From the Archives: Osama bin Laden, born to privilege, dies a pariah
Osama bin Laden, a scion of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families, became the grim apostle of a strain of Islamic radicalism that exalted violence against non-believers, and the leader of a terrorist network that launched repeated attacks in the West, most spectacularly in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Born in 1957 to a life of privilege, Bin Laden was one of more than 50 offspring of a Saudi construction magnate. He spent his youth in mansions filled with crystal chandeliers, gold statues and Italian tapestries.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bin Laden obituary: The obituary of Osama Bin Laden in the May 2 Section A incorrectly reported the date of his Al Qaeda network’s terrorist attacks on the United States as Sept. 11, 2011. The attacks took place in 2001. Additionally, the obituary omitted the day Bin Laden was killed. It was early Monday in Pakistan. An earlier online version of this article said it was Sunday.
Yet he became a figure of worldwide influence as a supporter of Muslim freedom fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, later, as an organizer and financier of terrorist cells who concealed his whereabouts, living in safe houses, remote camps and even caves in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The world’s most wanted man was killed during a firefight with U.S. forces in Abbotabad, about 30 miles northeast of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. He had a $25-million bounty on his head set by the U.S.
Yossef Bodansky, a terrorism expert who wrote a biography of Bin Laden, labeled him “the man who declared war on America.” For former President George W. Bush and countless Americans, he was simply “the evil one.”
In 1994, Saudi Arabia stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship. Many members of his family, closely linked to the monarchy, had disavowed him long before.
Hatred for America
Yet for a time, he was also a hero to many in the Muslim world, an avenger akin to Saladin, the sultan who drove the Christian Crusaders from Jerusalem more than eight centuries ago.
“We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans,” Bin Laden said in a February 1999 magazine interview. “The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means. We do not worry about American opinion or the fact that they place prices on our heads.”
Bin Laden was most notorious for the hijackings by a suicide squad of 19 young Arab men who turned airliners into bombs on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 died.
He also had been indicted in the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured 5,000. He was suspected of involvement in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors.
Bin Laden once gloated that “our boys” participated in the 1993 battle in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed and which led to a hasty U.S. withdrawal.
It was this pullout that he said led him to conclude the “American soldier was just a paper tiger.”
In February 1998, at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, he and other hard-line leaders announced the creation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
In its first religious edict, the front declared that “to kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible.”
Over the years, he attracted recruits from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan and other Muslim countries, and his diffuse terrorist network is said to operate in 60 nations. But the recent uprisings in the Arab world, with secular middle-class professionals and women at the barricades, have raised questions about just how much his brand of militant Islam resonates on the streets.
In his public pronouncements, Bin Laden rarely displayed emotion, and seldom smiled. But a video apparently made in early November 2001 and obtained by U.S. authorities showed a very different Bin Laden. On that tape, made during a meeting with supporters in eastern Afghanistan, Bin Laden laughed when recalling the carnage of Sept. 11.
Here, there were no pro forma denials: Bin Laden said he knew four days in advance what was planned, though he admitted that the scale of death and destruction astonished him.
Eluding U.S. grasp
America had tried, and failed, to kill Bin Laden before. Two weeks after the embassy bombings in East Africa, President Bill Clinton ordered a volley of more than 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched against Bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan and a suspected weapons plant in Sudan.
But Bin Laden escaped, having left the camp with a coterie of top lieutenants minutes before.
Under Clinton, the CIA also began to train Pakistani commandos for a covert operation against Bin Laden in Afghanistan, but the scheme foundered when the Pakistani military overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999.
The arc of Bin Laden’s life is a tale of how a man born to great privilege and with abundant opportunities became an impresario of radical politics and violence.
Although the United States has long had enemies in the Arab world, none blended the traditional Muslim doctrines of holy war and martyrdom, a Pan-Islamic message and a loathing for the West and its way of life, with such devastating effect.
Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, in 1957, the 17th of the 54 children of the founder of the Bin Laden Group, a construction company.
His given name means lion, the embodiment of courage and nobility. There was also a religious resonance: One of the companions of the prophet Muhammad was named Osama.
Hi father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, was a Yemeni immigrant, a former laborer whose close ties to the Saudi ruling family resulted in lucrative contracts to rebuild the kingdom’s roads and the mosques in Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
The elder Bin Laden was a devout Muslim, raised in the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect. He had at least 11 wives. Osama was the only child born to Alia Ghanem, a beauty from Syria who preferred Parisian fashions to the veil. As a foreigner, she did not rank high in the family pecking order. Some members of the Bin Laden clan have said her status was so lowly that she was known as “the slave” and her son as “ibn al abida” — son of the slave.
Some sources close to the family believe his sense of alienation and rebellion began here. Others believe it arose later, when Bin Laden was maneuvered out of a major role in the construction firm by his older brothers.
In 1967, when Osama was about 10, his father was killed in a plane crash. His share of the inheritance reportedly was about $300 million.
From age 13, Bin Laden attended the Western-style Al Thagher Model School in the Saudi port city of Jidda. The teacher who tutored him in English remembers a tall, handsome and unfailingly polite teenager who stood out because of his serene self-confidence.
During his teenage years, Bin Laden also went on family vacations to Denmark, Sweden and Britain.
Some sources claim that Bin Laden spent his vacations from high school and college in the fleshpots of Beirut, drinking and womanizing.
By some accounts, Bin Laden renounced such impious behavior and began an intense study of the Koran after his father’s company was awarded contracts to rebuild the Mecca and Medina mosques.
Other accounts, perhaps embellished by his admirers, claim he was already an assiduous student of his faith as an adolescent. When he was about 18, relatives on his mother’s side have said, Bin Laden was sent to Syria for his first bride, a 14-year-old named Najwa.
After completing high school in 1974, Bin Laden did not follow his brothers to higher education in the West, but instead enrolled in the management and economics program at King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda.
Especially influential as Bin Laden was approaching adulthood were the religious traditionalists who preached adherence to a strict interpretation of Islam as a bulwark against the corruption and decadence of the West.
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.
For Azzam, reportedly one of the founders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, there could be no compromise with the enemies of Islam: “Jihad and the rifle alone. No negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues.”
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.
Among those involved was Omar Abdel Rahman, who would later be convicted of masterminding a plot to blow up New York City landmarks in the early 1990s.
When the metamorphosis was complete, the organization created to fund and staff the anti-Soviet struggle had become Al Qaeda, a multinational network of Muslim extremists.
But in Afghanistan, the holy war was ending in an inconclusive mess.
In 1989, with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the Soviets withdrew, leaving behind a pro-Kremlin government whose army proved surprisingly strong in the field. The mujahedin fought the regime, and one another. Bin Laden, who had advocated the unity of all believers, grew increasingly disgusted, and finally returned to Jidda.
Despite his bitter disappointment at the end, Bin Laden had learned indelible lessons in Afghanistan. The Soviets’ comeuppance demonstrated that even a superpower was no match for the righteous power of an Islamic holy war.
The fight broadens
The next great cataclysm to shake the Arab world would push Bin Laden even further into religious and political extremism, and eventually put him at loggerheads with Saudi ruling family.
It came Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces overran Kuwait.
The panicked Saudis worried that their country might be next. Though Bin Laden had grown increasingly critical of the monarchy, he offered to raise an army of Afghan war veterans to defend the kingdom.
Members of the royal family gave him a polite hearing, but refused his offer.
Instead, they called on the United States to provide protection.
For Bin Laden, the presence of U.S. forces on Saudi soil was a desecration of sacred ground. He appears to have experienced it as a personal humiliation.
“If Italy invited Muslim soldiers to protect the Vatican City, what would be the feeling of the Christian world?” he later said.
When Bin Laden denounced what he called a sacrilege, Saudi authorities threatened to confiscate all his property unless he kept silent.
Bin Laden’s creed would take years to ripen fully, but already he was on a collision course with the United States. He came to believe Washington’s presence in the Muslim world was keeping autocrats and dictators in power and was preventing the establishment of true Islamic states. The priority would become kicking the Americans out.
Under mounting Saudi pressure, Bin Laden, his four wives, children and a retinue of followers left in 1991 for Sudan, where
he put his organizational and financial talents to work to devise a way to fund radical Islamic groups.
Bin Laden set up a trading company to that could engage in import-export operations without arousing suspicion. He also formed a holding company that controlled investments in at least nine firms that allegedly would come to mix legitimate commercial endeavors with terrorism.
He was joined in Sudan by several hundred “Arab Afghans,” veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad, and training camps were set up.
It was in his adopted African home that Bin Laden undertook the real work of developing Al Qaeda into a well-financed terrorist operation capable of adapting quickly to changing circumstances.
In Khartoum, Bin Laden attracted the attention of U.S. authorities, who put pressure on the Sudanese to expel him as a way of quelling his activities. In 1995, Sudan reportedly made a secret offer to Saudi Arabia to turn over Bin Laden. But the Saudis, who had revoked his citizenship the previous year after Bin Laden advocated the overthrow of King Fahd, declined.
At the time, the United States didn’t want Bin Laden either, since he hadn’t yet been tied conclusively to any crimes committed against U.S. citizens or on U.S. soil. So on May 18, 1996, Bin Laden flew to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
It was a very different Afghanistan that Bin Laden came back to. For years, the mujahedin factions that had forged an uneasy alliance against the Communists had been making war on one another. The country was in ruins, and millions had lost their homes and livelihoods.
A fanatical militia, the Taliban, was capturing more and more territory. Covertly funded by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence, this band of puritans imposed draconian edicts, banning shaving for men, women’s education, and amusements such as music.
Astute about the changing realities, Bin Laden visited Kabul in October 1996 after the Taliban occupied it, and held parleys with the group’s leadership. They reportedly got along famously.
The Taliban’s success in defeating or bribing enemies might have happened without Bin Laden’s participation. But he gave the group a valuable shot in the arm by putting up or raising money to finance military campaigns and furnishing dedicated Arab fighters to spearhead the Taliban’s assaults.
To curry favor with the Taliban’s supreme leader, a one-eyed son of poor Pashtun farmers named Mullah Mohammed Omar, Bin Laden built him a house. He showered other Taliban dignitaries with money and presents.
In return, the Taliban-held lands, which came to include almost all of Afghanistan, became a haven and launch pad for Bin Laden and his version of holy war. He reportedly helped fund and train terrorists for Pakistan who could be infiltrated into Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region claimed by both India and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, Bin Laden found valuable new human assets and allies, including dozens of exiled Egyptian extremists who became a key part of Al Qaeda’s expanding core.
These associates included Ayman Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Mohammed Atef, a former policeman who was its military commander.
The merger of Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad created a terrorist force of great ambition and destructive power.
In addition to supporting Al Qaeda with contributions from what was left of his personal fortune, Bin Laden funded the group through criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking and extortion and money skimmed from legitimate Islamic charities.
In 1997, the Taliban uncovered what it said was a Saudi plot to assassinate Bin Laden, and for his own protection, he moved into an old Soviet air base outside Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in the country’s south.
Bin Laden worked assiduously to unify the numerous and diverse radical Islamic movements under Al Qaeda’s banner, exploiting his reputation, money and charm to draw other leading figures.
In 1998, along with Zawahiri and extremists from Pakistan and Bangladesh, he issued the fatwa in the name of the “International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” that called killing Americans and their allies was a sacred duty for Muslims.
In August 1998, a colossal bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. At almost the same time, a second bomb rocked the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. One suspected was arrested, he later told FBI agents that he had fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban and was handpicked by Bin Laden for the bombing mission.
In a pattern that had become familiar, Bin Laden issued a statement welcoming the bombings, which had killed many Muslims.
Secret, spartan life
The now-stateless Bin Laden’s day-to-day life was described to the Observer, the British newspaper, by a defecting Al Qaeda associate in June 1999.
After dawn prayers, he would study the Koran and eat simple meals. Instead of using satellite phones, which he believed the Americans might use to track him down and kill him, he dictated messages to an aide, who then telephoned Al Qaeda leaders from another location.
Al Qaeda apparently was tightly compartmentalized; even one of Bin Laden’s top spokesmen was kept out of the loop about the Sept. 11 attacks, and some of the hijackers apparently learned only at the last moment that they wouldn’t be leaving the jetliners alive.
For his protection, Bin Laden relied on a select and devoted group of mainly Muslim fighters.
Hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, he sent a message to Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who had interviewed him before, that read, “I don’t have any link to the U.S. attacks, but I support it.”
Later, in a statement faxed from an undisclosed hide-out, he called on Muslims in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan to join his holy war against the “Christian-Jewish Crusade.”
In the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bin Laden eluded America’s grasp, insulating himself within the rugged plateaus and forested mountainsides of Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border and surrounded by Pashtuns who shared his opinion of the U.S..
Infighting in Washington and a lack of cooperation from Islamabad also played a role. Disagreements among Bush administration policymakers stymied plans to send Special Operations teams to track Bin Laden down. In Islamabad, the government of President Pervez Musharraf never showed any earnest desire to help.
Bin Laden might never have found refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas if it weren’t for the U.S. military’s ill-fated decision not to send U.S. Special Forces into Tora Bora, the labyrinthine network of caves in eastern Afghanistan where Bin Laden and Al Qaeda hid after the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001.
U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the operation in Afghanistan, gave the job of flushing out Bin Laden to a ragtag band of Afghan fighters, a move that most analysts say gave Bin Laden and his aides the opportunity to flee to Pakistan.
Rumors about Bin Laden suffering from poor health ebbed and flowed, but were never substantiated. Instead, he would periodically surface through video or audio messages that reiterated his hatred for America and its allies, and his call for Muslims join his cause. In June 2009, another purported audio message took aim at President Obama.
“Obama has followed the footsteps of his predecessor in increasing animosity toward Muslims and increasing enemy fighters and establishing long-term wars,” the recording said. “So the American people should get ready to reap the fruits of what the leaders of the White House have planted throughout the coming years and decades.”
Just after Sept. 11 attacks, Bin Laden issued a personal declaration of war against the United States and its allies from a man on the run who had come to believe that his faith and the Western world could not coexist.
Like President Bush, Bin Laden proclaimed that whoever was not with him was his enemy. “These events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidel,” he said. “Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion.”
Dahlberg is a former Times staff writer.
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