash in Texas in 1988. (Intelligence Newsletter 3/2/2000; Cave 11/19/2001) Salem bin Laden is Osama’s oldest brother; Khalid bin Mahfouz is a Saudi banker with a 20 percent stake in BCCI. The bank will be shut down a few years later and bin Mahfouz will have to pay a $225 million fine (while admitting no wrongdoing) (see October 10, 2001)). (Vardi 3/18/2002)
The FBI investigates connections between James Bath and George W. Bush, according to published reports. Bath is Salem bin Laden’s official representative in the US. Bath’s business partner contends that, “Documents indicate that the Saudis were using Bath and their huge financial resources to influence US policy,” since George W. Bush’s father is president. George W. Bush denies any connections to Saudi money. What becomes of this investigation is unclear, but no charges are ever filed. (Urban 6/4/1992)