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Bin Laden half-brother breaks silence

In an NBC exclusive, a half-brother of Osama bin Laden speaks out about his infamous relative, his life after Sept. 11 and about allegations made in Michael Moore's controversial film, "Fahrenheit 9/11."
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Osama bin Laden is the most wanted terrorist in the world. To the man in the following interview, he is that and something else. He's his brother. For the first time in American media, a half-brother of Osama bin Laden is speaking out about his infamous relative, his life after Sept. 11 and about allegations made in Michael Moore's controversial film, "Fahrenheit 9/11." Yeslam bin Laden has been reluctant to speak to the American public, until now. He is breaking his silence, he says, to set the record straight, starting with the day that changed so many lives around the world.

Matt Lauer: "Take me back to September 11. Where were you?"

Yeslam bin Laden: "I was in Geneva."

Lauer: "And when did you hear about the attacks on the World Trade Center?"

Bin Laden: "Well, I have a friend who is an investment banker, an American friend. Called me and told me a plane ran into the tower. And at the beginning, we thought it was an accident and then he called me back to tell me that the second -- the tower was hit by another plane.  And then we knew that it is not an accident."

People around the world had the same sickening realization that day. But for this particular man, a wealthy Swiss businessman, seemingly so far removed from the terror. The greatest crime of the new century would come to have a deeply personal dimension.

Lauer: "Did you immediately suspect that your brother might be involved in this?"

Bin Laden: "Never thought. It's too sophisticated, I thought, for anybody to imagine something like this."

But somebody had imagined it. And now Yeslam BinLadin shared a name and a father with the most wanted man on earth.

Lauer: "To many people around the world right now, the name Bin Laden is synonymous with terror."

Bin Laden: "Uh-huh."

Lauer: "Does that distress you?"

Bin Laden: "It does because we are well known, and we have been well known before September 11 for being a very well-to-do and proper family."

Lauer: "And after September 11, you're well known for a much different reason."

Bin Laden: "One person is known for a much different reason. And a lot of people amalgamate the whole thing."

Yeslam bin Laden says that's not fair, and he agreed to his first interview with the American media to set the record straight about his family. But it's a complicated record and, aside from Osama, the most investigated member of the bin Laden clan may be Yeslam himself.

Lauer: "There is a perception or maybe a fear in the United States that somehow the bin Laden family continues to either stay in contact with him or, in some ways, support him."

Bin Laden: "Why would we? This is ridiculous. You know, my father was a devoted Saudi. He worked all his life in Saudi Arabia. And he told us not to get involved in politics."

The bin Ladens have been called the Rockefellers of the Middle East. Yeslam and Osama's father, Mohammed bin Laden, built a $5 billion empire in one of the world's great rags to riches stories. Mohammed was an illiterate bricklayer with an innate genius for engineering, who became chief road builder to the oil rich king of Saudi Arabia. The family's fortune was secured in 1973, when the king awarded Mohammed's company, now called the Saudi bin Laden Group, one of the biggest construction contracts of all time, rebuilding the holy cities of Mecca and Medina -- a $17 billion  project that is still underway.

Journalist Craig Unger researched the bin Laden family for his book, "House of Bush, House of Saud."

Craig Unger: "They're multi-billionaires. They're enormously close to the royal house of Saud. Their entire fortune is really based on this very close personal relationship between their family and the royal family and have gone on for generations now."

Along with his huge fortune, Mohammed bin Laden also built a huge family, with nearly two dozen wives and a total of 54 children.

Lauer: "This is a very large family, a family that perhaps, Yeslam, Americans can't understand."

Bin Laden: "Uh-huh."

Lauer: "Describe it for me a little bit."

Bin Laden: "In a nutshell, each mother has its own house and she lives with her own children.  So, it's more like cousins rather than immediate family.

Yeslam's mother had four children. Yeslam was  schooled in Lebanon. Osama was six years younger, an only child raised by a different and more religious mother in Saudi Arabia. Though they may have crossed paths earlier, Yeslam was in his 20s before Osama made an impression on him.   

Bin Laden: "The first recollection of him is when I went back to Saudi Arabia and he was a religious person already then."

Lauer: "He was in his teens at the time?"

Bin Laden: "Yes, he must have been around 18 or 19 or so. But he was already more religious than the average person or the average member of the family. My recollection is he did not want music. He did not want television."

Lauer: "A little unusual?"

Bin Laden: "A little unusual."
Lauer: "Was he someone you could engage in conversation?"

Bin Laden: "Not-- no, not really.

Yeslam is perhaps the most westernized of all the bin Ladens of his generation. Osama is just the opposite. Yeslam went to college in Los Angeles, graduating in 1976. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Osama went to join the Muslim holy war.

Lauer: "What was the impression of Osama within the family?"

Bin Laden: "When he was in Afghanistan, I think everybody supported him."

Lauer: "If the family did hold him in high regard during a certain part of his life, when did that begin to change?"

Bin Laden: "The minute he started attacking verbally the country, Saudi Arabia, then that changed because we are part of the country. We-- my father worked all his life to develop that country."

The first Gulf War was a turning point, when Saudi Arabia allowed U.S. troops into the kingdom. Osama considered it a violation of the sacred land of Islam. He blamed the United States and, even more, the Saudi government.

Author Jane Mayer, who has written extensively about the bin Ladens, says this is, in a sense, a family feud gone global, since the Saudi royal family is the source of the bin Ladens' wealth and power.

Jane Mayer: "Osama is very much at war with his own family, which he sees as having become too westernized."

Yeslam says he hasn't seen his half-brother Osama in 20 years.

Lauer: "In discussing Osama, Yeslam, would you say that you disagree with him ideologically? Do you disagree with his methodology or both?"

Bin Laden: "I disagree with anybody who uses violence. Violence, I think should-- something that should be abolished."

Yeslam says the last time anyone in his family spoke to Osama was in the early 1990s when he was living in Sudan.

Bin Laden: "Several members of my family went over to Sudan to try to convince him not to attack the Saudi government."

Lauer: "And the result?"

Bin Laden: "I don't think he wanted to do that. Otherwise, he would have been back in Saudi and none of all of this would have happened."

Lauer: "So, in other words, at that point, that was the fracture."

Bin Laden: "Yes."

Lauer: "Within the bin Laden family. And the family went a separate direction."

Bin Laden: "And the family made a declaration in I think April of '94 where they condemned him and say that they will have nothing to do with him anymore."

Mayer: "The family's public posture is that they disowned Osama. Yet, there have been a number of reported links that are sort of ongoing still."And some of those reported links involve Osama's half-brother, Yeslam bin Laden.

Bin Laden: "My house has been raided. My offices, the offices of my accountant, my lawyers have been raided. And they came and they took practically everything."

Lauer: "Your homes have been raided. Your businesses have been raided. They have looked at your books…Your computers… Interviewed your employees… phones… fax?"

Bin Laden: "They took everything."

Since Sept. 11, it's been a pressing question. Is anyone in the family business in touch with Osama? Are any of the bin Laden billionaires secretly funneling money to their brother, the world's most wanted terrorist? Yeslam says his business is separate from his family's. Still, for a time, suspicion focused squarely on him.

Lauer: "Let me read you something from Le Monde in September of 2001. ‘Western intelligence services are now examining the financial ties that may exist between the affairs of the United States public enemy number one, Osama bin Laden, and those of his family. The SBG Group encompasses some 100 offshore subsidiaries in tax havens, most of which are managed under very obscure conditions by Yeslam bin Laden's Saudi Investment Group."

Bin Laden: "This is absolutely not true. I have been investigated by the Swiss, by the French, and their examinations of my affairs have not revealed any, at all any reprehensible or unlawful activity."But what about other bin Ladens? It's been widely reported, for example, that several family members attended a wedding in Afghanistan for one of Osama's sons, just a few months before Sept. 11, and that others have delivered money to al-Qaida.

Lauer: "Can you say with any degree of confidence that there is no member of the bin Laden family who is helping to supply funds to Osama or al-Qaida?"

Bin Laden: "Yes. I know my family. I would be surprised to think that anybody would help."

Lauer: "Do you think you have done everything you possibly can to help officials or authorities track down a money trail that might lead to Osama bin Laden? Have you cooperated in every way you think you could cooperate?"

Bin Laden: "I have told the Swiss attorney general. I have told him listen, I have 20 years of accounting. You are welcome to look, to go through it."

Lauer: "Are you cooperating with the United States authorities?"

Bin Laden: "I have never been asked."

That surprising statement leads to a much bigger question. Did the United States, after Sept. 11, fail to properly investigate members of the bin Laden family before letting them  leave the country? It's a point made strongly in Michael Moore's hit documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Moore tells how 140 Saudi nationals, including 23 members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the United States on private jets just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The way the filmmaker depicts it, the Saudis got special treatment because of their close ties to the Bush family, and were never properly questioned before they left.

Michael Moore: "When they were interviewed they were already on the plane. They were sitting on the plane and the FBI goes, Okay who are you? Okay. Any problems here? Okay. Okay. Okay. And then that's it. That's not how the police do it when there's a murder."

Yeslam says his family did not ask for special treatment after Sept. 11. He told us his story of the so-called bin Laden flights.

Lauer: "At one point, Yeslam, you traveled, I understand, to the south of France to meet with two of your brothers."

Bin Laden: "Yes, this was on a Saturday or Sunday right, the weekend after. I met with my older brother and there we discussed the possibility of bringing everybody back to Saudi Arabia."

Lauer: "So at no time did you discuss evacuating bin Laden family members from the United States while the U.S. airspace was still closed down?"

Bin Laden: "It was impossible. U.S. airspace was closed. Nobody could move."

Lauer: "Michael Moore leaves the impression that 23 members of the bin Laden family were given special treatment, at the very least, by U.S. officials, to leave the United States in the days immediately following Sept. 11."

Bin Laden: "That is not true. The airplane landed in Geneva. I went to the airport."

Lauer: "What day?"

Bin Laden: "It was Thursday the 20th of September."

That was seven days after U.S. airspace had re-opened. NBC News analyst Roger Cressey worked on the National Security Council at the time and says the NSC approved the Saudi flights.

cressey: "We had asked the FBI, did they have any reason to keep these planes and prevent these individuals from leaving. The Bureau told us they did not. So we said, well, if you're ok with it, we're going to let them go."

In a preliminary report, the independent, bipartisan Commission investigating the 9/11 attacks found the FBI adequately checked out the bin Laden relatives before letting them go.

Lauer: "So you never picked up the phone and called anyone in the Bush administration, nor did anyone in your family?"

Bin Laden: "No. And this was done by the Saudi government, I think, through its embassy in Washington."

Yeslam says there was one simple reason to get his relatives out of the country.

Lauer: "Were the members of your family worried for their safety?"

Bin Laden: "Would you if you are in that position?"

He decided to speak now in part to rebut "Fahrenheit 9/11." Ironically, he himself wants to be a film producer. Even as Michael Moore was accepting the Best Picture award at Cannes this year, Yeslam was meeting with potential investors in a new project. But many say his last name makes it tough for him to find business partners.

Lauer: "So, when you go into a restaurant or you go into a store and you take out your credit card.  And you put it down and the person in the store reads ‘Yeslam bin Laden’ what kind of reactions do you get?"

Bin Laden: "Renting a car, the guy saw my driver's license. And then he looked at it again.  Looked and looked left and right. And wanted to say something." [Laughter]

Lauer: "You fly your own plane. You fly into cities around Europe."

Bin Laden: "Uh-huh."

Lauer: "How long does it take you to get through Customs when you land in these places?"

Bin Laden: "Well, at the beginning it took some time. But eventually it dies down."

His brother's crimes have marked him for life. But Yeslam is not about to change his name. And he hints that despite his Western ways, and his condemnation of Osama, it might be that in the end, the bond of brotherhood cannot be broken.

Lauer: "I guess a question that most people would want me to ask you would be that if by some strange occurrence, you were to find out where Osama was now, would you turn him in?"

Bin Laden: "I never think of this."

Lauer: "How can you not think of it?"

Bin Laden: "What do you think? Would you turn in your brother? Or half-brother. Tell me. I put the question back to you."

Lauer: "I think-- I guess, if he were accused of murdering thousands of people, you'd have to let him have his day in court. Let me throw the question back at you."

Bin Laden: "I think he should have his day in court."
Lauer: "Would you turn him in?"

Bin Laden: "Which court? And we'll go in circles. We will go in circles if you want to continue the question."