The Islamic fundamentalist leader Osama bin Laden (born 1957), a harsh critic of the United States and its policies, is widely believed to have orchestrated the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, as well as the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. But it is his role as the apparent mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that have made bin Laden one of the most infamous and sought-after figures in recent history.
The 6-foot-5, lanky, bearded leader—soft-spoken and effeminate, even when he rails against America—is a man of tremendous wealth, and makes an unlikely spokesman for the poor and oppressed people of Islam whom he claims to represent. Nevertheless, his call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States and Israel, has been heeded by like-minded fundamentalist Muslims.
Raised in Great Wealth
Born in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden was the son of Mohammad bin Laden, one of the country's wealthiest business leaders. Some sources state that he is the seventh son, while others claim that he is the seventeenth of some 50 children born to the construction magnate and his various wives. Young bin Laden led a privileged life, surrounded by pampering servants and residing in air-conditioned houses well insulated from the oppressive desert heat. He may have heard tales of poverty from his father, who started his career as a destitute Yemeni porter. He moved to Saudi Arabia and eventually become the owner of the kingdom's largest construction company.
Mohammed bin Laden's success was in part due to the strong personal ties he cultivated with King Saud after he rebuilt the monarch's palaces for a price much lower than any other bidder. Favored by the royal family, Mohammed served for a time as minister of public works. King Faisal, who succeeded Saud, issued a decree that all construction projects go to Mohammed's company, the Binladin Group. Among these construction projects were lucrative contracts to rebuild mosques in Mecca and Medina. When Mohammed died in a helicopter crash in 1968, his children inherited the billionaire's construction empire. Osama bin Laden, then 13 years old, purportedly came into a fortune of some $300 million.
A Passion for Religious Politics
Young bin Laden attended schools in Jedda, and was encouraged to marry early, at the age of 17, to a Syrian girl and family relation. She was to be the first of several wives. In 1979 he earned a degree in civil engineering from King Abdul-Aziz University. He seemed to be preparing to join the family business, but he did not continue on that course for long.
Former classmates of bin Laden recall him as a frequent patron of Beirut nightclubs, who drank and caroused with his Saudi royalty cohorts. Yet it was also at the university that bin Laden met the Muslim fundamentalist Sheik Abdullah Azzam, perhaps his first teacher of religious politics and his earliest influence. Azzam spoke fervently of the need to liberate Islamic nations from foreign interests and interventions, and he indoctrinated his disciples in the strictest tenets of the Muslim faith. Bin Laden, however, would eventually cultivate a brand of militant religious extremism that exceeded his teacher's.
Joined the Afghan War
As a student in the late 1970s, bin Laden was galvanized by events that seemed to pit both the Western world and communist Russia against Muslim nations. One of these was the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel; another was the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. In December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden, like many other Muslims, rose to join the jihad declared against the attackers. He did not initially enter the fray as a soldier, but instead channeled his efforts into the organization and financing of the mujahedeen, or Afghan resistance. Over the next ten years, he used his tremendous wealth to buy arms, build training camps, and provide food and medical care. He was said to have occasionally joined the fighting, and to have participated in the bloody siege of Jalalabad in 1989, in which Afghanistan wrested control from the Soviet Union.
The United States, then embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, provided help to bin Laden and his associates. Although in many respects he worked side by side with the Americans to defeat the Soviets, bin Laden remained wary of the Western superpower. "To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan," bin Laden later told a French journalist in an interview quoted by the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) Frontline. "I did not fight against the communist threat while forgetting the peril from the West. … [W]e had to fight on all fronts against communist or Western oppression."
Formed "Al Qaeda"
During the war, bin Laden forged connections with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the militant group linked with the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat. Under the influence of this group, bin Laden was persuaded to help expand the jihad and enlist as many Muslims as possible to rebel against so-called infidel regimes. In 1988 he and the Egyptians founded Al Qaeda, ("The Base"), a network initially designed to build fighting power for the Afghan resistance. Al Qaeda would later become known as a radical Islamic group with bin Laden at the helm, and with the United States as the key target for its terrorist acts.
After the war, bin Laden was touted as a hero in Afghanistan as well as in his homeland. He returned to Saudi Arabia to work for the Binladin Group, but he remained preoccupied with extremist religious politics. Now it was his homeland that concerned him. In 1990 Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, worried about a possible invasion by Iraq, asked the United States and its allies to station troops that would defend Saudi soil. Eager to protect its interests in the oil-producing kingdom, the United States complied. Bin Laden, euphoric after the Afghan victory and proud of the power of Muslim nations, was outraged that Fahd had asked a non-Muslim country for protection. He now channeled his energy and money into opposition movements against the Saudi monarchy.
As an outspoken critic of the royal family, bin Laden gained a reputation as a troublemaker. For a time, he was placed under house arrest in Jedda. His siblings, who had strong ties to the monarchy, vehemently opposed his antics and severed all ties—familial and economic—with their upstart brother. "He was totally ostracized by the family and by the kingdom," Daniel Uman, who worked with the Binladin Group, told an interviewer for the New York Times. The Saudi government, ever watchful of bin Laden, caught him smuggling weapons from Yemen and revoked his passport. No longer a Saudi citizen, he was asked to leave the country.
With several wives and many children, bin Laden relocated with his family to Sudan, where a militant Islamic government ruled. In Sudan, he was welcomed for his great wealth, which he used to establish a major construction company as well as other businesses. He also focused on expanding Al Qaeda, building terrorist training camps and forging ties with other militant Islamic groups. His primary aim had become to thwart the presence of American troops in Muslim countries.
Orchestrated First Terrorist Attacks
Bin Laden regarded even American humanitarian efforts as disgraces to Muslim countries. The first terrorist attack believed to trace back to bin Laden involved the December 1992 explosion of a bomb at a hotel in Aden, Yemen. American troops, en route to Somalia for a humanitarian mission, had been staying at the hotel, but they had already left. Two Austrian tourists were killed. Almost a year later, 18 American servicemen were shot down over Mogadishu in Somalia. Bin Laden initially claimed not to be involved in the attack, yet he later admitted to an Arabic newspaper that he had played a role in training the guerrilla troops responsible for the attack.
Several months later, on February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. Though it has not been proven, bin Laden is widely suspected of being the mission's ringleader. Many believe it was the terrorist leader's first attempt to destroy the towers, which suicide hijackers succeeded in toppling in 2001. United States and Saudi leaders pressured the Sudanese government to expel bin Laden. In 1996 he left the country voluntarily, according to Sudanese officials.
Declared Holy War Against United States
That same year, bin Laden openly declared war on America, calling upon his followers to expel Americans and Jews from all Muslim lands. In a statement quoted by PBS's Frontline, he called for "fast-moving, light forces that work under complete secrecy." Interviewed by Cable News Network (CNN) in 1997, bin Laden said, "[The United States] has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal, whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation." The following year he issued an edict evoking even stronger language: "We—with God's help— call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."
After the Sudanese government asked him to leave, bin Laden operated out of Afghanistan. He is believed to have orchestrated at least a dozen attacks, some successful, some not. Among the worst of these were two truck bombings, both on August 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Nairobi bombing killed 213 people (only 12 were Americans) and wounded 4,500. The Dar es Salaam attack left 11 dead and 85 wounded. This news, compounded by intelligence reports suspecting that bin Laden had been attempting to acquire chemical and biological weapons, prompted U.S. action. President Bill Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks on suspected Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. In November 1998 the U.S. State Department promised $5 million to anyone with information leading to bin Laden's arrest.
Despite attempts to apprehend him, bin Laden eluded the American government and continued plotting against it. Not all of his efforts were successful. A failed plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve, 1999—suspected to be one of several failed attacks designed to correspond with the millennium—was linked to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden is also suspected of orchestrating a botched attack on the USS The Sullivans, a U.S. warship stationed off the coast of Yemen. "[I]n what seemed to us a kind of comic presentation of what happened," recalled New York Times reporter Judith Miller, "the would-be martyrs loaded up their boat with explosives and set the little dingy out to meet The Sullivans and the [dingy] was overloaded and sank."
The same group, with bin Laden at the helm, is widely believed to be responsible for the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, carried out in the same waters only a few months after the Sullivans failure. The terrorists had apparently learned from their mistakes. The attack killed 17 U.S. navy personnel and left many wounded. Yemeni officials later reported that five suspects in the incident had admitted to training in bin Laden's Al Qaeda camps.
Prime Suspect in Attacks on America
Bin Laden's hatred for America had become well known, but nothing had prepared Americans for the most extravagant and heinous plot allegedly hatched by the terrorist leader: the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the clear, late-summer morning, two hijacked commercial jets flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. About an hour later, another hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon in the nation's capital. A fourth hijacked jet did not reach its target, crashing in Western Pennsylvania instead. When the massive towers collapsed in flames, thousands perished. Among those lost in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania were the 19 hijackers, most of whom have been linked to Al Qaeda operations. Bin Laden denied involvement in the attacks, but he praised the hijackers for their acts.
The U.S. government nevertheless regarded the terrorist leader as their prime suspect. President George W. Bush demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government turn him over or face war, but to no avail. In early October, U.S. forces began striking Afghan targets, declaring a war on terrorism and on the countries that harbor terrorists.
Bin Laden's followers, who support a radical fundamentalist brand of Islam, remain devoted to their leader and continue to heed his call for a holy war. Ever wary of the price America has put on his head, he has reportedly chosen a successor: Muhammad Atef, an Egyptian Muslim who married bin Laden's daughter in January 2001.
Anonymous, October 12, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2001.
New York Times, September 14, 2001; October 28, 2001.
Reuters, October 3, 2001.
"Hunting bin Laden," Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen (October 24, 2001).
"Laden, Osama bin," Biography.com, http://www.biography.com (October 24, 2001).