Born to privilege in Saudi Arabia, schooled in the science of building bridges and roads, Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden will be remembered in death for what he destroyed.
By orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and blackened the Pentagon, killing thousands of innocent civilians, bin Laden joined the ranks of the world’s most notorious fiends.
While those such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Josef Stalin all had state machinery at their murderous bidding, bin Laden relied on a spidery network of terrorist cells to carry out his self-declared war on the United States and Israel.
A misguided zealot to most, he will, however, remain a cult figure in poor and radicalized parts of the Muslim world, where he was viewed as the best defence against American hegemony and the corrupt influence of the West.
“Perhaps the most important and lasting legacy of bin Laden is his impact on Muslim youth all over the world, for whom he is a source of inspiration,” said Yossef Bodansky, one of his biographers.
For nearly 10 years, bin Laden was the baleful face of international terrorism and the world’s most-wanted criminal suspect. That infamy was the byproduct of his stunning success as a terrorist organizer — as someone who could unite traditionally quarrelsome factions, then finance and facilitate their radical designs.
Operatives from his Muslim terrorist network, al-Qaeda, struck repeatedly at American interests. They were tied to attacks against U.S. military personnel in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, but their most audacious operations came after bin Laden declared war on the U.S.
On Aug. 7, 1998, trucks filled with explosives, batteries, oxygen and acetylene tanks exploded outside U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed 224 civilians, including 11 Americans, and wounded more than 5,000 others. (Four men with links to al-Qaeda were convicted in New York City for their roles in the bombings.)
Then, on Oct. 12, 2000, a zodiac piloted by two suicide bombers, and filled with C-4 explosive, rammed the side of the USS Cole at anchor in Yemen. The resulting explosion killed 17 crew members.
That attack was followed less than a year later by the Sept. 11 plot that turned four hijacked planes into guided missiles, three of which struck their targets.
“The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind,” bin Laden once said in a videotaped message that was circulated throughout the Muslim world. “It is directed at tyrants and the aggressors and the enemy of Allah.”
Bin Laden publicly declared a jihad against the U.S. in October 1996. Emboldened by the defeat of the Soviet Union at the hands of the mujahideen and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire, he was convinced the U.S. was equally vulnerable.
“There is a lesson here,” he told an ABC news crew in 1998. “The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan late in December of 1979. The flag of the Soviet Union was folded once and for all on the 25th of December, just 10 years later. It was thrown in the wastebasket.”
Bin Laden believed he could similarly force the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East under the onslaught of his suicidal terrorists. But the events of Sept. 11 had the opposite effect, unleashing America’s full military might against bin Laden, his political host, the Taliban, and their allies.
Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday, May 1, 2011.
The man who would become the most notorious terrorist in history was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1955, according to the best available sources. He was the youngest of 20 sons born to Muhammad bin Laden.
Muhammad bin Laden was a Yemeni-born builder and contractor who had emigrated to Saudi Arabia in search of his fortune. And in the early 1970s, he found it. The oil boom launched a flurry of development across Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Laden grew supremely wealthy building roads, mosques and airports.
Osama bin Laden studied economics and management and later earned a civil engineering degree. And as a young man, he often visited Beirut, earning a reputation as a drinker and womanizer in its nightclubs, casinos and bars.
But during the mid-’70s, Bin Laden grew increasingly interested in Wahhabism, the puritanical form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Some biographers trace his interest in religion to the fact that the Bin Laden Construction Group was handed the contract to refurbish two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.
Then, in 1979, the entire Muslim world was galvanized by three events: Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord; Muslim fundamentalists overthrew the Shah in Iran; and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The events unleashed a volatile mix of Arab nationalism and religious fervour in the Muslim world.
Bin Laden, like many of his countrymen, was enraged by the Soviet incursion into a sovereign Muslim state, and he responded quickly to a plea for help by the Afghan mujahedeen.
He later told an interviewer the war against the Soviets was a turning point in his life, that he was moved by seeing a medieval society besieged by a superpower.
“In our religion,” he said, “there is a special place in the thereafter for those who participate in jihad. One day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque.”
In northern Pakistan, bin Laden organized a recruitment drive and personally covered the travel costs of many volunteers. In early 1980, he also established camps on the wild Afghan-Pakistani border to train recruits. (The training camps would prove to be both an important template and a rich source of personnel during bin Laden’s later career as an international terrorist.)
During the Afghan war, bin Laden earned a reputation as an accomplished organizer, a soft-spoken benefactor and a fearless battlefield leader. He won wide acclaim for his work in liberating Afghanistan from Soviet domination.
“In 1989, Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia a hero,” Bodansky writes in his biography, Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America. “He was a wiser man, hardened by experience. His political and social views, however, were more radical. ... (But) the Saudi government considered him a positive role model, proof of its contribution to the immensely popular Afghan jihad.”
Suddenly a celebrity, Mr. bin Laden made speeches at mosques across the country. He described the Afghan jihad as one of Islam’s greatest triumphs, proof that the Muslim Nation could not be defeated when it was committed “to the righteous practice of Islam.”
Indeed, bin Laden might have been content to live his life as rich and celebrated war hero in Saudi Arabia, but for the fact that, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait.
The Saudi response to that invasion would pit bin Laden against the kingdom’s powerful royal family — and set him on the destructive path that ended with his death.
According to Bodansky’s account of events, bin Laden approached the Saudi government soon after the Kuwaiti invasion with a 10-point plan to defend Saudi Arabia against a possible incursion by the Iraqis. He offered his company’s heavy equipment to build defensive stations and volunteered to bolster the Saudi army with battle-tested veterans of the Afghan War.
Bin Laden argued that the Iraqis were not as tough a foe as the Soviet Union, that they could be defeated without inviting foreign troops into Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim word’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
“Bin Laden warned ... that such an invitation would contradict the teachings of Islam,” Bodansky writes, “and would have a profound impact on the sensitivities of most Saudis — and Muslims as a whole.”
But bin Laden’s warnings were ignored by King Fahd, who was deeply concerned that Saddam Hussein had designs on Saudi oilfields. King Fahd invited the forces of a U.S.-led coalition into Saudi Arabia in early 1991. The U.S. maintained its military presence there until 2003.
Bin Laden condemned the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil as a “sacrilegious act” and urged all Arabs to boycott U.S. goods. The Saudi government pressured him and his family in an attempt to silence the criticism, but bin Laden wouldn’t relent.
He was forced into exile in late 1991 and sought refuge in Sudan, a country ruled by an Islamist totalitarian government. There, over the next few years, bin Laden’s political philosophy took its radical shape.
That philosophy grew out of the trauma of the Gulf War of 1990-91, which had destroyed the unity of the Muslim world and had left Arab states allied with the West against another Arab state, Iraq. More radical Islamist thinkers argued that the Gulf War demonstrated that corrupt regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, survived only because of the West’s commitment to saving its own political puppets.
“The only viable strategy for the vanguard of believers,” says Bodansky, “was to take on the West, and especially the United States, in order to assert their divine right to establish Islamist societies and governments throughout the Hub of Islam.”
In the early 1990s, bin Laden enthusiastically embraced this new doctrine and assisted, primarily as a financier, in the construction of an alliance of terrorist groups and organizations operating throughout the Muslim world. The Armed Islamic Movement (AIM) would give rise to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, bin Laden also established a major construction company in Sudan that built roads, airports and dams on government contract. His companies also laundered and moved money for the fledgling terrorist network while building a series of terrorist training camps in remote parts of the country.
His evolution as a terrorist was further shaped by Somalia, another Muslim nation about to play host to Western soldiers.
When U.S. forces landed in the East African country in December 1992, as part of a UN-led humanitarian mission, the Armed Islamic Movement sent operatives into Mogadishu to recruit and train Muslim fighters. Bin Laden played a key role organizing that effort.
U.S. and Pakistan suffered heavy casualties in the resulting ambushes of their forces. In one day alone, in October 1993, 18 U.S. servicemen were killed. Shocked by the ferocity of the opposition, the U.S. withdrew most of its troops by March 1994.
“This convinced us that the Americans are a paper tiger,” bin Laden told Robert Fisk of The Independent newspaper in a later interview.
Bin Laden’s profile as a terrorist quickly began to grow after Somalia. He moved up into the senior ranks of the organization and his name became known to senior U.S. security officials.
By May 1996, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were pressuring Sudan to expel him. Bin Laden was allowed to leave for Afghanistan, where he made contact with mujahedeen forces he had helped during the Afghan War.
“It was like sending Lenin back to Russia,” a U.S. diplomat told The New Yorker in January 2000. “At least in the Sudan, we could indirectly monitor some of his activities.”
When the Taliban successfully assumed control of the capital, Kabul, in September 1996, bin Laden was declared a national hero. He later acted as the Taliban’s de facto finance minister and gave one of his daughters in marriage to the Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader.
Later that same year, bin Laden issued his first official declaration of jihad against the U.S. and Israel. He vowed to force U.S. soldiers out of Saudi Arabia, overthrow the Saudi government and support Islamist forces the world over.
“It is the duty now on every tribe in the Arabian peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers,” he wrote. Later that year, he announced that “terrorizing the American occupiers of Islamic Holy Places is a religious and logical obligation.”
Bin Laden affected the dress of an Afghan tribal leader, wearing the flowing shalwar kameez, and was usually photographed with an AK-47 at his side. He styled himself as a modern-day Saladin, the fabled Muslim leader who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.
“I envision Saladin coming out of the clouds,” he said in videotape released in 2001. “We will see again Saladin carrying his sword, with the blood of unbelievers dripping from it.”
Today, the bloody, decades-long Crusade of Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden has finally come to an end.