Binladen Group Seeks to Distance Itself from Black Sheep
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Binladen Group Seeks to Distance Itself from Black Sheep

For more than four years, the 52 siblings of Osama bin Laden have been working with New York public relations executive and crisis management expert Tim Metz to attempt to distance themselves from their fundamentalist brother.

Paul Holmes

A week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Abdullah bin Laden—half brother to the man suspected of being the architect of that atrocity—met with New York public relations practitioner Steven Goldstein. While details of the meeting remain murky, within days Goldstein had reported the encounter to the FBI and shared a melodramatic account (“I just started to shake, even though I knew I had to keep my composure”) of the meeting with the media.
 
Goldstein made it clear to one and all that he had no intention of representing the family, and that he had agreed to the meeting “to gather information and take it to the federal authorities.” But it’s unlikely that Abdullah bin Laden was proactively seeking PR assistance, because the family already had representation. For more than four years, the 52 siblings of Osama bin Laden have been working with New York public relations executive and crisis management expert Tim Metz to attempt to distance themselves from their fundamentalist brother.
 
It’s a crucial challenge, because the bin Laden family controls the Saudi-based Binladen group, one of the largest private companies in the Middle East. The Binladen Group has tens of thousands of employees and does business with blue-chip American companies including General Electric, Citigroup and Motorla. Family members have investments in companies such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, and until the most recent attacks were investors in Carlyle Group, a Washington firm with ties to senior political figures, including George Bush the elder.
 
Metz says he first started working for the bin Laden family more than four years ago, after a CNN report by Peter Arnett. At the time, Metz was working at Abernathy MacGregor—he has since launched his own firm, Hullin Metz & Company—and was asked to handle the family’s media relations efforts.
 
“Peter Arnett found out that the family business had a commercial representative in the U.S. and he called to ask them about Osama,” says Metz. “They weren’t sure how to respond.”
 
Metz says his firm looked into the relationship between the bin Laden family and Osama. “They told us they had kicked him out in 1994, and the Saudi government had yanked his passport a few months later. They made it clear to us that the family had kicked him out and disagreed strongly with his politics. There had been no rapprochement. It had been a complete black hole since they kissed him goodbye. We looked into the story and we found nothing to contradict that position.”
 
(Nor has the state department expressed any doubt about the estrangement. “We’ve talked to the state department and so far as we can tell, these people are clean,” says Stephen Seiler, chief executive of Hybridon, a biotech firm that apparently contacted the government to check whether its relationship with the family raised any red flags.)
 
Under the circumstances, Metz says, there was no reason not to take on the assignment, which involved explaining the family’s position and correct occasional errors, such as reports that bin Laden inherited as much as $300 million, “an absurd sum,” according to Metz, given that his father’s fortune was divided between more than 50 heirs.
 
Metz, who was a writer for The Wall Street Journal for 23 years before getting into the public relations business, also assisted the bin Ladens in 1998, when the New Yorker ran an article about Osama in the wake of the embassy bombings in Africa. “We did some backgrounding with them,” he says.
 
While his ongoing work has involved several challenges, nothing prepared Metz for the onslaught of media coverage that followed the September 11 attacks. Still, he says, he never considered resigning the business.
 
“If you are going to do this for a living, you only have two things to sell: competence and integrity. If I believed for four years that this is a responsible client, that the family has been doing everything it can to protect its business, that it has not been aiding or supporting Osama, it would be wrong to walk out on them just because it’s gotten a little hot in the kitchen. I knew this was a crisis management assignment when I took it on.
 
“I looked long and hard at the facts and I believe they are a terrific bunch of people. They have never done anything to make me feel queasy about what I’m doing. In fact, there’s a sad irony here, which is that this company, which was started in 1931, has probably done more than any private company to modernize Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. It has built the modern infrastructure of the region, from hospitals to roads, and now it is being victimized because of its association with this man.”
 
There have been questions about whether the bin Laden family has been sufficiently proactive in protecting its reputation. “It is understandable that the bin Ladens just want to hide,” professor Adil Najam of Boston University told The New York Times recently. “But this will not go away, and their silence is costing them.”
 
But Metz says the family has not been hiding—but that it has not been proactively pursuing media coverage either. No reporter is going to be able to answer every question about every family member in 1,000 word article, or address every potential connection between family members and Osama bin Laden. If family members don’t seem sufficiently angry, it may come across as support; if they condemn him too harshly, they may become targets themselves.
 
Still, Metz believes that overall coverage of the family and his business interests has been fair.
 
“The media has been fair in reflecting the record,” says Metz. “I have not read any story that did not acknowledge the fact that the family disowned this guy. But in this environment, you do get some twisted stories about what constitutes support for Osama. If you give to a charity that is suspected of supporting Osama, there are questions. If you do business with a bank that is involved in the finances of terrorism, there are questions.”
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