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Summary Article: bin Laden, Osama (1957-2011) from The SAGE Encyclopedia of Terrorism

For much of his life, Osama bin Laden was likely the most infamous terrorist in the world. Known among his cadres as “the prince” and “the emir,” bin Laden sought to overturn the current world order and replace it with one in which the Islamic world would have no borders. This Islamic polity, according to bin Laden, was to be ruled by a caliph. He also sought to encourage Muslim jihads around the world, end U.S. military operations against Iraq, destroy the state of Israel, and overthrow secular, moderate regimes in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To achieve these ends, bin Laden created a militant Islamic network called al Qaeda.

Early Years

Osama bin Laden was born on March 10, 1957, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was the 17th son of 52 children born to Mohammad bin Laden, a business mogul in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad bin Laden moved to Saudi Arabia from neighboring Yemen in 1931 and founded a construction company, the Bin Laden Group. In time, the company grew and began to do contract work for the Saudi regime, building highways and infrastructure, in addition to famous mosques in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When Mohammad bin Laden was killed in a helicopter crash in 1968, his inheritance, worth billions of dollars, was divided among his children.

Osama bin Laden grew up a devout Muslim. He received most of his formal schooling in Mecca and in Jedda. He reportedly showed a solemn respect for Muslim practices and learned much from religious visitors to the bin Laden home during the hajj (pilgrimage) season each year. As a young man of 17, he married the first of his four wives. He then studied public management at King Abd al Aziz University in Jeddah between 1974 and 1978. While at university, bin Laden was heavily influenced by one of his professors, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a prominent radical Muslim. He was also said to have been influenced by Mohammed Qutb, a renowned fundamentalist thinker, and brother of the late Sayyid Qutb, arguably the most influential radical Islamic thinker in history.

During a Sensitive Site Exploitation mission in the Zhawar Kili area of Eastern Afghanistan members of a U.S. Navy SEAL Team found valuable intelligence information, including this Osama bin Laden propaganda poster. (U.S. Department of Defense)

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 26, 1979, the 22-year-old bin Laden left his wealthy existence in Saudi Arabia and joined the thousands of Muslims who answered the call for jihad, or holy war, to defend Afghanistan. With his inheritance, bin Laden began organizing and financing mujahideen activities for the fight against the Soviets. He purchased weapons, built training camps, dug trenches, paved roads, and developed other infrastructure. His money also provided food and medicines to fellow fighters. Reports also indicate that bin Laden fought in several battles, where he demonstrated bravery to his fellow mujahideen. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that bin Laden founded Maktab al Khidamat (the Services Office) in 1984. The Services Office recruited thousands of jihad fighters from all over the world to join the war, placed them in more than a dozen “guest houses” around neighboring Pakistan, and trained them in special camps that bin Laden paid for.

When the Soviets retreated on February 15, 1989, the mujahideen, and their CIA financiers, declared victory. Indeed, many of the mujahideen of Afghanistan were bankrolled and trained by the CIA. It is unlikely, however, that bin Laden was among them. In fact, he insists he had no contact with U.S. intelligence, and numerous U.S. sources corroborate this assertion.

Building al Qaeda

On November 24, 1989, Azzam was killed by a powerful car bomb. Though crestfallen, bin Laden decided to continue the work the two had started together. With the help of careful records he kept in the training camps and guesthouses of the Services Office, bin Laden launched a militant Islamic network called al Qaeda, or “the Base.” It was simply a collection of the thousands of radical Muslims that he and Azzam had financed and trained who were committed to carrying out jihad activities elsewhere around the globe. Indeed, these mujahideen returned to their homes, established secret cells, and began guerrilla campaigns against regimes they considered heretical.

With al Qaeda launched, bin Laden returned home to his native Saudi Arabia in 1990, whereupon he assumed the role of activist in opposition to the Saudi royal family. He spoke at countless mosques and other gatherings, where he was fiercely critical of governmental policies, including what he perceived to be the improper interpretation of Islam. His opposition intensified in 1991, when American troops landed in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. Their very presence on Saudi soil offended bin Laden, who believed that the Prophet Muhammad prohibited “infidels” from setting foot on the land of Islam's two holiest sites. “By being loyal to the U.S. regime,” bin Laden said, “the Saudi regime has committed an act against Islam.” Thousands of tapes of his speeches were circulated around the Saudi kingdom.

Due to rising tensions with the royal family, in April 1991, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia with his family (by then he had several wives and many children) and moved to Sudan, where a militant Islamic government had taken power two years earlier. With his inheritance, bin Laden invested heavily in the poor country, establishing several legitimate businesses, including a major construction company. Additionally, bin Laden established at least three terrorist training camps in Northern Sudan, where experts taught terrorist and guerrilla tactics to the Egyptian al Jihad and al Gama'a al Islamiyya, the Iranian-funded Hezbollah from Lebanon, and Sudan's National Islamic Front, as well as jihad groups from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. He sent these trained militants to the Balkans, Chechnya, and other theaters where Muslims were in conflict.

All the while, bin Laden was considered an increasingly dangerous threat to the Saudis. He formed the Advice and Reform Council, a group that condemned the Saudi regime and sought to destabilize it. In addition to several reported assassination attempts by Saudi intelligence, the Saudis froze his assets in 1993 (valued at more than $200 million). Soon after, in 1994, bin Laden renounced his Saudi citizenship, making him not only a renegade from his homeland, but also from his family, which continued to publicly distance itself from him.

At the same time, al Qaeda continued to grow. Its first attacks against America were reported at two hotels in Yemen, where bombs exploded and killed several tourists. The bombs were probably intended to kill American troops on their way to a humanitarian mission in Somalia. al Qaeda caught up with those U.S. servicemen on October 3, 1993, when 18 American soldiers were shot down over Mogadishu in Somalia. They were killed by local guerrillas trained by al Qaeda operatives. bin Laden was also said to have links to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed six people and wounded more than a thousand.

By early 1994, bin Laden was using the Internet and other high-tech means to plan and execute his operations, along with a complicated network of front companies and bank accounts to launder funds for continued operations. In late 1995, five Americans and two Indians were killed by a truck bomb in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While they were never conclusively linked to al Qaeda, bin Laden praised the four men, who were executed by the Saudis for the attacks, as “martyrs” who paved the way for other true believers.

Other attacks on non-American targets continued around the world. In December 1994, bin Laden was linked to an attempt to destroy an airplane en route to Tokyo. The attack was carried out by the Abu Sayyaf Group, a Philippine group under the aegis of al Qaeda. The following year, an assassination attempt on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was linked to al Qaeda. Similarly, al Qaeda/Abu Sayyaf was tied to an aborted plot to assassinate the pope. Finally, in November 1995, a car bomb planted by al Qaeda operatives rocked the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan.

bin Laden in Afghanistan

It was the attack in Riyadh, in all probability, that prompted Washington to pressure Sudan to revoke its protection of bin Laden. A year later, Khartoum yielded. In May 1996 bin Laden moved his family and hundreds of al Qaeda members to Afghanistan, where years of civil war had paved the way for the repressive fundamentalist Taliban regime, under Mullah Mohammed Omar, to rise to power. In Afghanistan, bin Laden curried favor among the Taliban by providing financial support for their radical Islamic regime and the subsequent internecine fighting that followed. He helped rebuild infrastructure that was largely destroyed after years of war against the Soviets. As a sign of respect, he was known as “Sheikh.”

The operations of al Qaeda flourished in bin Laden's new headquarters. On August 23, 1996, he issued a decree declaring jihad against Americans and Jews, calling Muslims to expel them from Islamic holy lands (Saudi Arabia and Israel). Accordingly, that same year, a suspected al Qaeda attack at the Khobar Towers military complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 Americans. By then, the U.S. State Department was calling bin Laden “the most significant financial sponsor of Islamic extremist activities in the world today,” due to his bankrolling of training camps in both Afghanistan and Sudan.

In 1998 bin Laden issued a fatwa, or religious proclamation, calling for the death of all Americans, both military and civilians. Later that year, bin Laden's group was conclusively linked to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, where hundreds were killed and thousands were injured. The U.S. responded by attacking several of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan thought at the time to be producing chemical weapons for al Qaeda. The attacks brought notoriety to bin Laden, who became something of a celebrity outlaw in the Muslim world.

In November 1998, the U.S. government indicted bin Laden with several charges, including complicity in the embassy bombings. Concurrently, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to his arrest. In 1999 the FBI placed bin Laden on their Most Wanted Terrorists list. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that the Taliban was growing weary of their guest, who brought with him the consternation of the international community and the wrath of the United States. They requested that bin Laden suspend his military and political activities, and even assigned several soldiers to keep him under watch.

One year later, however, bin Laden was tied to a thwarted plot to bomb targets around the globe during the millennium celebrations on New Year's Eve 1999. On October 27, 2000, bin Laden was again suspected of masterminding the bombing of an American target; the USS Cole battleship, which was attacked by suicide bombers in Yemen, killing more than a dozen sailors.

What bin Laden is most known for, however, are the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001. On that day, two hijacked commercial jets headed from Boston to Los Angeles flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane hit the Pentagon, just outside of Washington, D.C. A fourth hijacked airliner was commandeered by the passengers and crashed in western Pennsylvania. The attacks, carried out by 19 al Qaeda hijackers, killed about 3,000 people.

Following the attacks, President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban turn bin Laden over to American authorities. The Taliban refused, requesting proof of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks. The American government did, in fact, present ample evidence to the rogue state, which still refused to hand over the suspected mastermind. Washington responded with Operation Enduring Freedom, which began with air strikes in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. In the fighting that followed, U.S. and friendly Afghan forces dismantled Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds throughout the country. bin Laden, however, is thought to have escaped during an especially intense battle at the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan.

Tora Bora is made up of a series of complex and circuitous caves. The U.S. Army was at a disadvantage in this terrain, as bin Laden had been to the caves before and was familiar with their layout. Some sources claimed that only a near miss prevented the U.S. Army from capturing bin Laden, while others asserted that there was no way to confirm the al Qaeda leader's presence at the battle at all. In 2008 a Delta Force commander appeared on the television news show 60 Minutes under the pseudonym Dalton Fury, revealing himself as the head of the team dispatched to kill bin Laden. Amid the skirmishes, Fury believed that bin Laden had been injured but not killed, and soon thereafter escaped to Pakistan.

Speculation continued as to whether bin Laden was still alive and in hiding, or if he was in fact deceased. In 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told CNN that he believed bin Laden was “probably dead.” This speculation was fueled further when Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, and Asif Ali Zardari, all former presidents of Pakistan, implied, on different occasions, the high likelihood of bin Laden's demise.

However, for every claim that bin Laden was deceased, there were rebuttals attempting to prove he could be still be alive, as well as vehement insistences from major intelligence organizations that he remained at large. A letter intercepted in 2005 between senior al Qaeda figures Atiyah Abd al Rahman and Abu Musaf al Zarqawi indicated that bin Laden might have been hiding in Waziristan. Unsubstantiated rumors also spread that there was a voice recording in which bin Laden discussed the 2010 flooding in Pakistan.

The many doubts about bin Laden's location were finally resolved on May 1, 2011, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs. bin Laden was shot in the head; four other men were killed, including one of bin Laden's sons, and one of bin Laden's wives was injured.

bin Laden was located in a well-protected compound in the town of Abbottabad, about an hour's drive north of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. According to one of bin Laden's wives, the terror leader had been living there for years. Abbottabad is home to the Pakistan Military Academy, that country's equivalent of West Point; the proximity of bin Laden's hiding place to Pakistan's military establishment raised difficult questions and seemed likely to complicate the already fractious alliance between Pakistan and the United States.

The Americans took possession of bin Laden's body and buried it at sea within 24 hours, in accordance with Muslim practice. As bin Laden had not had direct operational command over al Qaeda for some time, it was unclear whether his death would have any immediate impact on the terror network. Computer disks recovered from the compound indicated that bin Laden had been considering a possible terror attack on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but experts believed those plans were more “aspirational” than actual.

See Also:

Abu Sayyaf Group, Afghanistan War, al Qaeda, East Africa Embassy Bombings, September 11 Attacks, Taliban, USS Cole Bombing, Y2K Plot

Further Readings
  • Atwan, Abdel Bari. The Secret History of al Qaeda. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Bergen, Peter Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Free Press, 2001.
  • Bergen, Peter The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict between America and al-Qaeda. New York: Free Press, 2011.
  • Bergen, Peter The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. New York: Free Press, 2006.
  • bin Laden, Osama, and Lawrence, Bruce B. . Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. London: Verso, 2005.
  • Bodansky, Yossef Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Rocklin, CA: Prima, 1999.
  • Finn, Peter, Shapira, Ian , and Fisher, Marc . “The Hunt.” The Washington Post, May 6, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/projects/osama-hunt/index.html.
  • Griffin, David Ray. Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive? Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2009.
  • Gunaratna, Rohan Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • Kepel, Gilles, Milelli, Jean-Pierre , and Ghazaleh, Pascale . Al Qaeda in Its Own Words. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Reeve, Simon. The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
  • Riedel, Bruce. The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
  • Schweitzer, Yoram. “Osama Bin Ladin: Wealth plus Extremism Equals Terrorism.” July 27, 1998. http://212.150.54.123/articles/articledet.cfm?articleid=40.
  • Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
  • Jonathan Schanzer
    SAGE Publications, Inc

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