SAN ANTONIO (CBSDFW.COM) – A Texas man may be one of the only Americans ever in the same room as Osama bin Laden.
Now that bin Laden is dead, 87-year-old pilot Gerry Auerbach agreed to sit down for a rare television interview ten years after CBS 11 first met him. Investigative reporter Ginger Allen met Gerry Auerbach in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. Our investigative team was in San Antonio following suspects with potential ties to the attacks.
The FBI confiscated Auerbach’s flight logbook because the name “Osama” was in it. Auerbach had no connection to the attacks, but he does have deep ties to the bin Ladens, a family he still loves, respects, and visits today.
On May 1, like most Americans, Auerbach can tell you right where he was when he heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead.
But his connection to the name goes well beyond the Al Qaeda leader.
Auerbach flew as navigator, bombardier and gunner for the US Air Force in World War Two, the Berlin Air Lift and during the Cold War. “This is the first jet I ended up flying for the bin Ladens,” said Auerbach as he pointed to a picture of a jet Auerbach began flying for Mohammad bin Laden in 1966. The two met when Auerbach was in Saudi Arabia flying for Saudi Arabia Airlines.
Mohammad had dozens of wives and 54 children. Among them was Osama bin Laden. “He was the oddball. He was the rotten apple in the barrel,” Auerbach doesn’t hesitate to say when asked about this particular son.
“Osama bin Laden was different from the rest of his brothers. They must have had some relationship with him. There were a lot of the brothers. They had different mothers, so they lived in different places. They didn’t live together in one house like one family,” he said.
And he believes those differences became even more pronounced when the bin Laden brothers went to college in the west. “They went to school in England and America, in Miami. Bakr went to Berkeley.”
Allen asked, “So the pictures we see in the media of them, that’s the modern family you know?”
“Yes,” he responded immediately.
Osama bin Laden took another path, though.
“Osama went to school in Jeddah. He got under the influence of these people for the Muslim Brotherhood and they converted him to the radical Islam,” he said.
After Mohammad died in 1967, Auerbach began flying for his oldest son, Salem bin Laden. They became very good friends. “He (Salem) loved to play tricks on people,” he said.
The bin Ladens Auerbach knew were funny, kind, and extremely generous to Auerbach. He flew them around the world while they wined and dined Auerbach and his wife.
Auerbach recalled one incident in a hotel room in the United Arab Emirates where he noticed a very tall 15- or 16-year-old boy who walked in to the suite. “I was with Salem and someone walked through the room. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh that’s Osama. He’s very religious. He’s going to pray.’ ” It’s the only time he remembers seeing Osama bin Laden, but Auerbach did hear the family talk about Osama in the 1980s when Osama began fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“At that time the family regarded him as a hero,” says Auerbach. But in time, that would drastically change.
After the 9/11 attacks, “the family ostracized him. They disowned him. They cut him off,” he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation visited Auerbach. He showed CBS 11 the flight log book the FBI wanted to see. Agents questioned Auerbach about an entry in the log listing a person on one of his flights named “Osama.”
At the time, they wondered the obvious: Was it Osama bin Laden? Auerbach is not convinced it was. “It could have been, but I don’t remember him. I would have remembered him, because he was really tall. He was really tall and somebody like that, I would have remembered,” he said.
Auerbach said if Salem had still been alive, “Let’s just say Salem would have tried to stop him.” But Salem did not live to see his brother’s most heinous act.
Salem was a pilot also and he loved to fly, but, in 1988, he died when he crashed a small plane in San Antonio.
Auerbach broke down and fought back tears as he tried to explain his heartbreak. “I lost a son, a friend, an employer, the whole nine yards,” he said.
It’s still hard for him to discuss. “He was family.”
Auerbach said this is why he sat down with CBS 11’s Ginger Allen 10 years after the first time they met. He wants to change the image of the name “bin Laden.”
“I do feel like I should protect the family and say what they really are, because they don’t deserve the black marks this guy has put on them,” he said.
Allen said as she left the Auerbach house, the phone rang. She asked if it could be the bin Ladens. Auerbach smiled and said it was possible. He is “on call” for them all the time. Auerbach just returned from a trip in Casablanca with Bakr bin Laden, one of Osama’s brothers. Bakr wined and dined Auerbach as the family always has.
Auerbach is now involved in another project for the family which could require an upcoming visit in Saudi Arabia with the bin Ladens again soon.