He was the world’s most wanted international terrorist – the Svengali like leader at the helm of a violent political movement that brought havoc and destruction the world over. His name became instantly familiar – Osama bin Laden. We all recognized his image; the long, drawn face, the scraggly beard, the turban. Yet, discovering the man behind the image has never been easy, causing him to be referred to as a ‘fact-checker’s nightmare.’
Only now, 6 years after his death, are we able to piece together a complete profile of the life and death of the man at the fore-front of a violent political movement that significantly impacted our world. In this week’s Biographic, we discover the truth about Osama bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden was born into a wealthy industrialist family in the city of Riyadah in 1957. His father, Mohammed bin Laden, was a builder and contractor, who, during his lifetime had eleven wives and at least fifty-two children. His mother was a petite Syria woman. Mohammed was an ambitious businessman who had brought his family from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of both advancing his own professional opportunities and providing opportunities for his sons. Things went well, and the elder bin Laden built important social relationships and forged enduring bonds with notable members of Saudi society, including members of the House of Saud – Saudi Arabia’s ruling family.
Mohammed built the bin Laden Construction Corporation into one of the largest and most profitable construction businesses in the Middle East. As he became more successful, Mohammad further strengthened his bond with the Saudi Royal family. He used his money and influence to bolster the image of the House of Saud. In return, King Faisal decreed that all the nation’s construction contracts would be awarded to the bin Laden Corporation.
Mohammad bin Laden died in a plane crash in 1967. The ten-year-old Osama was told at the funeral by King Faisal that ‘today I have lost my right hand.’ The Construction Corporation was taken over by Osama’s older brothers. By the mid-1990’s it was worth around $36 billion.
Osama was groomed to enter the family business. After successfully completing high school, he furthered his education at King Abdul Aziz University. There he studied economics and management with an eye to a future in business. He also learned the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the family enterprise.
Unlike Osama, most of his brothers chose to attend Western Universities where they were not constricted by Islamic tradition. This was particularly true of Osama’s half-brother Salim. Known for his good looks and charm, Salim was educated in London and flew his own private plane.
In the early 1970’s, Osama, now in his mid-teens, began to enjoy the excesses of wealth. He would regularly make the trip to Beirut, Lebanon to take in the excitement of the city’s fast-paced nightlife. He spent hours frequenting bars, nightclubs and casinos and often drank more than he should have. He also began enjoying the company of beautiful young women.
Around 1975, however, Osama bin Laden had a spiritual rebirth, causing him to return to Islam with a fervent devotion that altered his goals and lifestyle dramatically. It began when he decided to help with restoration work on two mosques. At the same time, he began meeting with Islamic fundamentalists and reading more about the teachings of Islam. Within weeks he had disowned his former loose way of life and become a devout Muslim.
At the age of twenty, Osama entered an arranged marriage with a devout Syrian woman who was a distant cousin. Together they immersed themselves in Islamic Fundamentalism, rejecting Western values and priorities and condemning its greatest proponent, the United States. When Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal was killed by his deranged nephew, bin Laden’s anti-American sentiments were reinforced. The king’s nephew had been educated in the United States and had become completely westernized.
Bin Laden was thrilled when, in 1979, a fundamentalist religious leader known as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran, who was seen as a puppet of the United States. For the first time, Islamic fundamentalists had seized a Muslim country and established an Islamic state. It gave undeniable proof that radical Islamic forces could prevail over Western decadency.
Then, towards the end of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded the largely Muslim nation of Afghanistan. Soviet forces were ruthless, pouring overwhelming fire power on the Afghanistan resistance. They killed the Afghanistan president, and put their own government in place.
Middle Eastern Arab nations were alarmed. They were all sympathetic to the Afghani cause, but knew that none of them had the ability to take on the Soviet war machine. Yet, Islamic fundamentalist militants were determined to do something. Ousting the Soviets and restoring Islam in its purest sense fit their definition of jihad, or Holy War. Thousands of young men, united by Islam rather than national boundaries, traveled to Afghanistan to risk their lives for their beliefs. Among them was Osama bin Laden.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the impetus that took Osama bin Laden out of his comfortable life of privilege and into his reincarnation as a freedom fighter. Yet, unlike many others, he did not unthinkingly grab an AK-47 and rush off to the desert to join the guerrilla army. His first stop was Pakistan, where he set up a recruitment station to bring Muslims from surrounding Arab nations to the cause of jihad. It soon became clear that his business background and money were going to be a huge asset. He organized training camps where the recruits learned the art of strategic warfare.
Bin Laden knew that the thousands of eager young men he was gathering together needed a support network. So, he also began recruiting doctors, bomb experts, military strategists and engineers from all over the Arab world. His family’s building background impelled him to build the infrastructure that would be needed to defeat the Soviets. Men who had come to fight soon found themselves digging trenches, paving roads and building hospitals and depots.
During the 1980’s, bin Laden was instrumental in bringing together in Afghanistan and nearby areas of Pakistan more than twenty-five thousand Muslim fighters from at least thirty-five countries across the Muslim world. Yet, support also came from the most unlikely of places – the United States. The U.S. was fixated on stopping Soviet expansion and so were willing to support Islamic efforts to remove the Communist invaders from Afghanistan.
Despite their hatred of the United States, the jihadists gladly accepted their backing – after all, it meant money, weapons and supplies. Still, they made sure that the Americans stayed well clear of their operations. One Islamic intelligence officer noted that ‘no American instructor was ever involved in giving training on any kind of weapon or equipment to the mujahideen,’ or holy fighters.
Bin Laden was instrumental in securing from the United States ‘stingers’, which were heat seeking ground-to-air missiles with the ability to bring down a Soviet fighter plane. With the aid of American stingers, bin Laden’s men could bring down at least 270 Soviet aircraft. Through their fixation on defeating the Soviets by whatever means necessary, the U.S, was creating a monster.
As well as bringing money, resources and organizational skill to the jihadist cause, bin Laden fought alongside his fellow jihadists. One of his troops recalled
He was a hero to us because he was on the front line, always moving ahead of everybody else. He not only gave us money, but he also gave himself. He came down from his palace to live with the Afghan peasants and the Arab fighters. He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them. That was bin Laden’s way.
Bin Laden was not afraid of death, convinced that there was a special place in the hereafter for those who participated in jihad. He often stated that one day of fighting in Afghanistan was like a thousand days of praying in an ordinary mosque. As a result, he was more than willing to become a martyr for the cause.
In 1989, after a painful decade, the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia with the reputation of a jihadist hero. He was hugely popular among the common people, and the ruling family saw friendship with him as a way to quell criticism from Islamic fundamentalists, who saw them as too western. Bin Laden milked his hero status for all it was worth. He spoke at mosques and other places, often drawing large crowds of young men who were inspired to help create an Islamic fundamentalist world. His speeches, filled with venom against the United States, were often taped, with over a million copies circulating around the Muslim world.
Despite returning to the rich embrace of his family, Osama did not avail himself of the lavish lifestyle that was available to him. He moved into a modest apartment with his wife and children and did his best to live according to strict Islamic teachings. Yet, a fire was smoldering inside him.
“We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us two.” Osama bin Laden
That fire was inflamed in August 1990 when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, with Saudi Arabia looking to be his next target. Panic arose in the House of Saudi. Bin Laden stepped up to offer his assistance, his experience in Afghanistan allowed him to map out a battle strategy to save his country. He was determined that any Iraqi aggression would be met my Muslim forces alone. To call on the West for help would be, he argued, contrary to Islamic teachings and demoralizing to the nation. Bin Laden warned the Saudi government that assistance from the U.S. would mean that Islamic fundamentalists would withdraw their support.
But Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense, Prince Sultan knew that even bin Laden’s forces could not defend his country from the air, naval or chemical and biological weapons attacks that Saddam Hussein had at his disposal. One one occasion, bin Laden burst in the Prince’s office and yelled,
There is no need for American troops!
Yet, when the prince asked him how he would save the people from an Iraqi chemical weapon attack, he could only reply . . .
We will defeat them with our faith.
The Saudi Government did turn to the United States for help. The result was the Gulf War – a U.S. led Western assault on Iraq. Saddam was pushed back and his threat negated. However, to the outrage of bin Laden and his fundamentalist followers, U.S. military forces remained in the region in case Saddam made any further aggressive moves.
The House of Saudi, who had not long before seen association with bin Laden as an asset, now got nervous at Osama’s hero status and huge popularity. They warned him to restrain from making negative public comment about their reliance on the West, threatening to remove the lucrative public contracts that had been given to the family business.
The relationship between bin Laden and the House of Saud quickly deteriorated to the point that, in 1991, he was expelled from the country. Three years later his citizenship was revoked. He fled to Sudan with his immediate family, which now included three wives and fifteen children. They moved into a brick and stucco home in Khartoum where he lived a simple and deeply religious life.
In Sudan, bin Laden quickly found support for his ideology, which was fiercely opposed to any collaboration with the West. His goal was to overthrow regimes that were friendly to the U.S. and establish in their place true Islamic states. The first step towards that end would be to strike at U.S. targets throughout the world. By doing so, it was believed that the United States would be forced to withdraw from the Middle East. Then, the governments that been propped up by America could easily be toppled.
The nucleus of the terrorist organization that would bring about these changes was a group that bin Laden helped develop. It was called al-Qaeda.
From their base in Sudan, experienced al-Qaeda leaders were sent to various parts of the world where there were large Muslim populations. Their mission was to incite an Islamic revolution and carry out acts of terrorism.
“America has been hit by Allah at its most vulnerable point, destroying, thank God, its most prestigious buildings.” Osama bin Laden
In his first year in Sudan, bin Laden became a disciple of Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi, the Islamic spiritual leader of Sudan. While Turabi helped Osama to deepen his spiritual development, bin Laden, in turn, built up Turabi’s jihdist group, the Popular International Organization or PIO. He also built connections with various international financial institutions to channel money towards his growing terror networks. At the same time, he could smuggle terrorists into the United States by arranging for them to be employees of companies owned by wealthy pro-Islamic Middle eastern businessmen.
Meanwhile, within Sudan, bin Laden established a building company known as the al-Hirjah for Construction and Development Ltd. Its sole purpose was to build an infrastructure in Sudan to move the equipment, vehicles, and weaponry needed to expedite terrorist acts.
By the mid-1990’s bin Laden had established a world-wide reputation as a revolutionary, with thousands of young jihaidts idolizing him and dreaming of being just like him.
The first bombing attack that was credited to bin Laden was the December 29, 1992 attack on two hotels in Aden, Yemen. Both hotels were frequently used by U.S. military personnel in the area. Three people were killed and five more were wounded in the attack. This was part of a concerted effort to oust the Americans from the Horn of Africa and assert fundamentalist Islamic power in the region. The focus of the action was Somalia, where bin Laden organized fierce fighting against U.S. forces who were there for humanitarian purposes. Bin Laden counted the withdrawal of U.S, troops from Mogadishu as among his most significant victories against the U.S.
Following his actions in Somalia, bin Laden turned his attention to Europe. His first step was to bolster the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Balkans, before setting his sights on western Europe and the United States. Muslim communities in these places were saturated with pro-Islamic, anti-Western propaganda. Bin Laden also relied heavily on e-mail and the internet to get the word out.
In 1995, al-Qaeda turned its attention back to the Middle Eastern nations that it believed were roadblocks to the establishment of Islamic fundamentalist regimes throughout the Muslim world. Bin Laden saw Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the two biggest local obstacles to his cause. In Saudi Arabia he became obsessed with overthrowing the House of Saud. In November 1995, he orchestrated the bombing of a U.S. Military training center in Riyadh, killing seven people.
“The war is between us and the Jews. Any country that steps into the same trench as the Jews has only itself to blame.” Osama bin Laden
The House of Saud were outraged at the attack, convinced that bin Laden was behind it. A few days after the attack, four mercenaries from Yemen opened fire with AK-47’s outside of his residence in Sudan. Bin Laden’s bodyguards returned fire and, within minutes, three of the assailants and two bodyguards were dead. From that day on, Osama bin Laden’s house and street were transformed into an armed camp.
It wasn’t just the House of Saud that were after him. In 1996, a U.S. Special Forces operation was launched to capture bin Laden, with the aid of America friendly Muslim nations. From now on, he refused to venture out of Sudan.But then both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. turned up the screws, threatening economic sanctions on Sudan unless they handed bin Laden over. He was quietly asked to leave and he and his wife and children headed for Afghanistan in May 1996.
Safely ensconced in Afghanistan, bin Laden now fully embraced the role of international leader of the Islamic extremist movement. To stay alive, though, he had to surround himself with many bodyguards. He established a three-room operations base in a cave that had been carved out of the mountainside, that was equipped with basic furnishings. His only connections to the outside world were his satellite phone and two laptops.
“The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it. I hope the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks will sleep easier tonight and every night hence knowing that justice has been done.” – Sen. John McCain
In 1998, bin Laden turned his destructive attention back to Africa. His plan was to bomb two U.S. Embassies in different African countries. On August 7th, simultaneous attacks in Kenya and Tanzania killed hundreds of people. Although he denied responsibility, the international community were unanimous that bin Laden was behind the attacks. As a result, the U.S. stepped up its attempts to take him out, with an air strike on October 20th known as Operation Infinite Reach. It destroyed three terrorist training camps in the Afghani mountains, but bin Laden remained at large.
A year later, he was connected to an attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole. The ship had stopped to refuel in the port of Aden, Yemen, when terrorists blasted it, killing seventeen sailors. Less than a month after that, two planes smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, striking a devastating blow at the very symbol of American business and achievement. Within moments it had been transformed into a full-blown war zone.
About 45 minutes later, the terror struck again. A hijacked airliner that had departed from Virginia was spearheaded into the Pentagon – the nation’s military headquarters.
The horrific, shocking attack, the deadliest since Pearl Harbor, was a major wake up call for the United States. A $25 million reward was offered for bin Laden and anti-terrorist task forces were set up. Despite a full-on effort to bring him to justice, bin Laden was able to remain at large, plotting further attacks for another decade.
“Jihad will continue even if I am not around.” Osama bin Laden
Sometime in the mid 2000’s he slipped into Pakistan. For a while he stayed in rural mountain villages protected by local tribal leaders. Then he moved to the Abbottabad compound with three of his wives (he now had five) and thirteen of his children. It was there that the Americans finally got their man.
In the early morning hours of May 2nd,2011, about twenty-five Navy SEAL commandos descended on the Abbottabad compound. They quickly breached the 18-foot walls and then stormed the house, using explosives to gain entry. Two men encountered on the first floor were killed, and then the commandos rushed upstairs where they identified and killed bin Laden. He was shot in the chest and the forehead. One of his wives was also shot in the leg when she lunged at a SEAL.
To make sure that they had gotten their man, one of the SEAL’s took a photo and then quickly put it through facial recognition software. The result showed a 95 percent likelihood that this was Osama bin Laden. Later DNA testing put it beyond a shadow of doubt – the world’s number one terrorist was dead.
Osama bin Laden was buried at sea shortly after the raid. Unfortunately, the terror organization that he created remains.