Bin Laden was part of a large extended family. He was the only son of his father's fourth wife. His mother was from Damascus, Syria, and was never one of his father's favorite wives, leading to a divorce. Altogether the father had 21 wives and reportedly had 54 children, of which 24 were sons. Bin Laden was the 17th son, and members of the family have advanced the theory that his position on the fringe of the family rankled him. Bin Laden's family moved several times in Saudi Arabia and ended up in Jeddah, where he attended Jeddah's best school—al-Thagr. Standards were high at this Western-style school, which several sons of Saudi royalty also attended. Even as a boy bin Laden showed such a strong religious streak that it alarmed his family. Bin Laden also had some familiarity with the West through vacations in Sweden and attendance at a summer class studying English at Oxford University. His father died in the crash of his Cessna aircraft in 1967, leaving an estate of around $11 billion. Bin Laden's inheritance has been described as between $40 million and $50 million. At age 17 he married his mother's 14-year-old cousin. Beginning in 1977, bin Laden studied economics and management in the Management and Economics School at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Bin Laden was a mediocre student, in part because he neglected his studies to work for the family construction firm. He left school in 1979, and there is considerable disagreement among scholars regarding whether or not he graduated. His initial interest after leaving school was to become involved in the bin Laden family businesses, but he was blocked by his older brothers. By the late 1990s the Saudi Binladen Group (SBG) employed 37,000 people and was worth around $5 billion.
As a youngster bin Laden had a solid religious training as a Sunni Muslim but beginning around 1973 he became even more religious. One of his first actions was making contact with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. There is evidence that he joined the Muslim Brotherhood while in high school. He later admitted that his first interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood was in 1973. At the university, he took courses taught by Muhammad Qutb, the brother of the famous martyred Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb, and he had contact with the advocate of jihad Sheikh Abdullah Yussuf Azzam. Furthermore, two events radicalized bin Laden even more. First was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of Islamists under the command of Juhayman ibn-Muhammad-ibn-Sayf al-Taibi. The religious faith and the martyrdom of these Islamists impressed bin Laden. Next, and ultimately more significant, was the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.
Bin Laden's participation in the Afghan-Soviet War was a turning point in his life. His immediate reaction was to go to Afghanistan and join in the fighting. In 1979 he made a quick visit to Pakistan to meet with Afghan leaders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasool Sayyaf. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, but began planning to help in Afghanistan. He was one of the estimated 10,000 Saudis to flock to the Afghan war. In contrast to most, however, he brought construction machinery with him when he came—bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks, and equipment for building trenches. Soon after arriving in Pakistan, he learned that his organizational skills were needed more than his skill in combat.
In Pakistan bin Laden renewed his association with Sheikh Abdullah Yussuf Azzam. They had previously met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in summer 1984. Together they formed the Mujahideen Services Bureau (Maktab al-Khidanet, or MAK) in 1984 to recruit and train Afghan fighters. Most of the early expenses of this organization came out of bin Laden's personal finances. Later, funds came from other sources, and in the end several billion dollars flowed through the MAK. Bin Laden used his Saudi contacts in the mid-1980s to bring more heavy construction equipment to protect the Afghans and mujahideen fighters from Soviet artillery and air strikes.
In 1986 bin Laden extended his activities to the battlefield. He joined an Arab mujahideen unit in the field, and participated in the 1987 Battle of the Lion's Den near Jaji. This brief combat experience raised his prestige among Afghan Arab compatriots. Despite his battlefield experience, bin Laden's most significant contribution to the war was in assisting Azzam in radicalizing the Afghan Arab fighters. Bin Laden also met with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the best military leader among the Afghans, but he had closer ties with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasool Sayyaf.
By 1987 bin Laden's relationship with Azzam became strained over differences of jihad strategy. Bin Laden had developed ties with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and an open enemy of Azzam. By 1988 bin Laden had broken with Azzam and sided with al-Zawahiri and his Egyptians. Azzam's mysterious assassination on November 24, 1989, cleared the way for bin Laden to play an even greater role in Islamist politics. Although bin Laden had adopted Azzam's argument in favor of a holy war against the enemies of Islam, he differed from his mentor in his belief that it should be extended to an international holy war to be carried out throughout the world. It was also in fall 1989 that bin Laden first organized the Al Qaeda (the Base) organization. The existence of Al Qaeda was announced at a meeting at which those present were required to sign a loyalty oath (bayat).
After the end of the Afghan-Soviet War, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia as a war hero. Both the Saudi regime and the general populace acclaimed him. Shortly after his return to Saudi Arabia he approached Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence. Bin Laden offered to use Arab irregulars to overthrow the Marxist government of South Yemen, but Turki turned his offer down. Bin Laden settled down in Jeddah working for his family's construction firm until Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 21, 1990. Bin Laden opposed Saddam Hussein's invasion, and he went to the Saudi government offering to lead a mujahideen army against Hussein. But when the Saudi government opted to accept U.S. troops on Saudi soil to regain Kuwait, bin Laden turned against the Saudi regime. Bin Laden was unalterably opposed to the stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, contending that the presence of non-Muslims on holy ground was a sacrilege. His vocal opposition led the Saudi authorities to place him under house arrest for a period of time.
Bin Laden's opposition to the Persian Gulf War led him to leave Saudi Arabia in 1991. To escape possible retaliation from the Saudi security forces, bin Laden and his family moved first to Pakistan and then to Sudan. Bin Laden had been considering a move to Sudan for several years, and he had been buying property in and around Khartoum. This change had both political and religious implications among Muslims. Husan al-Turabi, an Islamist religious and political leader in Sudan, invited bin Laden and his family to stay in Sudan. Bin Laden moved the bulk of his financial assets to Sudan, and there he established a series of businesses, including a road building company. He acquired a near monopoly of many of Sudan's principal commodity businesses, which ventures only added to his personal fortune.
It was from Sudan that bin Laden launched a propaganda campaign against the Saudi royal family, portraying them as false Muslims. Bin Laden's continuing attacks on the Saudi royal family and religious leadership led to the loss of his Saudi citizenship on April 7, 1994, and to the freezing of his financial assets in Saudi Arabia. This meant bin Laden lost $7 million of his share of the family business. In addition to attacking the Saudi regime, bin Laden made it plain in his publication Betrayal of Palestine on December 29, 1994, that he included Israel among the enemies of Islam.
Bin Laden used his secure political base in Sudan to organize the terrorist activities of Al Qaeda. He had established the outline of this organization in 1989, but in Sudan it became a full-fledged terrorist organization. His goal for Al Qaeda was for it to serve as an incitement to Muslims to join a defensive jihad against the West and against tyrannical secular Muslim regimes, and to help train and lead those Muslims who volunteered to participate in the defensive jihad. He established a training camp for Al Qaeda operatives at Soba, north of Khartoum. In 1992 bin Laden sent advisers and military equipment to Somalia to oppose the American mission there. This mission proved successful for bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The first operations of Al Qaeda were directed against Saudi Arabia and the American forces stationed there. A car bomb exploded in Riyadh on November 13, 1995, killing 5 Americans and 1 Saudi and wounding more than 60 others. This attack was followed by a truck bombing at al-Khobar in Dhahran on June 25, 1996, killing 19 American servicemen and wounding hundreds.
Pressure from the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United States threatened bin Laden's status in Sudan, so he moved his operations to Afghanistan in May 1996. The Sudanese government had no choice but to ask bin Laden to leave, much to his displeasure. Bin Laden left Sudan virtually penniless, as the Sudanese government offered him only pennies on the dollar for all of the property he owned in Sudan. Bin Laden has claimed that his $300 million investment in Sudan was lost. There is some evidence that he hid some of his assets in various companies through partial ownerships.
Afghanistan was a natural haven for bin Laden and Al Qaeda because of the victory of the Islamist Taliban and because of bin Laden's personal relationship with the head of the Taliban, Mohammed Mullah Omar. They had met in Pakistan during the later stages of the Afghan-Soviet War. There are even reports that bin Laden bought Omar a house in Karachi. Although Taliban leaders welcomed bin Laden as a hero of the Muslim world, they were nervous about his terrorist activities and their reflection on the Taliban regime. Responding to this welcome, bin Laden arranged financing from the Arab world for the Taliban regime. In return, the Taliban government allowed bin Laden to organize a series of training camps in Afghanistan to train a cadre of terrorists to carry out operations worldwide. Cementing this alliance, bin Laden's Al Qaeda forces joined Taliban military units fighting the Northern Alliance army of General Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Once bin Laden had firmly established his organization in Afghanistan, he started an international campaign against those he considered to be enemies of Islam. The top target was the United States. On August 23, 1996, he issued a call for jihad against the Americans for their occupation of Saudi Arabian territory. Then in February 1998 he formed the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Bin Laden followed this up with the announcement on February 23, 1998, of a global jihad against all enemies of Islam. At the top of this list of enemies of Islam is the United States because bin Laden considers the United States to be "the root of all evil—theologically, politically and morally—and the source of all the misfortunes that have befallen the umma (Muslim world)." In a 1998 interview with an American journalist, bin Laden expressed this viewpoint.
Bin Laden was the political head of Al Qaeda and he was responsible for its operations, but there has always been an on-site command that plans and carries out operations. Because Al Qaeda is an umbrella organization, it is extremely decentralized and has as many as 30 separate extremist groups affiliated with it. Bin Laden's role was to coordinate operations without participating in them. After receiving the go-ahead from bin Laden and Al Qaeda's leadership, the on-site commander made the tactical decisions. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed presented the outline of the plan for the September 11, 2001, operation to bin Laden and the top leaders of Al Qaeda sometime in 1996. Bin Laden approved the plan in principle, but he left the implementation of it to Mohammed and his subordinates. Both bin Laden and Mohammed knew that the failure of the Group Islamique Armé (GIA) to carry out its mission to fly a hijacked aircraft into the Eiffel Tower in December 1994 meant that they needed trained pilots to carry out this mission in the United States.
It is evident that bin Laden was interested in attacking the United States for economic reasons as much as for political ones. Bin Laden's training in economics and business allowed him to see the total picture. In his homage to the 19 martyrs, bin Laden justified the September 11 attack by stating that "it is possible to strike the economic base that is the foundation of the military base, so when their economy is depleted they will be too busy with each other to be able to enslave poor peoples."
After his establishing the principles of the plan, the operation proceeded on its own with little or no input from bin Laden. He learned five days before the September 11 attack on what day it would take place. Bin Laden expected a vigorous American response after the end of the attacks in the United States, but he counted on the harshness of the response to mobilize Muslims worldwide against the United States and the West. His anticipation of a vigorous U.S. response proved correct, but the rest of his calculations went awry. Bin Laden was reluctant to assume any responsibility for September 11, but he did praise the hijackers in the following words.
The collapse of the Taliban to the Northern Alliance with the assistance of the United States was a major setback for bin Laden. Both the ease and the quickness of the Taliban's fall were unexpected. Bin Laden retreated to the mountain complex of Tora Bora, where he stayed until December 10, 2001, before escaping into northwest Pakistan, where there was strong support for him. Evidently he sustained a wound to his left arm in the American bombing of Tora Bora. Despite efforts by American intelligence in the years since the overthrow of the Taliban, searchers were unable to locate his whereabouts.
In August 2010, unbeknownst to the public at large, American intelligence received information suggesting that bin Laden was living at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a suburb of the capital, Islamabad. After months of pursuing this lead, and with final approval given by President Barack Obama in late April 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs conducted a raid on the compound on May 1, 2011 (May 2 Pakistani local time). In the ensuing firefight, bin Laden, one of his adult sons, and three others were killed. After photographic and DNA evidence was taken to prove bin Laden's identity, his body was buried at sea.
President Obama's announcement of the events surrounding bin Laden's death prompted spontaneous celebration in the United States and in many locations around the world, although jihadists were quick to promise retribution for bin Laden's killing. Such threats suggest that, despite bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda and similar extremist groups will likely continue to pose a threat to U.S. national security in the future.
Stephen E. Atkins
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