Bin Ladin, Usama (1957–)

views updated

Bin Ladin, Usama

The Saudi militant and global jihadist Usama bin Ladin (Osama bin Laden, Abu Abdullah, "the Shaykh") is the founder of al-Qa'ida, the movement accused of perpetrating numerous acts of terrorism since the 1990s. Active in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s, bin Ladin became an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family and religious establishment and a supporter of both the Islamic government in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s before formally launching a global jihad against Christian "crusaders" and Zionist Jews with other jihadist organizations in 1998.


Bin Ladin is believed to have been born on 10 March 1957 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Many of the details of his life are not known for certain.) He spent his childhood and received his education in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Ladin's father, Muhammad bin Awad bin Ladin, was of Yemeni origin. He founded a commercial construction company, the Saudi Binladin Group, in 1931. A friend and trusted business partner of both King Abd al-Aziz and King Faysal, Muhammad won the exclusive rights for renovations of Islam's three holiest sites—the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Although he did not spend much time with him, Usama bin Ladin has stated that the most important lessons he learned from his father were the importance of prayer and service to God, particularly in jihad, a deep love and concern for the Palestinian people, and the importance of hard physical work. Muhammad was killed in a plane crash in 1967 when bin Ladin was ten years old. Bin Ladin was the only child born of his father's union with his mother, Aliya Ghanim. His mother remarried and had several other children with whom bin Ladin was raised.

As a child, bin Ladin is recalled as an avid soccer player and lover of horseback riding, mountain climbing, and riding and driving in Jeeps in the desert, all activities in which he remained active as an adult. He is described as introverted, cultured, polite, a careful observer, and a good listener who led by example, rather than by giving orders, all traits he carried into adulthood. His early education took place at al-Haqr School in Jidda where his classmates included the sons of then-Crown Prince (later King) Faysal. Although he speaks only Arabic in his video messages and interviews with Western journalists, bin Ladin's study of English as a child has led some to speculate that he speaks and understands English. It is unclear whether bin Ladin has traveled to the West.

Bin Ladin entered King Abd al-Aziz University in Jidda in 1976 as a student of economics. Although he has a lifelong interest in religion, has independently studied theology and Islamic law, and has mastered both classical Arabic and Arabic poetry, as reflected in his speeches, he received no formal religious training and is not a religious scholar. Consequently, he is dependent on formally trained religious scholars to sanction his positions.

Bin Ladin left the university in 1979 at the age of twenty-two without completing his degree in order to join the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He remained there until the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989. Bin Laden's participation in the Afghan jihad was pivotal in developing his worldview and sense of purpose.

Criticism of Royal Family

Bin Ladin's return home to Saudi Arabia in 1990 was followed shortly by saddam hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Believing that the defense of Islam's homeland and holiest cities was the religious duty of Muslims alone and because of the close relationship he had long shared with the Saudi royal family, bin Ladin offered the services of his Arab Afghans for the defense of Saudi Arabia. When King Fahd elected to allow in 500,000 U.S. troops to defend the kingdom instead, bin Ladin protested. Initially, his criticism followed the classical Wahhabi framework of providing advice and guidance to the king about his error in forming an alliance with "infidels" to fight against fellow Muslims, expecting that the king would also abide by the Wahhabi framework by changing his course of action. When the king did not, bin Ladin declared that both the royal family and the establishment religious scholars (ulama) who supported him had abandoned their faith for political reasons. He left Saudi Arabia to call for reform from abroad.

In either 1991 or 1992, bin Ladin went into exile in Sudan. He established his Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), based in London, to continue his call for Saudi domestic reform, implying the threat of military action within Saudi Arabia if his demands were not met. Following several unsuccessful attempts by envoys and family members to bridge the divide between bin Ladin and the royal family, bin Ladin was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994. Several assassination attempts were made against him in 1994, some of which are believed to have been orchestrated by Saudi intelligence.


Name: Usama bin Ladin (Osama bin Laden, Abu Abdullah, "the Shaykh")

Birth: 1957, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Family: Wives, Najwa Ghanim (known as Umm Abdullah, m. 1974); Umm Ali (div. 1994); Umm Khalid; Umm Hamza; Amal al-Saddah (m. 2000); believed to have at least 11 sons; unknown number of daughters

Nationality: Saudi Arabian (stripped of citizenship in 1994)

Education: King Abd al-Aziz University, Jidda, Saudi Arabia (no degree)


  • 1979–1989: Serves in anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan
  • 1988–1989: Founds al-Qa'ida to carry out "jihad against infidels" and provide support for Arab Afghan veterans and their families
  • 1990–1997: Grows from critic to opponent of Saudi royal family and religious establishment
  • 1998: Joins with other jihadist organizations to declare global jihad through World Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews, emerging as threat to United States
  • 2001: Held responsible by United States for terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Reports vary about bin Ladin's relationship to the Sudanese state, although a consensus exists that he established profitable business ventures there that are believed to have helped provide cover for and finance ongoing jihadist endeavors. International pressure on Sudan led to bin Ladin's return to Afghanistan in 1995 or 1996, where he earned the protection of the Taliban regime in exchange for his provision of financial, administrative, and technical support in rebuilding and running the country. Although the Saudi royal family again attempted to have bin Ladin returned to Saudi Arabia, these attempts were unsuccessful and are believed to have resulted in another assassination attempt in 1998.

Jihad against the West

On 23 August 1996 bin Ladin declared a jihad against the United States in pursuit of his long-standing goal to remove American troops from Saudi soil. Initially limited to the territory of Saudi Arabia and specific military targets, the jihad against the United States was expanded into an uncompromising global struggle in 1998 with the formation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews. Claiming a global conspiracy of the West, led by the United States and Israel, against Islam and the Muslim world, the World Islamic Front called for the destruction of "American-Jewish" power and asserted that pushing out the American occupier was the most important duty after belief in God. Muslims were told to destroy American military and financial power in order to prevent the United States from destroying Iraq; fragmenting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan; and taking over Mecca, Medina, and Saudi Arabia's oil supplies. This declaration is believed to have inspired a series of terrorist attacks, including those on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. A campaign of attacks targeting the Saudi government also occurred in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2005.

Bin Ladin's exact role in these attacks remains a matter of debate. By his own admission, he had advance notice of major attacks "against American and Israeli interests," approved the provision of support for them, and took pride in their execution. At the same time, he denied personal responsibility for having planned the 11 September 2001 attacks, in particular. Bin Ladin's role may best be clarified by sources within al-Qa'ida indicating that it implements a method of "centralization of decision and decentralization of execution" in which bin Ladin provides political objectives and goals to senior leaders, but leaves the methods and execution to field commanders. Thus, in the case of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the master planner is believed to have been Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, while bin Ladin is believed to have provided financial and logistical support for the goal of a major attack against the United States.

Following an American bombing campaign in Afghanistan beginning in October 2001, bin Ladin's whereabouts have been unknown. He is believed to be hiding somewhere along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, although reports from French intelligence of injury and illness have led to speculation that he may have died in 2006.


As for many of his generation, the Afghan jihad was a formative experience for bin Ladin. He was particularly influenced by his mentor, Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam, a Palestinian militant whom he first met in 1984 and with whom he cofounded the Services Office in Pakistan that, with the help of Pakistan's military intelligence service and the American Central Intelligence Agency recruited and trained Muslims from other countries for the Afghan jihad. In Afghanistan, bin Ladin gained military experience, arms, and experience in and facilities for training recruits in both conventional and unconventional methods of warfare.


Dr. Abdullah al-Azzam (1941–1989) was a Palestinian cleric, ideologue of militant pan-Islamic global jihad in Afghanistan, and mentor to Usama bin Ladin. Educated in theology at Damascus University and Islamic jurisprudence at al-Azhar University in Cairo, al-Azzam taught Islamic law at the University of Jordan, King Abd al-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic University of Islamabad, Pakistan. His fatwa "Defending Muslim Lands" and his essay "Join the Caravan" called for defensive jihad to be engaged in as a compulsory individual duty aimed at killing "infidels" and expelling non-Muslims from historically Muslim lands, including Palestine, southern Spain, and portions of the then-Soviet Union. Unlike his radical Egyptian contemporaries, he restricted his call to jihad to combating non-Muslims, rather than fighting against Muslims or nominally Muslim governments. His contributions to the Afghan jihad include charitable and educational work among Afghan refugees and the publication of Jihad magazine, which served as a major tool for fund-raising, global recruiting, communicating with Arab youth, and building transnational networks. Al-Azzam was assassinated by unknown assailants in Pakistan in November 1989.

During the early years of the Afghan jihad, bin Ladin's role consisted largely in providing financial and logistical support to the Afghan mujahideen through a combination of personal finances, donations acquired through his connections in the Persian Gulf states, and the transfer of engineers and equipment from his construction company in Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan in order to build roads, a medical center, training facilities, arms depots, and a complex of tunnels with elaborate facilities that are believed to have helped him escape from U.S. forces. He acquired folk-hero status due to his reportedly simple and austere lifestyle in the trenches with his fellow mujahideen, financial generosity, and piety.

By 1986 bin Ladin sought to become more actively involved in the military aspect of jihad. Arab Afghan associates attribute this change in perspective to a combination of a quiet breaking away from al-Azzam and growing contact with Egyptian militants, particularly Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (believed to be second-in-command of al-Qa'ida), Abu Hafs al-Misri (a.k.a. Muhammad Atif, who served as military chief of al-Qa'ida until he was reportedly killed in a U.S. air strike in November 2001), and Abu Ubayda al-Banjshiri (drowned in 1996). In 1987 bin Ladin established his own exclusively Arab Afghan military base, al-Masada (the Lion's Den), and launched his career as a militarily active mujahid. He believed that having an Arab military force willing to engage in self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom would provide an important psychological victory that would lead to the defeat of the Soviets. His unit fought and won for the first time against a Soviet force in spring 1987, despite being outnumbered.

Founding of al-Qa'ida

The ultimate victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan led bin Ladin to expand his vision of jihad beyond the Afghan borders to a global jihad designed to restore Islam to political power. In 1988 or 1989, he founded al-Qa'ida (Arabic: "the Base") as an organization dedicated to carrying out "jihad against infidels" beyond Afghanistan and to care for Arab Afghan veterans and their families. Bin Ladin envisaged the jihad's moving to southern Yemen to liberate the Muslims of his father's homeland from the socialist government in power, but al-Qa'ida was unable to reach a consensus about where to take the jihad next. Bin Ladin's Arab Afghans returned to their home countries where many engaged in opposition to their domestic governments.

The second major influence on bin Ladin's career was his rising disillusionment with the Saudi royal family and religious establishment. Following his departure to Sudan in 1991 or 1992, bin Ladin continued his calls for Saudi domestic reform through his ARC. He demanded the eradication of injustice and corruption and the revival of the hizba system, which permits citizens to bring charges against state officials, justifying them within the classical Wahhabi framework of education, reinterpretation of the Qur'an, Sunna (example of the Prophet), and teachings of the major scholars of the Wahhabi tradition, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Because he remained within the established religious structure, he expected the support of the religious establishment, whom he asked to guide the process. The failure of the religious establishment to take on this role led to bin Ladin's increasing criticism of senior ulama (religious scholars) and support for younger, more critical and politically daring scholars, particularly Safar al-Hawali and salman al-awda.

Between 1995 and 1997, bin Ladin shifted from calling for the resignation of King Fahd and the grand mufti to calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy altogether. At the same time, although he consistently addressed domestic Saudi issues, he expanded his vision to the international stage, calling for resolution of issues of major international concern for the Muslim community, such as the ongoing devastation of Iraq due to economic sanctions, ongoing violence against and ill-treatment of Palestinians, and denunciation of American foreign policy in the Middle East, in an attempt to stir up popular support for a global jihad. His formation of the World Islamic Front with other jihadist organizations in 1998 marks the concretization of this globalized vision.

The third major influence on bin Ladin's career was his contact with Egyptian radicals, beginning with his first contact with al-Zawahiri in 1986. A dedicated jihadist against the Egyptian government who experienced imprisonment and severe torture at government hands, al-Zawahiri is believed to have not only played a major role in expanding bin Ladin's vision of jihad, but also to have driven a wedge between bin Ladin and his mentor, al-Azzam. The depth of bin Ladin's relationship with al-Zawahiri became apparent by 1998 when al-Zawahiri aligned his Egyptian Jihad group with al-Qa'ida in forming the World Islamic Front. Although there appears to have been some disagreement between bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri about targets (the "far enemy," the United States, for bin Ladin or the "near enemy," Arab governments, for al-Zawahiri) and tactics (sticking to military and government targets for bin Ladin or expanding to civilians deemed culpable by association for al-Zawahiri), both sought to globalize the jihad.

The exact relationship between bin Ladin and the late al-Qa'ida in Iraq leader abu musab al-zarqawi is unclear, although Zarqawi is known to have resisted initially pledging his allegiance to bin Ladin until late 2004. In addition, al-Zawahiri had probably rebuked Zarqawi for his tactics in Iraq in October 2005.


Although there are many Muslims who sympathize with bin Ladin's causes, particularly in Iraq and Palestine, the overwhelming majority rejects his tactics and has denounced terrorism as a violation of Islamic beliefs and values. Scholars have noted major differences between classical interpretations of jihad and bin Ladin's tactics, including the classical prohibition against attacking civilians, particularly women and children; the classical restriction of jihad to the defense of a specific geographical location and specific group of people under attack or threat of imminent attack; and the classical purpose of jihad being to bring a conflict to conclusion, whether by military victory or by the establishment of a truce or treaty relationship. They have further noted that the Qur'an frequently speaks of the desirability of positive and cooperative relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, rendering a declaration of jihad against all Christians and Jews a violation of Qur'anic teachings. Because bin Ladin's global jihad is uncompromising, unending, and unrestricted geographically, as well as providing no vision beyond fighting, both scholars and laypeople have denounced bin Ladin's global jihad as un-Islamic, if not downright heretical.


Although bin Ladin has declared his desired legacy to be one of bringing world attention and, ultimately, resolution to issues of immense pain and concern to Muslims, it is more likely that bin Ladin's legacy will be framed in terms of the offshoots of his al-Qa'ida organization and vision of global jihad that continue to proliferate and mutate. Although the exact nature of bin Ladin's role in various terrorist attacks remains a matter of debate, it is clear that he has deliberately sought to inspire others to carry out his global jihad and that he has been successful in this regard.


Bergen, Peter L. The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda's Leader. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Bin Laden, Osama. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. Edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence; translated by James Howarth. London and New York: Verso, 2005.

Burke, Jason. Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003.

DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Esposito, John L. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. London: Palgrave, 1999.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Scheuer, Michael. Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006.

                                   Natana J. DeLong-Bas


The Afghan struggle to liberate Afghanistan from the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union was an important training ground in jihad and political activism for many Arab youth. Both the United States and Arab governments supported the Afghan mujahideen. Because the Afghan jihad was portrayed as the struggle of Islam against atheistic communism, the ultimate withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 led many of the mujahideen to believe that God had granted Islam ideological victory over communism. This victory emboldened some foreign fighters, known as "Arab Afghans," to return to their home countries to engage in various levels of jihad against parties or governments considered to be either un-Islamic or insufficiently Islamic. The scope of this phenomenon remains a matter of scholarly and political debate, but its impact during the 1990s was clear in the civil war in Algeria, rising clashes between extremists and the government in Egypt, and the demand for political and religious reforms in Saudi Arabia.