One of the most radical voices was that of a fiery Jordanian preacher of Palestinian origin, Abdullah Azzam, who would have a marked impact on Bin Laden's intellectual development.
Joining Afghan battle
In the waning days of 1979, Soviet tanks rumbled into Afghanistan. It seemed to many in the West to herald an alarming phase of renewed Soviet aggression and expansion. In the Muslim world, the invasion was deeply resented as an attack on Islam by a godless superpower. For Bin Laden, it was a life-changing event.
"I was enraged, and went there at once," he said later.
When he arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, the headquarters-in-exile of the Afghan resistance, he had a sizable purse to aid the cause.
Bin Laden became a patron of the Afghan mujahedin, distributing money for shoes and weddings and visiting the wounded.
How much actual fighting he saw during the Soviet occupation is a matter of dispute, but his intense commitment was unquestioned.
In 1987, Bin Laden was commanding a group of mujahedin that attacked Soviet and pro-Moscow Afghan units in the eastern province of Paktia. The fighting degenerated into hand-to-hand combat, and the attackers had to withdraw. But Bin Laden seized what became a prop central to his public persona — the Kalashnikov automatic rifle that was usually by his side in television interviews or photographs. He claimed to have taken it from a dead Soviet general.
In Afghanistan, Bin Laden's leadership skills and genius for organization became evident.
In Peshawar, he came face to face with Azzam, the incendiary preacher, and they began to work together for the Afghan cause. The men rented a residence and established what they called the House of the Faithful.
The property was to serve as a base for Arab fighters flocking to the Pakistani-Afghan border for a chance to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. There, Bin Laden would interview the arrivals, then assign them to various factions of the Afghan resistance.
With Azzam, Bin Laden founded the Mujahedin Services Bureau, an organization that sought to channel and strengthen the armed response of Muslims everywhere to the Afghans' plight. By the late 1980s, it reportedly had branches in 50 countries, including the United States.
Bin Laden launched a recruiting drive that enrolled thousands of volunteers. He set up half a dozen camps to train them in guerrilla warfare.
Bin Laden also brought in bulldozers, dump trucks and other assets of his family's company, and drew on his background in construction to build trenches, roads and tunnels to aid the resistance. Many times, it is said, he dug emplacements on the front lines himself and kept working under enemy fire.
He spent tens of millions of dollars of his fortune in Afghanistan, yet led the same spartan life as an ordinary fighter, sleeping on the floor of his Peshawar office on a pallet bed.
Word of the young Saudi's exploits spread through the Middle East, ensuring fresh fighters for the Afghan cause and a steady stream of contributions. According to one Western intelligence estimate, Bin Laden brought in about $50 million a year for the Afghan resistance.
The United States was also generously bankrolling the anti-Soviet fighters. CIA agents from the period say they knew of Bin Laden and approved of what he was doing, but had no interaction with him.
In 1988, a number of the foreign fighters made a decision whose effects are still being felt today. The Soviets, it seemed clear, were on the run. The moment had come to turn the hammer of radical Islam against corrupt and pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries.