Osama Bin Laden—A Face of Terrorism
Osama bin Laden—A Face of Terrorism
In the 1990s Osama bin Laden and his organization al-Qaeda declared war against the United States and have been behind many of the worst terrorist acts of the last decade. On September 11, 2001, when hijackers flew passenger airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon buildings, killing thousands of civilians, bin Laden was almost immediately named the number one suspect by the United States. His organization, operating in secret cells throughout the world, is a difficult enemy to fight, and bin Laden's whereabouts remained unknown in the months after the attack.
• After the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, a powerful new radical Islamic movement was launched, directed specifically against certain political entities, such as Western powers.
• Since bin Laden has consciously broadened his message to appeal to the poor and alienated, many of whom are furious with what they see as U.S. imperialism, he has attracted significant numbers of devotees all over the world.
- Bin Laden declared war on the United States and its people in 1996 and 1998 respectively. When Saudi Arabia invited U.S. troops into the Arabian Peninsula in 1991, bin Laden had increased his anti-Western activities, leading to the "war" declaration.
- Osama bin Laden invokes his own concept of jihad—in most interpretations of the Qur'an considered either a reform movement from within or a call to defend Muslim peoples against aggression—by calling for all Muslims to kill any and all Americans. Most Muslims find bin Laden's call for violence to run entirely counter to the teachings of the Qur'an and the religion of Islam.
On September 11, 2001, the United States came under terrorist attack. Two hijacked commercial airplanes were flown into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; a third plane was flown into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, DC; and a fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Less than two hours after the first plane hit, the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. It was the single most deadly terrorist attack in history, killing thousands of people.
As people across the nation and around the world struggled to come to grips with what had happened, the question of who was responsible for the attack arose. While government officials and the media tried not to immediately cast blame, keeping in mind the erroneous early speculation in 1995 that the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was the work of terrorists of Middle Eastern origin, one name was consistently raised in suspicion—Osama bin Laden. (Arabic terms and names are rendered in a number of different ways in English. The transliterations here are those most commonly used in the major American news media.)
There were few terrorist organizations in the world that had the resources or the sophistication to pull off the attacks of September 11. Bin Laden's network, al-Qaeda, was the one viewed as most capable of doing so, either on its own or in conjunction with other organizations. Bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia, was already viewed as the world's most dangerous—and elusive—terrorist at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whatever role he and his closest lieutenants might have played in the events of September 11, bin Laden has been involved in many of the major terrorist incidents of the last decade. An examination of his life and career will provide us with valuable insights into the hidden, murky world of the terrorist at the dawn of this new century and new millennium.
Qualifying terms like "alleged" appear throughout this article because it is difficult to definitively know exactly what bin Laden and his associates in al-Qaeda have done. Most Western observers see his hand in everything discussed here and many incidents have been confirmed. Others—especially outside the West—consider him to be innocent of all these charges and a hero for his willingness to stand up to the United States. This article is based on the best information available in the West.
The Making of a Terrorist
Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His father, Mohammed, had been raised in Yemen, and moved to Saudi Arabia for business reasons. There he gained the backing of the Saudi royal family and became quite wealthy as the head of one of Saudi Arabia's largest construction firms. As is typical in the region, Mohammed bin Laden took several wives, and Osama was born to one of the least respected of them. His mother, a Syrian woman, divorced Mohammed bin Laden during Osama's youth and later married someone else. She always stayed close to Osama, however, and is known to have visited him in Afghanistan in 2001.
Even though Osama bin Laden was the seventeenth of a reported fifty children his father parented, he still inherited an estimated US$250 to $300 million when his father died in 1967. The estate was divided up and parceled out as shares of the very prosperous family business, which continued to thrive and grow under the eldest brother's management.
Accounts of bin Laden's life say that as a young man he joined in drunken parties (a violation of Islamic principles) with members of the royal family when they were abroad. His father was a stern parent and devoted Wahhabist Muslim, and Osama later attributed his own religious ardor to his father's influence. Additionally, he became a devout Muslim and a firm believer in the Palestinian and other Arabic causes when he was about twenty years of age and a student at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. There he became associated with an Islamic group called the Muslim Brotherhood and learned of the jihadist movement, a radical way of interpreting the Muslim concept of a holy war as an offensive international strike against all the perceived enemies of Islam. Bin Laden graduated from the university with a degree in economics and public administration in 1981.
The War with the Soviets in Afghanistan
While he was in school, bin Laden had become deeply influenced by one of his teachers, the Palestinian sheik Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was one of the first Palestinians to move to Pakistan to support Afghans fighting against the Soviet invasion of their country, which had begun at the end of 1979. Bin Laden followed his mentor to Pakistan. At first, bin Laden had a minor role in Azzam's Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK or Services Office). Ostensibly, the MAK raised money and volunteers for Islamic causes, but, in fact, it was used to recruit volunteers and raise money for the Afghan struggle.
Those were very different political times than ours. The United States supported the Afghan rebels because Cold War logic led Washington to back anyone taking on the Soviet Union. To that end, it allowed the MAK to set up recruiting offices in the United States in addition to those it established in the Middle East. Almost certainly with U.S. funding, the MAK helped set up training bases in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are also reports that the United States funded and may well have helped train bin Laden and his colleagues. By the early 1980s the MAK had built a network that brought thousands of Muslims (esti-mates range from 25,000 to 50,000) from over fifty countries to join the mujahideen, the Afghan "holy warriors," in their battle against the Soviets. These Arabs who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets were called Afghan Arabs. Peter L. Bergen, a bin Laden biographer and expert on terrorism, observes in his 2001 book Holy War, Inc. that the Afghan Arabs were not the major players in the Soviet-Afghan war, but that a new movement was fomenting among them in Afghanistan: " … [I]n the grand scheme of things, the Afghan Arabs were no more than extras in the Afghan holy war. It was the lessons they learned from the jihad, rather than their contribution to it, that proved significant… Those who had had their tickets punched in the Afghan conflict went back to their home countries with the ultimate credential for later holy wars. And they believed their exertions had defeated a superpower."
In the war against the Soviets, bin Laden first worked in areas in which his professional expertise with construction and heavy equipment—not to mention his millions of dollars—was most useful. In the early years of the war, he took trips back and forth from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, raising money for the Afghans. He also brought in construction equipment and set up a hostel for men coming into Afghanistan to help fight the Soviets.
By 1986 bin Laden, who was living in Pakistan, had set up his own training camp in Afghanistan near the village of Jaji. In 1987 the Soviets attacked this base. Bin Laden and about fifty Arabs with him were outnumbered and endured nearly a week of siege before withdrawing. Bin Laden was becoming known as a hero. That year he met some members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, including one of its leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician. Bin Laden and Zawahiri together planned to continue the holy war after the Soviets left Afghanistan and to export terrorism on an international basis. In 1989 bin Laden formed his organization, which later became known as al-Qaeda, or "the base." His earlier mentor, Azzam, who was focused primarily on the Afghan conflict, was killed by a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat around that time, and bin Laden, who split with Azzam ideologically by looking to more international concepts of jihad, chose to return to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business, seemingly putting an end to his political career, though not for long.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait and seemed poised to move on into Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and other moderate Arab states joined in the international coalition that was to win the Gulf War (1991) six months later. Saudi Arabia allowed American troops on its soil, a move that enraged bin Laden and thousands of other veterans of the Afghan and Palestinian struggles. How, they asked, could troops from the world's strongest supporter of Israel be allowed to set foot on sacred Muslim land? Bin Laden, who had worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Afghan conflict, joined those who came to see the United States as the greatest enemy of Islam. Since then, he has allegedly led al-Qaeda in a series of attacks on U.S. targets.
In the late 1980s, bin Laden and some of his colleagues, notably in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (which had masterminded the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat) came together to form al-Qaeda, a word that means "the base." The organization's stated goal is to create a united movement of radical Islamic groups throughout the Muslim world. Among other things, it has vowed to expel non-Muslims from Muslim countries and to overthrow Muslim leaders it believes to have violated the key beliefs of Islam. Four years after it formed, the organization began preparing itself to conduct terrorist activities.
Al-Qaeda is not a single organization, but a network of cells and other bodies, some of which are very close to bin Laden, some of which are not. Several observers have compared al-Qaeda to a modern-day holding company that owns many businesses. According to the best evidence, bin Laden sits at the head of a council (majlis al shura) that, in turn, supervises three main committees that focus on religious policy, military affairs, and fund-raising.
The key to al-Qaeda is its cells. Because secrecy and security are critical, cells are small and do not normally communicate with each other. In fact, members of one cell probably do not even know who their colleagues in other cells are. Above and beyond the cells are loosely organized groups of less committed sympathizers who carry out routine tasks, such as carrying messages and raising money. If the preliminary reports of the participants in the 2001 hijackings are correct, cells may be planted in a country and do nothing for several years before they are called on to carry out an attack.
It appears that al-Qaeda has attracted somewhere between five thousand to fifteen thousand active participants. These cells operate in as many as sixty countries. Many of the participants are drawn from Arabs and others who, like bin Laden, went to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Because bin Laden has consciously broadened his message to appeal to the poor and alienated throughout the Muslim world—many of whom are furious with what they see as U.S. imperialism—he has attracted support from Bosnia to the Philippines, Tanzania to Uganda. Additionally, the post-September 11 focus on al-Qaeda revealed members in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and the United States.
Bin Laden has also managed a network of up to fifty training camps, at which new recruits are trained in everything from assassination to the use of rocket launchers. Al-Qaeda has maintained a shadowy network of front organizations through which it raises money to finance its operations, especially since much of bin Laden's personal wealth has been frozen by Western banks. Much of this network has also been frozen in the wake of September 11.
Terrorism expert Peter Bergen told CNN, "this organization does the unexpected." Indeed, along with conventional methods, al-Qaeda introduced new kinds of targets and used new weapons that were extremely difficult to anticipate or prevent, as will be detailed later. Each attack that was frustrated by Western intelligence services and each subsequent arrest and trial merely provided bin Laden and his colleagues with new or revised ideas for their next act of violence.
Decade of Terrorism
In 1991 bin Laden came under suspicion by Saudi officials for smuggling weapons in from Yemen and he was bribed into leaving the country. In 1994 bin Laden's Saudi citizenship was revoked. He ended up in Sudan, which welcomed him because of his money, if nothing else. It appears that, while there, he established Taba Investments, a holding company of legitimate trucking, construction, financial, and export businesses, to fund his operations and strengthen his plans for terrorism.
In December 1992 war among tribes in Somalia had grown so fierce that the United States, after much reluctance, led a rescue mission to aid the failing government and humanitarian aid missions. The U.S. marines landing in Somalia later engaged in a street battle with Somalis, including some bin Laden supporters, who were able to use skills and ammunition left over from the Soviet-Afghanistan war. In an interview with John Miller of ABC ("Greetings, America. My Name Is Osama bin Laden"), bin Laden said: "After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle … The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all … about being the world leader and the leader of the New World Order, and … left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
Al-Qaeda gained prominence on the international scene after Ramzi Yousef, an alleged bin Laden supporter, bombed New York City's World Trade Center in 1993, in which one of the towers al-Qaeda would allegedly destroy eight years later was attacked. That first primitive bomb killed six and wounded more than 1,000. If Western analysts are to be believed, al-Qaeda has been involved in the following terrorist plots or attacks since then:
- 1994: In the "Bojinka Plot," airline hijackings in the Philippines are thwarted
- 1996: Attack on the U.S. base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. military personnel were killed and 372 wounded
- 1998: Bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 and wounded over 5,000, most of whom were not American
- 2000: Attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 and hurt 39 sailors
- 2001: Attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States
In 1994 Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship, and the United States and other governments froze the bank accounts that held some of his wealth. No one outside his entourage knows exactly how much money he still has, though it is substantial. Whatever his exact role in any attack has been, there is little doubt that he has been a major raiser and dispenser of funds to terrorist groups that strike out against Israel and the United States. As Stephen Phillip Cohen, a former State Department official, wryly put it, as quoted by Karen DeYoung and Michael Dobbs in the September 16, 2001, Washington Post article "Bin Laden: Architect of New Global Terrorism," "he's sort of the Ford Foundation of terrorists."
After the 1996 attacks on the U.S. base in Saudi Arabia, diplomatic pressure on Sudan led its government to force bin Laden to move again. Shortly thereafter, he ended up once again in Afghanistan, where the fundamentalist Islamic group, the Taliban, had gained control of much of the country. The Taliban seem to have agreed to harbor bin Laden in exchange for financial aid and military support in its ongoing struggle to take over the rest of Afghanistan. To the best of our knowledge, bin Laden remained there until the end of 2001.
If anything, al-Qaeda grew more militant in the 1990s and the first years of this century. In 1996, for instance, bin Laden issued a fatwa, a decree usually issued by a Muslim religious leader which bin Laden had no legitimate authority in the Muslim world to issue, declaring it to be the duty of Muslims to kill Americans. Fatwas, aside from having to be issued by one with appropriate recognition, also are not commonly "issued" without a question being asked. The initial fatwa limited itself to attacks on official American targets, but al-Qaeda's second fatwa in 1998 stated that all U.S. citizens who paid taxes were involved in their government's actions and were thus legitimate targets. Bin Laden specified that "to kill Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it." In 2001 al-Qaeda circulated a videotape with a nearly two-hour interview with bin Laden in which he used religious imagery in calling for a "holy war" against the United States.
In 1998, after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) issued a "finding" that authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to engage in covert activities to destroy bin Laden's network and capture him personally. The president also ordered missile strikes against suspected bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan. The United Nations, on October 15, 1999, demanded that the Taliban extradite Osama bin Laden to a country that would bring him to justice, but the Taliban refused, saying they had not seen evidence that bin Laden was responsible for the bombings.
In September 2001 rumors circulated that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had thwarted a number of other attacks, including one designed to disrupt celebrations of the new millennium, all outside the United States. As the world learned painfully on September 11, however, Western intelligence agencies had not done enough.
Responsibility for September 11?
Within days of the September 11, 2001, incidents, evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement began to mount. Few other organizations had the resources to even contemplate an operation of that magnitude. Moreover, there had been rumors of a major event in the works for some weeks, though most experts expected it to occur somewhere in the Middle East. Bin Laden had been recruiting, with a new videotape aimed at inspiring young Muslim men around the world to join his war against Americans. He made statements about an upcoming event, but nothing specific enough to prepare the United States for what was to come.
Fifteen out of nineteen hijackers who were killed on the four airplanes were from Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden is known to have done much of his recruiting. The men who died in the hijackings did not fit what many thought to be the profile of a typical suicide bomber. Most of them were older than expected. Most were well educated; some had lived in Germany or the United States for years. Some had recently had a significant religious awakening. Others blended into American suburban communities, and some had even established families and careers. The hijackers seemed to have lived quiet, unassuming lives in the months before the assault.
The day after the attacks, bin Laden issued a statement denying his involvement, but congratulating the men who staged them. This is consistent with his behavior following earlier attacks. Bin Laden has always tried to keep a veil of mystery around his personal involvement, his leverage over al-Qaeda, and its participation in any attacks.
In December 2001, however, a videotape was found in a house in Afghanistan in which bin Laden speaks about September 11. This video made it clear that bin Laden was involved in planning the attack. In the videotape, he speaks of the plans for the act: "[W]e calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy … I was the most optimistic of them all… due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for."
Bin Laden had earlier stated that he had no involvement with the September attacks and it has been speculated that the videotaped statement was an exaggeration. The contradiction between the videotape and bin Laden's earlier denials have led some sources, especially in the Middle East, to question the tape's authenticity.
Recent History and the Future
On October 7, 2001, the United States and Britain began a military strike against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. With the aid of the air strikes, anti-Taliban forces were able to wrest Afghanistan's centers away from the Taliban within two months. By the beginning of 2002, U.S. and British forces finished a prolonged air strike over al-Qaeda cave complexes in the mountainous region of Tora Bora. In the network of bombed-out caves they found many dead bodies of al-Qaeda fighters along with intelligence information and weapons. U.S. officials announced that they had effectively disrupted al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, although there were still some pockets of Taliban and al-Qaeda resistance. Around the world, suspected al-Qaeda associates and members were questioned and/or arrested. Although the arrests were significant, they demonstrated that there remained many more terrorists still at large. The United States began to send al-Qaeda prisoners to its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Early in 2002 the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera released an interview with bin Laden that had been recorded in October 2001. In it, bin Laden once again seemed to be acknowledging his responsibility for the September 11 attacks. He also did not appear well. In a CNN interview Peter Bergen discussed the changes in bin Laden's appearance in this October videotape and the one in December: "The big difference is that he's aged enormously between '97 and October of last year. This is a man who was clearly not well … I mean, this is a man who has a number of health problems, apart from the fact that anybody running around the Afghan mountains is not going to be in great shape."
While no one knew bin Laden's whereabouts as of early 2002, and some have speculated on the possibility of his death, bin Laden himself may not be of the utmost concern in stemming the terrorist acts of al-Qaeda. In the October videotape, bin Laden's partner in terrorism, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is seen seated behind bin Laden. Many observers have noted that al-Zawahiri appears to be the brains and knowledge behind al-Qaeda, while bin Laden has a charismatic presence that makes him a good front man for the group. Scott Baldauf, in his October 31, 2001 Christian Science Monitor article, "The 'Cave Man' and Al-Qaeda", cites Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who interviewed bin Laden repeatedly during 1997 and 1998. Mir does not believe that bin Laden has the intellectual power or the knowledge of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, to have organized and led al-Qaeda in all its international complexity, while Zawahiri does. Others who have known bin Laden disagree. But all agree that there are quite a few leaders within al-Qaeda who can carry on the group's activities with or without bin Laden.
Madman or Representative of the Powerless?
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1980s engaged in violence as a tactic to convince their stronger opponents to come to the bargaining table. If bin Laden's own statements are to be believed, he—and al-Qaeda—are not interested in any sort of negotiated settlement at all. Instead, he wants at least the departure of all vestiges of the West from all Islamic countries, if not the destruction of the United States itself.
Such extreme goals and actions have led some people to conclude that bin Laden—or whoever else might be responsible for the al-Qaeda atrocities—must be a madman. No psychologist or psychiatrist has had the opportunity to examine bin Laden or his colleagues personally. Most observers who have studied the careers of terrorists do think that many of them have had troubled pasts or bear other psychological scars. On the other hand, it is important to point out that bin Laden and others like him are motivated in large part by political and/or religious beliefs. As long as the conditions that give rise to the extreme anger and frustration in the countries in which al-Qaeda operates continue to exist, it is hard to imagine how organizations like al-Qaeda, or individuals like bin Laden, can be stopped once and for all.
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Bergen, Peter L. "Bin Laden Has Aged Enormously," CNN: February 1, 2002. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/02/01/gen.bergen.cnna/index.html (cited February 16, 2002).
——. "Clues Lie in List Of Hijackers," CNN: January31, 2002. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/14/peter.bergen.cnna/index.html (cited February 16, 2002).
——. Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
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DeYoung, Karen, and Michael Dobbs, "Bin Laden: Architect of New Global Terrorism." Washington Post, September 16, 2001, A8.
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Reeve, Simon. The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
1957 Osama bin Laden is born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
1979 The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan and war begins. Osama bin Laden travels to Pakistan to join in the fight against the Soviets.
Early 1980s Tens of thousands of Muslims from over fifty countries arrive in Afghanistan and join the mujahideen, the Afghan warriors, in their battle against the Soviets.
1987 Bin Laden meets members of the Egyptian Jihad group, including one of its leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would go on to help bin Laden lead al-Qaeda in international acts of terrorism.
1989 Bin Laden forms his organization, later dubbed al-Qaeda, or "the base."
1989 The Soviet Union withdraws from Afghanistan in defeat. Bin Laden returns to Saudi Arabia.
August 2, 1990 Iraq invades Kuwait, the Saudis and other moderate Arab states join in the international coalition, and Saudi Arabia allows American troops on its soil, enraging bin Laden and thousands of others.
1991 Saudi officials arrest bin Laden for smuggling weapons in from Yemen. He leaves the country, ending up in Sudan.
December 1992 Bin Laden supports fighters in the war among tribes in Somalia to interfere with the U.S. rescue mission there. They shoot down American helicopters and kill U.S. marines.
1993 A man linked to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, RamziAhmad Yousef, bombs the World Trade Center for the first time, killing six and wounding more than 1,000.
1994 In what becomes known as the "Bojinka Plot," al-Qaeda is suspected of plotting multiple airliner hijackings in the Philippines.
1994 In Saudi Arabia strips bin Laden of his citizenship, and the United States and other governments freeze some of his bank accounts.
1996 Al-Qaeda is suspected of carrying out an attack on a U.S. base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. military personnel are killed and 372 wounded.
1996 Bin Laden moves to Afghanistan; he issues his first"fatwa" urging Muslims to kill American officials.
1998 Bin Laden's second fatwa states that "to killAmericans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."
1998 Al-Qaeda is the prime suspect in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which hundreds are killed. President Bill Clinton orders missile strikes against al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
October 15, 1999 The United Nations demands that theTaliban extradite Osama bin Laden to a country that will bring him to justice and the Afghan regime refuses.
September 11, 2001 Terrorists hijack U.S. passenger airliners and fly them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; another hijacked plane crashes in Pennsylvania. Over 3,000 are killed in the attack. The United States accuses Osama bin Laden and asks the Taliban to give him up or face retribution. The Taliban refuses to give up bin Laden.
October 7, 2001 The United States and Britain begin a military strike against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.
The Bin Laden Family
Osama bin Laden comes from a large family—one that has not been connected with terrorism and has established its family-run business as one of the most successful in the Middle East. Mohammed bin Laden, Osama's father, was born in a poor neighborhood of Yemen. In 1930 he traveled to Saudi Arabia in search of work and new opportunities. His first employment in Saudi Arabia was with Aramco, a Saudi-American oil company. He worked there as a laborer, saving what he could of his meager wages, enough to eventually strike out on his own as a business owner.
Mohammed bin Laden became the premier builder of palaces for the Saudi royal family. He became very wealthy through his construction business, and was truly a self-made man. Bin Laden's construction business was the sole contractor in the building and restoration of Islam's second holiest site, the city of Medina and the al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem, constructed to better serve those on pilgrimages. Bin Laden's company became the exclusive construction contractor of the Saudi royal family, and bin Laden was so wealthy that he assisted the Saudi royal family during times of financial difficulty.
Bin Laden had multiple wives, as allowed under Saudi law—three Saudi wives remained married to him throughout his life. The position of bin Laden's fourth wife was less permanent. Osama bin Laden's mother, Hamida, was one of the many wives that followed the first three. It is not known whether she was the eleventh or twelfth wife. She was unusual in comparison to his other wives. The first three "permanent" wives were all Saudi and all were members of the same devout sect of Sunni Islam as Mohammed bin Laden. Hamida was the daughter of a Syrian trader and was more Western and modern in her attitude and dress. Although Mohammed bin Laden has many former wives, they were allowed to remain in his palaces.
Mohammed bin Laden died in a helicopter crash in 1968. Although Hamida had a lower status in comparison with bin Laden's other wives—partially due to her nationality—and despite Osama being bin Laden's seventeenth son (a relatively low rank regarding inheritance and standing within the family), Osama bin Laden grew up with all of the privileges afforded to a wealthy man's son: Western-style education, expensive cars, fine clothes, and jewelry.
Although the bin Laden family is Muslim, and many members are fundamentalists—meaning they strictly adhere to the tenets of their faith—none of them (with the exception of Osama and possibly a brother) were extremists in their beliefs. Extremism in terms of religion often means that one takes tenets of faith to such an extreme that they form an ideology under which the believer may feel society should be governed. Osama bin Laden's extremism is in contrast to his mother, who was known to be loose in her adherence to Islam, refusing to wear a veil and embracing a Western lifestyle. Bin Laden's family disowned him as a result of his growing reputation as an extremist and a threat to Saudi Arabia due to his fervent opposition to the presence of U.S. troops in the area prior to the Gulf War (1991). The bin Laden family was content to maintain its business ties within Saudi Arabia and around the world rather than promote an extreme view of religion, society, and government that they likely did not believe in.
Today the bin Laden family is still very wealthy and successful. The bin Laden family owns the franchises on several popular brands in the Middle East, including Audi and Snapple. The family currently earns US$5 billion a year, and its empire runs the gamut from the original construction business of Mohammed bin Laden to financial services and biological research. Its businesses are multinational and include ties to the United States.
1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania
On the morning of August 7, 1998, two U.S. embassies were bombed, one in Nairobi, Kenya, and the other in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The blasts went off almost simultaneously, with the bomb in Nairobi the first to be detonated. Both bombs were aboard trucks occupied by drivers—suicide bombers who died along with their victims. The blast in Nairobi virtually gutted the embassy, with the embassy compound and surrounding buildings sustaining severe damage as a result. A neighboring office building, the Ufundi Cooperative Building, was completely leveled by the blast. The devastation of the explosion took 213 lives, and although the target was clearly the United States by way of its presence in Africa, the majority of the victims were Kenyan nationals in the Ufundi Building and Foreign Service nationals in the U.S. Embassy. Only 12 of the 212 victims were U.S. citizens. Nearly 5,000 others, mostly Kenyans, were wounded.
In Dar es Salaam the damage was not nearly as extensive because the U.S. Embassy there was located on the outskirts of the city proper, away from other buildings. The embassy itself suffered extensive damage. Seventy-two people were injured and eleven were killed, none of whom were U.S. citizens. Seven of those who died were Foreign Service nationals. Immediate search and rescue efforts were begun at both locations by U.S. investigators with assistance from Israel and local volunteers.
Although three Islamic extremist groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, investigations established that Osama bin Laden's extensive terrorist network, al-Qaeda, was behind them. Ultimately, twenty-two men, including Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Muhammed Atef, were charged and indicted for the deaths of those killed in the bombings, conspiracy to kill American nationals abroad, and the destruction of U.S. property. Only six of the indicted were actually captured by the United States. Bin Laden and Atef were not among them.
One of the six men, Ali Mohammed, a former U.S. army sergeant who was born in Egypt, pled guilty to the charges against him. In his confession he linked al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the other defendants to the bombings. Another defendant, Mahdouh Salim, attacked a corrections officer while in custody, and, as a result of the new charges for the attack, his case was severed from the rest of the defendants. The remaining four defendants—Wadih El-Hage, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashid Daoud Al-'Owhali, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed—stood trial in federal court in New York City.
The trial began on February 5, 2001, and ended on May 29, 2001, with the conviction of all four defendants. Al-'Owhali and Odeh were found guilty in the deaths of 213 people in the Nairobi bombing; Khalfan Khamis Mohamed was convicted of the deaths of eleven in the Tanzania bombing; El-Hage was convicted of perjuring himself during grand jury investigations of bin Laden's activities; and all four were convicted of conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property.
On October 18, 2001, the sentences of all four men were handed down. Mohamed and Al-'Owhali were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The death penalty had been an option in both of their sentencing considerations by the jury. Odeh was also sentenced to mandatory life in prison, while El-Hage was sentenced to life plus a few more years for perjuring himself. As for the rest of the indicted, thirteen are fugitives, including bin Laden and Atef. The remaining three are in England, fighting extradition to the United States.
As a result of what happened in Tanzania and Kenya, United States has made some strides toward increasing security in embassies all over the world. The U.S. State Department immediately beefed up security measures at all U.S. embassies. The amount of US$10 billion was earmarked for this purpose to be spent over five years, beginning in 1998. The new security measures utilized included anti-ramming barriers, new bomb and weapon detection equipment, video surveillance at all embassies, the construction of walls built to defend against deto-nations, and 4,000 local guards trained and hired as external security for U.S. embassies, all in the hope that what happened in Africa will never happen again.