Americans view him as a murderous religious fanatic, the presumed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and other terrorist incidents over the past decade.
Within the Muslim world, however, Osama bin Laden is a hero in some quarters: a man of courage and piety willing to fight outside infidels in the name of their true faith.
The exiled Saudi multimillionaire “articulates the frustrations of people in the Middle East who resent being left behind while the West takes over the world,” says David Little, a professor of religion and international affairs at Harvard University. “Their frustration is disorganized and beyond people's control. Bin Laden provides a point of reference and shows that something can be done.”
“Bin Laden does not have religious training or recognition within the theological community of any country,” explains Suzanne Maloney, a specialist on Persian Gulf politics at the Brookings Institution. Instead, his appeal stems from his proven sincerity, she explains. “He has battle credentials and has been willing to suffer” for his obsession with defending the Muslim world from alleged domination by the United States.
Bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, probably in 1957, one of 52 or 53 children of the 10 wives of a prominent construction magnate originally from Yemen. When his father died in the late 1960s, bin Laden may have inherited as much as $300 million — though some authorities estimate the inheritance at much less.
As a teenager living in Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1970s, he made his mark as a carouser and womanizer. He later studied civil engineering and business administration at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was drawn to radical Islam.
Osama bin Laden, leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, has not accepted responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., but in a speech broadcast on Oct. 7 he thanked God that America was now “full of fear.” (Getty Images)
Enraged by the Soviet invasion of predominantly Muslim Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden began organizing the Afghan resistance alongside U.S.-backed guerrillas, known as mujaheddin. Dazzling locals with his wealth, he brought in 9,000 Arab fighters, sent in supplies, helped build arms facilities and recruited Sunni Muslims. The legend of his bravery soon spread, along with reports that he had proposed the Reagan administration's eventual policy of arming the mujaheddin with Stinger missiles.
While in Afghanistan, bin Laden came under the influence of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the militant group responsible for the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981. Working with the Egyptians, in 1987 he founded Al Qaeda — Arabic for “the base” — to serve as the organizational base for a global Islamic crusade.
After the Russian retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden ended up back in Saudi Arabia, distributing videotapes extolling his military exploits. In a few years, his likeness had become common in shops and on T-shirts all over the Muslim world.
The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 sharpened bin Laden's focus on the United States. He deeply resented the Saudi government's willingness to host U.S. troops in the campaign to remove Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. He viewed his country's cooperation with the United States as an affront to its guardianship of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
After the Saudi government expelled bin Laden for anti-government views in 1991, he fled to Sudan, where he ran global businesses in banking, construction and agriculture while allegedly siphoning off funds from Muslim charities. In 1994 he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for smuggling weapons and spreading terrorist propaganda.
Soon his network was linked — though not conclusively — to co-conspirators responsible for attacks on U.S. soldiers in Somalia, plans to assassinate the pope and President Bill Clinton and bomb U.S. passenger jetliners, the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia. When U.S. pressure forced him out of Sudan, he moved to Afghanistan again, which was in the midst of a civil war.
In 1996, bin Laden issued his first major fatwa — an Islamic religious ruling typically issued by trained or senior clerics — declaring a holy war on “Americans occupying the land of the two holy places.” Two years later, he broadened the threat to target not just soldiers but all Americans.
In 1998, he told ABC-TV reporter John Miller that his campaign of violence would “inevitably move . . . to American soil.” He also publicly cultivated suicide terrorists, telling followers in a video last summer, “You should love the other world, and you should not be afraid to die.”
Al Qaeda serves indirectly as the instrument of bin Laden's war on America. Rather than carrying out attacks itself, bin Laden's group provides financial and other assistance that allows smaller independent organizations to operate.
“Al Qaeda is a Ford Foundation for terrorist groups,” says Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution. “They take money that they've raised — from Muslim charitable contributions and other sources — and direct it to specific groups for specific missions.”
The organization also provides other terrorist groups with military and other training from bases in Afghanistan. “They train people in camps in Afghanistan and then often send them to serve with the Taliban,” Cohen says.
Groups supported by Al Qaeda operate in more than 60 countries, including the United States, Canada and Western Europe. While some are thought to be based in Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, members include citizens of most Middle Eastern countries as well as militants from Muslim populations in the Philippines and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Al Qaeda and similar groups represent a change in the nature of terrorism over the last few decades — away from direct state sponsorship and toward non-state terrorism. “If you consider what we were worried about even 15 years ago — Libya, Syria — that's just not the same kind of factor anymore,” said Paul R. Pillar, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Today, instead of carrying out the acts of terror themselves, certain states now assist groups like Al Qaeda.
The United States has had bin Laden in its sights since the mid-1990s, but so far to no avail. Sudan made a back-channel offer to arrest bin Laden in 1996 and turn him over to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis declined, and the Clinton administration concluded it had no basis to indict bin Laden in this country.
Taliban fighters engage the opposition Northern Alliance fighters north of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. The alliance has been fighting to over-throw the ruling Taliban for more than five years, but it controls only about 10 percent of the country. (Newsmakers/Kamal Hyder)
President Clinton personally authorized a cruise missile attack on suspected training camps in Afghanistan in August 1998 in response to the U.S. embassy bombings earlier in the month. Bin Laden himself was the intended target, but — contrary to the pre-attack intelligence — he had left the site hours earlier. A year later, the CIA trained Pakistani intelligence agents to capture bin Laden, but the plan was abandoned after the Pakistani government fell in a coup Oct. 12, 1999, and the new leader — Gen. Pervez Musharraf — refused to continue the operation.
Within the United States, the government's focus on bin Laden — President Bush declared that he is wanted “dead or alive” — provides a recognizable symbol of the war on terrorism. For bin Laden, the failure of the U.S. initiatives so far only furthers his hopes of reducing the United States from a great power to a humbled, chaotic land.
“We anticipate a black future for America,” he told ABC in 1998. “Instead of remaining United States, it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America.”
— Charles S. Clark