Coll Speaks on Bin Ladens' "Charismatic Genius"

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Steve Coll ’80 shared his thoughts on terrorism, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other topics, in talks to the Occidental College community Oct. 22.

Coll, president of the New America Foundation and author of six award-winning nonfiction books, is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Bin Ladens and Al Qaeda. Previously, he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, serving as the paper’s managing editor from 1998 to 2004. An Occidental trustee, he lives with his wife, Susan (Keselenko) Coll ’81, and their three children in Washington, D.C.
Coll first spoke at a luncheon attended by alumni, trustees, and staff at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. He shared insights gleaned while researching his latest book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, focusing on the development of the family’s leaders from Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed, to Mohammed’s eldest son, Salem, and then Osama himself. These three males manifested a streak of "charismatic genius," Coll said.

Mohammed, who had 22 wives and 54 children, was an entrepreneur with no political ambitions who achieved great wealth in the construction business by ingratiating himself with the Saudi royal family. He died in plane crash in 1967. His eldest son, the "very modern" Salem, was a rock ‘n’ roll musician and private pilot schooled in England -- "a very gentle person" whose favorite place was Disney World, Coll said. He died in a mysterious Texas plane crash in 1988, at which time Osama stepped into power.

Osama, as the world is aware, is "very, very religious," but also a great believer in diversity and technology, as well as a successful businessman. "What is Al Qaeda but a brand, really," Coll said. "Neither race nor language nor sect got in his [Osama’s] way. He visualized a global people unified in the goals of Islam."

Later that afternoon, Coll gave a more informal talk to students and faculty on campus. He focused his remarks on addressing the question, what will happen on the new president’s first day in office? He suggested that the next president, whom he said likely will be Barack Obama ’83, will try to get U.S. troops in Iraq down to a "residual force" of 40,000 to 50,000 by the end of his first term, with a gradual shift of forces to Afghanistan.

He predicted a "holding pattern" in Iraq for the first six to 10 months of the next U.S. presidency, although he said a coup in that country is "widely anticipated." He also predicted that Pakistan and Afghanistan will come to be seen as one entity, "the way the Taliban sees them." He said that the military and White House are currently engaged in "a complete rethinking and rewriting of the American strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan," and that the consensus is that the only exit strategy there is to heavily invest in training and equipping the Afghan national army.

Coll concluded both talks by taking questions from the audience. "Is Osama still alive, and do you know where he’s hiding?" asked a guest at the Biltmore lunch. Coll opined that the Al Qaeda leader is indeed living, and said he is thought to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He also predicted that we may hear from him -- though not likely in the form of an attack -- in the days before the U.S. presidential election.