Wealth of bin Laden family can be seen in Boston area

$2 million donated to Harvard University

relative owns 4 condos

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 17, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON -- Osama bin Laden's millions might or might not have helped pay for last week's terrorist attacks. But there have long been signs, seemingly benign, of his family's wealth in the Boston area.

One relative of the suspected Saudi terrorist owns four condominiums on the waterfront in the city's Charlestown section, according to records. The Flagship Wharf condos, which sell for $500,000 and up, have sweeping views of Boston Harbor, the downtown skyline and Logan International Airport.

And the bin Laden family has given $2 million to Harvard University -- the country's richest institution of higher learning with its $19 billion endowment -- for the study of Islamic law and architecture.

Since the attacks, several Harvard alumni have called the university to complain about its financial ties to the family, university spokesman Joe Wrinn said. And in Charlestown, Boston police officers now keep an eye on the condominium building, apparently to protect and reassure residents nervous about misguided retribution.

There is no evidence that Osama bin Laden's personal money underwrote the real estate purchases or educational endowments, or that other relatives have any ties to terrorism. Harvard officials speak of a family rift in an attempt to show that plenty of distance exists between the Islamic militant believed to be in Afghanistan and his many Saudi relatives.

"It's this perception that Harvard takes blood money," said Wrinn. "We do not."

The university received $1 million gifts in 1993 and 1994 from the Saudi bin Laden Group, a family-owned corporation based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It comprises nearly half of the 50 or so bin Laden siblings -- but not Osama bin Laden. Harvard uses interest generated by the principal to pay for research fellowships and the like, Wrinn said, all of which are under the university's control.

"There is absolutely no connection, to our knowledge, of that money being tied to any terrorist act or Osama bin Laden in particular," Wrinn said.

As Boston residents can attest, family ties are not always the best guide to character. They are well acquainted with two men who chose radically different paths: University of Massachusetts President William Bulger and his brother, reputed mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, who is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

Not only does Osama bin Laden have many siblings, but his late father, who made a fortune as a favored contractor for the Saudi royal family, is said to have had multiple wives.

Still, some Boston residents say they find it odd that Mohammed M. bin Laden -- whose precise relation to Osama bin Laden is not clear -- is a local property owner in Charlestown, an area once largely blue collar but increasingly home to well-heeled professionals.

"It's weird, even if he's a really nice guy," said Aleister Saunders, a biochemist who works near the brick Flagship Wharf condos, a short walk from the USS Constitution's berth and the Bunker Hill Monument.(Authorities say Osama bin Laden does have ties to some people with a Boston connection. Two bin Laden associates once worked as cabdrivers in the city, and one was later jailed in Jordan on charges of plotting to blow up a hotel full of Americans and Israelis.)

The sudden attention has unnerved some of those living at Flagship Wharf and prompted police to park a patrol cruiser outside. "A safety matter" is all Officer Bill Toner would say when asked why he was there.

Some residents said they were scared that vigilantes, fueled by emotion and blind hatred, might lob a bomb at the building because a bin Laden has a home there.

"We feel threatened," said one resident, who refused to be named. "Would you want some Timothy McVeigh-type coming here?"

The resident said many of the 200 or so people who live in the building know someone affected by the attacks in New York and outside Washington. So winding up in the spotlight because of a neighbor's identity "is just a double whammy," she said.

Four units of Flagship Wharf are listed in Mohammed M. bin Laden's name, according to city property records. One of those is a penthouse apartment, for which he paid $405,000 in April 1995; he bought another apartment for $780,000 in June 1995.

Calls placed to phone numbers listed for two of the units last week were not answered, and a person who answered a call to a third unit said it was the wrong number. No one could be reached in the fourth unit. A building official declined to comment.

Neighbors said they know little about Mohammed bin Laden and his immediate family. "They don't come very much," said a resident, adding that Boston is a cosmopolitan city home to thousands of people from the Middle East.

Over at the Tavern on the Water restaurant, where employees said they have never served any bin Ladens to their knowledge, waitress Meg Lillis pondered how she felt about the situation in light of recent events.

Gesturing to the police car, she said, "It could be the safest place in the city." Then she considered the possibility of violence against someone because of a relative's alleged sins.

"Or," she said, "it could be the most vulnerable."

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