bin Laden, Osama

views updated May 21 2018

Osama bin Laden

c. 1957

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Leading financial and tactical supporter of Al Qaeda terrorist network

"We—with God's help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

S hortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush (1946–) declared a "war on terrorism." Osama bin Laden was accused of being the chief organizer of the attacks that killed more than three thousand Americans and injured thousands more. Bin Laden became the symbol of terrorism worldwide.

But for bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian-born millionaire and devout Muslim, the attacks of September 11 were just the latest in a long string of assaults aimed at the United States. Just as America launched its war on terrorism and Bush declared that bin Laden was "wanted, dead or alive," bin Laden years earlier had declared war on the United States. Bin Laden's main complaint has been the presence of U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the spread of American influence throughout the Muslim world, which stretches from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Yet despite the enormous impact of 9/11, as the attacks became known, bin Laden remained a figure of mystery and growing myth. Even his date of birth is not known for certain, and after an intense U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, bin Laden disappeared. Months after the attack, U.S. officials admitted they still did not know whether he was alive or dead.

The son of an important man

Bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1957 in Saudi Arabia. His mother was Syrian. His father, Mohammad Awad bin Laden, was the billionaire owner of a construction business. Like many details of bin Laden's life, the exact details of his father's background are hazy. Mohammad bin Laden apparently came to the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, a port on the Red Sea, as a young man from his native Yemen. He arrived just a few years before oil was discovered under Saudi Arabia's vast deserts, when the country was poor and lightly populated. It was, however, the site of Islam's two holiest sites, the cities of Mecca and Medina, which played central roles in the story of Islam's founder, Muhammad (c. 570–632). Mohammad bin Laden became close friends with the ruling Saud family and received construction contracts from the government to rebuild or repair major mosques (Islamic religious meeting places, similar to churches) as well as other government buildings. The contracts made Mohammad bin Laden one of the wealthiest men in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden came from an exceptionally large family. His father was said to have had about fifty children by his several wives (Islam allows men to marry more than one woman at the same time). Bin Laden was the only child of his mother, a Syrian, who was the fourth and final wife of Mohammad bin Laden. Bin Laden's mother had a reputation for being less traditional than Mohammad's other wives, who were all Saudis. According to some sources, Bin Laden was the seventeenth child in the family. His father took steps to keep all his children together as a family. He insisted that the boys meet every day at his house and eat at least one meal together. Mohammad bin Laden insisted that brothers and sisters maintain good relations and mutual respect.

The bin Ladens were a conservative (traditional) family that observed the teachings of Islam, although they do not appear to have been more committed to religion than most other families in their time and place. Mohammad bin Laden insisted that his children follow strict rules, including the social code of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia. The children

were required to follow a regular daily program that included religious observances. Bin Laden's father often entertained or hosted Islamic scholars visiting Saudi Arabia as part of a hajj. (A hajj is a visit to Mecca, Islam's holiest city. Every Muslim is expected to make the journey at least once in their lifetime.) In 1968 bin Laden's father died in a helicopter crash. Bin Laden inherited a large fortune, estimated at between $80 and $300 million.

Bin Laden was raised and went to school in Jeddah. In 1979 or 1980 (accounts vary), he graduated from King Abdul Aziz University with a degree in public administration. Stories about bin Laden at this time offer different pictures. Some describe a modest young man raised in a conservative Islamic household. Others say that he often visited Western-style nightclubs in Beirut, Lebanon, and had a reputation as a funloving man who was a heavy drinker and sometimes got into fights over women. There was nothing to predict that twenty years after graduating from college he would be the object of a global manhunt by the United States.

Russia invades Afghanistan

While bin Laden was attending college in Saudi Arabia, events were taking place in the country of Afghanistan that would significantly affect his life over the next twenty years. In April 1978 army officers in Afghanistan staged a coup d'etat (pronounced coo day-TAH; the takeover of a government by force, usually by the military). The new rulers were communists and began a series of reforms in the remote, mountainous country. (Communism is a political and economic system that does not include the concept of private property; instead, the public—usually represented by the government—owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.) The government redistributed land, gave women new rights, and tried to change the long-standing social structure of the country. The government also became an ally of the Soviet Union (today, Russia and its neighboring countries), the leading communist state in the world and at the time the enemy of the United States.

The reforms were strongly resisted. Leaders of the coup drove out dissatisfied military officers, even as armed tribal members began to attack the shrunken Afghan army. By March 1979 the city of Herat in western Afghanistan was openly rebelling against the government in the capital of Kabul. The Afghan army occupied Herat, while the air force bombed an army division that also was in revolt. Six months later, more than half the Afghan army had deserted or been killed. The Soviet Union looked on these events with dismay. Afghanistan had become its ally in the Cold War (the worldwide struggle for influence between the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted from 1945 to 1990). As it had done many times in other countries, the Soviet Union decided to send in its army to defend the communist government.

In December 1979 Russian troops invaded Afghanistan. While previous Russian invasions of countries like Hungary (in 1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) had met weak resistance that soon died out, resistance in Afghanistan gained in strength. Afghanistan had a long history of resisting foreign conquerors, with armed tribesmen using Afghanistan's rugged mountain ranges to their advantage. But religion became an even greater element. Where the Russians and the communist Afghans they put into power were atheists (they believed that there was no God), most Afghans were Muslims, followers of Islam. The resistance to Russian occupation soon turned into a religious crusade in which Muslims were resisting nonreligious Russians.

Holy war

The fight between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union seemed onesided. Russia was one of two superpowers in the world in 1979 (the United States was the other), while Afghanistan was desperately poor. But the Afghans were not alone.

The United States, always on the lookout for attempts to expand Soviet influence, began providing money and weapons to the rebelling Afghans. This was done secretly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to avoid an open conflict with Russia. (This kind of underground conflict was typical of the Cold War.) In the Middle East, wealthy Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia saw the invasion as an attack on Islam. They were willing to contribute money—and eventually people—to help the Afghans resist the Russian occupation.

What Is a Jihad?

"Jihad" is an Arabic word meaning "to try." In Islam, jihad is considered a religious obligation, and Muslims who are involved in a jihad are called mujahideen (holy warriors). It is an important concept in Islam, and especially to Osama bin Laden, who regarded his terrorist activities as part of a jihad. In Islam, the word jihad can carry several different meanings.

On one level a jihad can be personal—the act of trying to observe the teachings of Islam in one's personal life, as well as promoting justice and Islamic teachings. Jihad is also referred to in the Koran (Islam's holy book) as a holy war, either to defend Islam against attack by nonbelievers or to use military force to expand Islamic influence and convert nonbelievers. For Muslims, spreading the word of Islam is a duty that knows no national boundaries.

Among the people outside Afghanistan who were drawn to this cause was bin Laden. In 1980, shortly after the Russian invasion, bin Laden visited Pakistan, where leaders of the Afghan resistance had found a safe place to hide. His family name and personal wealth gave bin Laden access to leaders in the struggle against the Russians, and he soon became caught up in the cause himself. For bin Laden the main issue was more religious than political.

Osama as Holy Warrior?

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the television usually showed Osama bin Laden carrying a military rifle, or with one at his side. The meaning was clear: he was a fighter.

But during the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, bin Laden's exact role was not as obvious. In an interview with the U.S. television program Frontline, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official Milton Bearden, who was active in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said in an interview: "You can find nobody who is familiar with the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan in those years that would say bin Laden played any role other than the fund-raiser…. He possibly was engaged in a battle in 1987 … [but] regardless of how many pictures someone can cough up showing bin Laden with a walkie-talkie or bin Laden with a Kalashnikov [military rifle] … it's the whole Osama bin Laden mythology. It's almost part entertainment."

Some reporters who were in Afghanistan in the 1980s said bin Laden was known as "the Saudi Prince" who visited Afghan or Arab fighters in the hospital dressed in elegant custom-made English boots and fine woolen pants under a traditional Saudi robe, handing out nuts and candy. He noted each injured man's name and address and later sent a check to the man's family. Other times, bin Laden was reported running bulldozers and other construction equipment from his father's company to build military tunnels, storage depots, and roads.

Other people who knew bin Laden insist that he was involved in military activity, fighting in five or six major battles against Russian troops. More than once, bin Laden was said to have come close to being killed.

As with many parts of bin Laden's story, it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction, or even intentional lies.

Bin Laden's involvement in Afghanistan grew gradually. He returned to Saudi Arabia and started raising money to help finance the Afghan resistance. He returned to Pakistan occasionally over the next two years to deliver money and materials. He brought a few employees of his father's construction company to help. In 1982 bin Laden went to Afghanistan, getting closer to the fighting and occasionally joining battles himself. He encouraged other Saudi Arabians to join him in the fight. In 1984 he set up a residence in Peshawar, Pakistan, a city near the border of Afghanistan. There, Arabs who had volunteered to fight in the Afghan resistance could be assigned to a fighting unit inside Afghanistan. For these Arabs, the battle in Afghanistan was a jihad, or holy war. Muslims engaged in a holy war are called mujahideen (holy warriors).

Two years later, in 1986, bin Laden set up his own camps inside Afghanistan. He eventually had six, mostly staffed by Arabs recruited to help the Afghans drive out the Russians. Bin Laden recruited experienced military men from Syria and Egypt and fighters from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen. Western officials estimated that he attracted between thirty thousand and forty thousand soldiers, most of them from Saudi Arabia. These soldiers became known as "Arab Afghans" and fought battles against Russian units entirely with fellow Arabs recruited for the holy war.

Bin Laden's involvement in the war created a need for improved organization, to assign newcomers and to let the families of fighters know about their status. In 1988 bin Laden created a formal organization and called it "the base," or Al Qaeda (pronounced al KAY-duh), which served as a central organization for Arabs who had volunteered to fight on behalf of the Islamic government in Afghanistan.

The Persian Gulf War (1990–91)

In 1989 the Soviet Union gave up trying to conquer Afghanistan and pulled out its troops. The communist government it supported collapsed, and local tribal leaders began fighting among themselves for power. But once the Russians were gone, bin Laden's job was done, and he returned to Saudi Arabia. He began working in his family's businesses. But his experience in Afghanistan had left an impression, and he started to criticize the Saudi government. He announced plans to start a new holy war in South Yemen (which at the time had a procommunist government), and gave speeches warning that Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein (1937–), planned to invade the small country of Kuwait. This made the Saudi government, which was friendly toward Iraq and did not want trouble with South Yemen, unhappy. Saudi Arabia's ruling family tends not to tolerate disagreement, especially from a member of the country's business elite. Bin Laden was ordered to stop making speeches and to remain in Saudi Arabia. Members of the government and his family urged him to be quiet, and for a while bin Laden concentrated on his business affairs and his family. He had four wives, the maximum allowed in Islam, and ten children.

In 1990 Hussein did invade Kuwait, which lay between Iraq to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south. Bin Laden approached the Saudi government and offered to recruit some of the fighters from Afghanistan to help defend Saudi Arabia against any possible threat from Iraq. He still had the records of the Al Qaeda organization he had built to organize his efforts in Afghanistan. While the Saudi government considered his offer, another piece of news reached bin Laden: American troops were being sent to Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was enraged. To him, fresh from driving infidel (non-Muslim) troops out of Afghanistan, another set of infidels had been invited to enter the holiest country in Islam. People who knew bin Laden at the time recalled that he was shocked and depressed at the idea of having American troops anywhere near Mecca and Medina.

Bin Laden's reaction was to persuade religious leaders to issue a fatwa (an Islamic religious decree) stating that it was the religious duty of Muslims to train to defend Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden then reopened his old training camps in Afghanistan, attracting about four thousand volunteers ready to fight in Saudi Arabia. In the end, however, the Gulf War was largely conducted by the United States, aided by European allies and the government forces of Saudi Arabia. There was no role for bin Laden's fighters. Instead, bin Laden was ordered not to leave the city of Jeddah; the Saudi government did not trust a citizen who acted independently without orders.


Bin Laden felt that he was under arrest in Jeddah. Although he had been ordered not to travel abroad, with the aid of his brother and a friendly member of the ruling family, he managed to leave Saudi Arabia and went to Afghanistan in 1991. His situation was now difficult. He had left his own country against government orders. (He would soon lose his Saudi citizenship.) He feared that other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, might arrest him and send him back to Saudi Arabia.

In late 1991 bin Laden went to Sudan, a largely Muslim country on the east coast of Africa, across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden used his inheritance to buy or build new businesses in Sudan. He liked the country's strict Islamic form of government. He owned and worked farms, and reports said that he used his experience in construction to build a road linking the capital of Khartoum to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The next five years in Sudan were apparently a mixture of peaceful pursuits and the beginnings of terrorism. According to the U.S. State Department, bin Laden established terrorist training camps in Sudan and paid to bring five hundred Arab veterans of the Afghan war to Sudan, a number that grew over time. As more so-called Afghan Arabs arrived, he gave them jobs in his companies or in his terror training camps. Bin Laden also helped finance about a dozen Islamic terrorist groups in other countries. Al Qaeda became a source of funding and loose coordination for terrorist groups from Asia to North Africa.

These activities continued to disturb the Saudi Arabian government, which warned bin Laden not to do anything that might threaten Saudi Arabia. Reports claim that the Saudis secretly tried to murder bin Laden in Sudan but failed. In 1994 Saudi Arabia took away bin Laden's citizenship and seized his assets in the country. (Bin Laden claimed in a magazine interview that two years later the Saudi government changed its mind and offered to let him back in the country, but he refused. No explanation was offered.) It appeared that the Saudis could do nothing to affect his behavior, even as bin Laden was moving from giving speeches to launching violent attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Attacking the United States

This period in Sudan also saw the beginning of bin Laden's involvement in terrorism. In Sudan, bin Laden developed close ties to the Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian organization that used terrorism to support what it considered to be a purer form of Islam in Egypt. Al Qaeda began carrying out its own jihad against American interests:

  • December 1992: A bomb exploded in a hotel in Aden, Yemen, at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. The hotel was housing several U.S. soldiers at the time. No one was killed.
  • February 26, 1993: A powerful bomb hidden in a van exploded in the underground parking garage of New York City's World Trade Center. The explosion killed six people and injured more than a thousand. A police investigation soon linked the explosion to Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian who preached Islam in New York City, and to bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.
  • October 1993: An attack was launched against U.S. soldiers in Somalia. American troops were in the African country to help relieve a famine. Eighteen Americans died. (This attack became the subject of a book and 2001 film, Black Hawk Down.) The United States later bombed a factory in Mogadishu, Somalia, thought to have been owned by bin Laden.
  • February 1994: Al Qaeda planned to assassinate U.S. President Bill Clinton (1946–). The first plot, intended to kill Clinton in Pakistan in February 1994, fell apart when the president canceled his visit. A second plot to kill him in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, in December 1994 was never carried out, according to claims by U.S. intelligence officials.
  • November 13, 1995: Bin Laden was accused of supporting a car bomb attack on a Saudi Arabian military training facility in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, which killed seven people (five of them Americans) and injured sixty other people, including about thirty-four Americans. Two bombs exploded around lunchtime at a site where Americans, both civilians and soldiers, trained Saudi soldiers to use weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the United States. Saudi authorities later executed four men blamed for the attack before American investigators could determine whether the attack was linked to a later bombing aimed at an apartment house used by American soldiers (see Khobar Towers, 1996, on page 86). Saudi officials disclosed few details about those convicted of carrying out the bombing.

In addition to being blamed for attacks in Africa and Saudi Arabia, bin Laden often criticized the government of Saudi Arabia for continuing to allow American troops to be based there, long after the war against Iraq was over. Bin Laden called for changes in the Saudi government, a call that

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda

The exact nature of Osama bin Laden's role in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon became the subject of debate after September 11, 2001. In the battle against Russian troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s, bin Laden's main role appeared to be providing funds and organization. Al Qaeda started as a way to keep track of the thousands of Arabs who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan, rather than as a organization of men taking orders directly from bin Laden.

Once bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, Al Qaeda took on a similar role in terrorist activities carried out throughout the Middle East. Many reports at the time said bin Laden was linked to or backed terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia and plots to assassinate President Bill Clinton of the United States or President Hosni Mubarak (1928–) of Egypt.

No one claimed that bin Laden personally planted any bombs. Instead, Al Qaeda became a loose network of "cells": semi-independent, small groups of a handful of terrorists who planned and carried out their own operations. Whether bin Laden controlled individual cells or simply provided general guidance, money, and his blessing became the subject of debate among antiterrorism experts.

A former U.S. State Department official, David Long, said in an interview with the New Yorker magazine that Al Qaeda "is not a terrorist organization in the traditional sense. It's more a clearing house from which other groups [get] funds, training, and logistical support. It … constantly changes shape according to the whims of its leadership, and that leadership is Osama bin Laden. It's highly personalized. Bin Laden is a facilitator—a practitioner of the most ancient way of doing things in the Middle East… . If you were to kill Osama tomorrow, the Osama organization would disappear, but all the networks would still be there." (A facilitator is someone who helps get things done but does not actually do them.)

Bin Laden, through Al Qaeda, has provided funds to terrorists in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Kashmir (part of India), Bosnia, Tajikistan, and the Philippines, according to U.S. officials. On this basis, bin Laden is often blamed for attacks by groups over which he has little control. One result is that bin Laden has been built up as the world's super-terrorist by writing checks rather than planting bombs.

Terrorists themselves helped add to the confusion. Terrorist activities are by nature secretive. Those responsible for bombings sometimes claim credit; sometimes people claim credit who had nothing to do with an attack; and sometimes people are blamed without evidence. False or shaky claims can build a group's reputation among people who support its cause.

appealed to some people but not to the governments of Saudi Arabia or the United States.

"Kill the Americans"

In 1996 Sudan ordered bin Laden to leave the country in response to diplomatic pressure from the United States. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan with his wives, his children, and several hundred Afghan Arab followers. They arrived in the middle of a bitter civil war that followed the collapse of the Russian invasion six years earlier. The civil war pitted regional tribal warlords (leaders of independent military forces) against the central government, and also against an ultraconservative group of religious students called the Taliban. Bin Laden sided with the Taliban and soon provided them with $3 million to finance their fight. One of bin Laden's daughters married the Taliban's leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, making bin Laden his father-in-law. Bin Laden resumed his activities, recruiting fighters and funding the Taliban. Soon afterward the Taliban seized the capital city of Kabul and imposed a strict version of Islamic law on Afghanistan.

In February 1998 bin Laden and leaders of other radical Islamic organizations declared war on the United States in a statement published in a London-based Arabic newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi. They described the statement as a fatwa. The fatwa criticized the United States for having troops in Saudi Arabia and for supporting the Jewish state of Israel against Arab states, particularly Iraq. Bin Laden's statement went on to urge "all Muslims … to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military…. We—with God's help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

From his safe haven in Afghanistan, Bin Laden began campaigning against U.S. influence in the Middle East, using terrorist tactics to attack American military installations.

Khobar Towers, 1996

About 10 p.m. on June 25, 1996, a fuel truck stopped out-side Khobar Towers, an apartment house in Dahran used by American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. Seconds later, a bomb concealed in the truck exploded. The blast blew off the front of

the building. Nineteen American soldiers died and another five hundred people were injured, about half of them Americans. It was the deadliest attack on American soldiers in the Middle East since 1982, when 241 U.S. Marines died in an attack on their base in Beirut, Lebanon. The attack strained American relations with Saudi Arabia. U.S. investigators were not allowed to question suspects in the case before they were executed for an earlier bombing of a Saudi military facility in Riyadh.

Kenya and Tanzania, 1998

Two years later, on August 7, 1998, the U.S. embassies in two east African countries, Kenya and Tanzania, were attacked almost at the same time. At about 10:30 a.m., bombs exploded outside the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The two bombs killed 224 people—mostly Africans working in or near the buildings, and a dozen Americans—and injured about 5,000. Bin Laden came under suspicion the same day.

About two weeks later President Clinton approved missile attacks on a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan and a drug factory in Khartoum, Sudan. U.S. officials said at the time they thought the drug factory was owned by bin Laden and was manufacturing poisonous gas for future terrorist attacks. Later, major questions were raised about whether the factory had anything to do with bin Laden or with deadly gases.

Eventually, in May 2001, at a trial in New York City, four men were found guilty of planning the bombings and were sentenced to life in prison. They were described as having connections to bin Laden.

Millennium plot, 2000

On December 14, 1999, just two weeks before the celebrations of the year 2000, the millennium, an Algerian man named Ahmed Ressam (1967–) aroused the suspicions of U.S. Customs inspectors as he drove off a ferry from Canada to the United States. He seemed nervous and was sweating. The inspectors soon discovered why: inside his car were explosives. Eventually officials discovered that he was planning to bomb the Los Angeles airport and that his plan was just one part of a larger "Millennium Plot" sponsored by Al Qaeda and bin Laden. Intelligence officials in the United States said there might have been other targets in the United States in addition to the airport.

Around the same time, officials in Jordan stopped a plan to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman and two other locations that Christian tourists often visited. Those attacks were also scheduled to happen during the year 2000 celebrations.

U.S. intelligence officials discovered later that Al Qaeda had planned to bomb a U.S. warship while it was docked in the port of Aden, Yemen. That plan failed because the boat intended to carry explosives up to the USS The Sullivans sank because it was overloaded. (An identical plan was carried out successfully ten months later against another U.S. Navy ship, the Cole.)

In India a terrorist organization associated with bin Laden, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, hijacked a plane on December 24, 1999. The hijackers held the plane and its more than 160 passengers and crew hostage in Afghanistan for a week, until the government of India freed a group of jailed militants who wanted independence for the Indian state of Kashmir.

USS Cole, 2000

On October 12, 2000, a small powerboat came alongside the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer that was refueling in the harbor of Aden, Yemen. The boat was loaded with a bomb, which exploded, tearing a hole in the side of the navy ship. The bomb went off near the dining hall of the ship. It killed seventeen crewmen and injured thirty-nine others. Yemen police arrested nine people thought to be connected with the attack—the two people who steered the boat were killed in the explosion—and American officials blamed bin Laden and Al Qaeda, although they had no firm evidence of bin Laden's involvement.

The following March an Arabic television broadcast (Al-Jazeera in Qatar) showed bin Laden at the wedding of one of his sons, praising the attack on the Cole. "In Aden, the young man on the attacking boat stood up for holy war, and destroyed a destroyer feared by the powerful," he said.

As he spoke, bin Laden had already been charged with planning the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The Taliban government in Kabul had refused demands to hand over bin Laden to the United States for trial.

New York and Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, bin Laden brought his campaign to the United States itself. Nineteen terrorists associated with Al Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets within ninety minutes of one another. Two jets were leaving Boston, Massachusetts, one was leaving Newark, New Jersey, and one was leaving Washington, D.C. All four were headed to the West Coast, meaning they were fully loaded with jet fuel. The two Boston jets were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City; the one from Washington was crashed into the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. armed forces. The fourth jet crashed in Pennsylvania. Tape recordings recovered from this plane showed that passengers had rushed the hijackers; in the struggle, the plane went down. In all, about three thousand people died in the attacks, most of them in New York City, where the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

Nine days later, President Bush, in an address to Congress, blamed Al Qaeda and bin Laden for planning and carrying out the attacks.

The United States demanded that the government in Kabul, Afghanistan, arrest bin Laden and hand him over to the United States. The Taliban refused. On October 7, 2001, U.S. Air Force planes began bombing targets in Afghanistan. Their goal was to attack camps set up by Al Qaeda and to force the Taliban government to hand over bin Laden.

By the middle of November the Taliban had lost control of most of the country. American troops had set up bases inside Afghanistan and were searching for bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden after 9/11

After a month of intense bombing, the U.S.-led military campaign drove the Taliban from the Afghan capital of Kabul and its stronghold in the city of Kandahar, leaving Afghanistan without an effective national government. An alliance of Afghans who had opposed the strict Islamic rule forced on the country by the Taliban tried to form a government, and a politician who had been living in exile in the United States, Hamid Kharzai, was installed as a temporary head of government. Bin Laden's attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had the opposite effect of what Al Qaeda wanted: American troops were now the strongest force in Afghanistan, and other U.S. forces were still based in Saudi Arabia.

"The Evidence We Have"

On September 20, 2001, just nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush addressed the U.S. Congress and blamed bin Laden for launching the deadly raids. Bush told Congress:

"Americans are asking: Who attacked our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated [connected] terrorist organizations known as Al Qaeda. They are the same murderers indicted for bombing American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and responsible for bombing the USS Cole.

"Al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world—and imposing [forcing] its radical beliefs on people everywhere.

"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics—a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children.

"This group and its leader—a person named Osama bin Laden—are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There are thousands of these terrorists in more than sixty countries. They are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods and brought to camps in places like Afghanistan, where they are trained in the tactics of terror. They are sent back to their homes or sent to hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction… .

"We will direct every resource at our command—every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war—to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network… .

"Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Bin Laden himself appeared twice on an Arabic television station after September 11. Without claiming responsibility for the attacks, he praised the men who carried them out and vowed to fight on against American influence in the Islamic world. In one interview bin Laden was asked whether he was responsible for the attacks of September 11. He replied: "America has made many accusations against us and many other Muslims around the world. Its charge that we are carrying out acts of terrorism is unwarranted [without good reason]… . If inciting [encouraging] people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."

Perception of Bin Laden in the Islamic world

America's pursuit of bin Laden was just one part of U.S. foreign policy. Support for Arabic governments such as the one in Saudi Arabia (a major source of U.S. oil imports) was another part. In the aftermath of September 11 these two sides came together in an unexpected way. While Americans and most Europeans were horrified by the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., some people in the Middle East cheered wildly. Television news showed scenes of Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate the attacks. Public opinion polls showed many people in the Islamic world doubted that Muslims were responsible for the attacks. In Pakistan, whose military government was an ally of the United States, many young men in the streets wore bin Laden T-shirts and expressed support for Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden had become a public hero to many people in Muslim countries. He appeared to be the one person able and willing to resist the United States, which was viewed by many as the power behind undemocratic, harsh governments. And in a region where religion plays an important role in the daily lives of millions of people, bin Laden represented Muslims conducting a holy war for Islam against the "infidel," the United States.

Bin Laden disappeared from view after the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, leaving people to wonder whether he had become ill and died, been killed in the bombing, or found a hiding place to plan another attack. But in some ways, it no longer mattered whether bin Laden was dead or alive. If alive, he remained a potential threat to the United States and a hero to some Muslims. If dead, he could become a martyr who could inspire other Muslims to take up his holy war.

For More Information


Bergen, Peter L. Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. Waterville, ME: G.K. Hall, 2002.

Bodansky, Yossef. Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Rocklin, CA: Forum, 2001.

Jacquard, Roland. In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the bin Laden Brotherhood, translated by George Holoch. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Landau, Elaine. Osama bin Laden: A War against the West. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Reeve, Simon. The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.


Bin Laden, Osama. "Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." Al-Quds al-Arabi, February 23, 1998.

"Public Enemy No. 1: A Son of Privilege, Osama bin Laden Recasts Himself as the Bloody Defender of Islam." People Weekly, October 8, 2001, p. 161.

Rosenbaum, Ron. "Degrees of Evil—Some Thoughts on Hitler, bin Laden, and the Hierarchy of Wickedness." Atlantic Monthly, February, 2002, p. 63.

Voll, John O. "Bin Laden and the New Age of Global Terrorism." Middle East Policy, December 2001, p. 1.

Bin Laden, Osama

views updated May 23 2018

Bin Laden, Osama 1957-


Osama bin Laden was born the seventeenth of Muhammed bin Ladens fifty-two children and the seventeenth of his twenty-four sons, in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on March 10, 1957. Osama bin Laden was, however, the only child of Alia Ghanem of Syria, perhaps the most beautiful of Muhammed bin Ladens many wives, but different and separate from the Saudi clan and soon to be divorced by her husband. Muhammed bin Laden began life as a poor Yemeni bricklayer, uneducated and one-eyed. He became an enormously wealthy building contractor in Saudi Arabia after crafting intimate ties with the royal family.

Osama bin Ladens youth was spent in Hejaz, a southern Arabian province. In 1976 he graduated from private school, the Al Thagher Model School, near the port town of Jedda where he grew up. Described by former teachers and classmates as an outstanding student, bin Laden spent his extra time involved in a for-credit after school Islamic study group for exceptional students. Many believe it could be there that he first acquired a formal education in jihad. Classes were on the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt in the 1920s and based on Islamic activism, political consciousness, and jihad. Bin Laden graduated from Jeddas prestigious King Abel Aziz University with a degree in civil engineering. The stories of bin Laden as a hard-drinking partygoer in Beirut in his youth are almost certainly wrong (and probably confuse him with one of his many brothers or other family members). On the contrary, at the university bin Laden was earnest and studious. He took the Quʾran, at least his fundamentalist reading of it, to heart.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in what would turn out to be a disastrous war that would lead to Soviet defeat and the collapse of the empire. There immediately arose throughout the Muslim world a mythic call for jihadembraced by the Saudi royal family itselfin defense of the Islamic peoples of Afghanistan against the godless infidel Russians. Osama bin Laden responded warmly to that call. At first he raised money for the cause, then in the early 1980s, with his spiritual mentor, Abdullah Azzam (19411989), established the Maktab al-Khidamat (services offices) in Pakistans University of Peshawar to direct support and resources to the fighters out in the field. In 1986 the twenty-nine-year-old Osama bin Laden added a heroic battlefield experience to his expanding mythic vita at the battle of Jaji. In his account, which is probably as much inspirational fairytale as actual history, he and the Afghan fighters were thirty meters from the Russians. He came close to being captured, but was so peaceful in his heart that he went to sleep for a while. Mortars fell around him and miraculously failed to explode. We beat the Soviet Union, he said (bin Laden, 2005). The Russians fled.

Bin Ladens Islamist triumphalism and his insistence on the continuation of jihad made him a nuisance in Saudi Arabia, which forced him to leave the country in 1991 and finally revoked his citizenship in 1994, despite his impeccable family ties. He spent the next half-decade in Sudan, a remote and lawless land in which he could operate mostly outside of international control as he plotted his next move. One important event in these years that led to his further radicalization was the Gulf War of 1991. He was appalled that Saudi Arabia would allow American troops to be based on what he saw as sacred Saudi soil as they massed troops for an attack against a fellow Muslim country. He personally despised Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (19372006) but regarded Iraqis as brethren in faith. Bin Laden became so extreme in his extravagant rhetoric against the royal family that the Saudi government in 1994 finally revoked his citizenship and tried to strip him of all of his assets, though by then his considerable fortune was invested in many global enterprises and out of their reach.

But Sudan in turn eventually succumbed to pressure from the United States, and in 1996 bin Laden was expelled. A man without a country, he chose to relocate in what was by then an Afghanistan controlled by the fundamentalist Taliban. It was there that bin Laden breathed new life into Al-Qaeda, or base, for global terrorist operations, an organization founded in 1988 as the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan. For the next five years he operated with virtual impunity in a remote land under Islamist control. In the Afghan camps, thousands of jihadis received training in terrorism. They were committed to the ideals of global jihad and to Osama bin Laden, to whom they took a personal vow of loyalty. Most of those in the camps were foot soldiers, but some, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who devised what was called the planes projects or what became the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) and Mohammed Atta (the head of operations for the 9/11 attacks) were central figures in the Afghan camps.

Bin Ladens chief lieutenant was Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor who had been tortured in Cairo prisons. Al-Zawahiri had been inspired in the 1950s and 1960s by the writings of Sayyid Qutb (19061966), an Islamist intellectual who was hanged in prison by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (19181970). It was Qutb who resurrected an idea at least seven centuries old that violent jihad was at the center of the faith, that purification of Islam went along with eradication of infidels, and that the only goal worth pursuing was the re-creation of a world modeled on that which the Prophet specifically created. Bin Laden, of course, knew the writings of Qutb, though probably mostly through others inspired by Qutb, such as al-Zawahiri and Azzam. Al-Zawahiri, however, was important in other ways to bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was not an effective leader himself, and in 1996 he merged his Al-Jihad into bin Ladens Al-Qaeda, formally joining the long Egyptian tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood with Wahhabi fundamentalism. Al-Zawahiri proved a formidable ally, able to conceptualize a global jihad and help implement it organizationally.

Al-Qaeda was structured along the lines of a multinational corporation. Bin Laden was the CEO, and each unit, which could thrive apart from the other divisions, was headed by the equivalent of a vice president. It was a structure intended to survive attack and disruption. Funding came in part from bin Laden himself, though his personal fortune was far less than most imagined and probably not more than a million or so dollars a year. Most funding came from donations and a global network of charities. Until 9/11 bin Laden did not seem short of funds.

It was his ideology of jihad that made bin Laden remarkable in these years. He was a religious fanatic and a well-organized businessman, a mystic and master of bureaucratic detail, a man plotting mass destruction and death, and a soft-spoken dreamer who reinvigorated an Islamist movement in ways that have not been seen in the Muslim world since Saladin in the twelfth century. On August 23, 1996, in his Declaration of Jihad bin Laden called on all his Muslim brothers to help him share in the jihad against the enemies of God, your enemies the Israelis and Americans (bin Laden 2005, pp. 2330). And on February 23, 1998, in his declaration of the World Islamic Front, bin Laden declared a kind of universal declaration of war against Jews and Crusaders and declared it was an individual duty incumbent on every Muslim in all countries to kill Americans and their allies (bin Laden 2005, pp. 5862). This declaration of war took the fight outside of the sectarian battles in the Middle East and into the very heart of the enemy lands. Bin Laden wanted concrete political things: American troops out of Saudi Arabia, the defeat of Israel and the liberation of the Palestinians, and the overthrow of corrupt secular Muslim rule in the Middle East. But he also harbored millennial dreams involving the annihilation of American, Western, and Jewish culture in a forge of violence that was redemptive and purifying.

On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda struck New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., in an extraordinarily successful terrorist attack. That the attacks worked as well as they did was also in large part due to pure luck on bin Ladens part. The World Trade Center collapsed in an inferno of fire mainly due to failures in the architectural conception of the buildings themselves. The whole operation cost well under half a million dollars, and it has caused several hundred billion dollars in direct and indirect damage.

But the spiritual and political costs of 9/11 are incalculable. The 2,749 people who died that day in New York lingered in the air, literally, and many were inhaled by New Yorkers with dust from the collapsed towers. It all made for incomplete mourning that certainly lasted through the months of clearing away the debris but also into the two wars that soon followed, the second of which is the extended war in Iraq. Many live with a special dread from that day, and it serves to symbolize the malevolence of contemporary history. Most Americans believe, if asked in the right way, that if Osama bin Laden had possessed nuclear weapons before 9/11 he would have placed one on a plane crashing into those towers.

Thankfully, Osama bin Laden did not possess such a weapon. As of 2007, he was hiding somewhere, probably in the mountainous border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, basically out of commission, though by remaining alive he inspires others to act in his name and may even continue to direct some actual operations. Bin Ladens legacy is mixed. There is no question he has changed the world and the violence he directed may occasion a realignment of power in the relationship between the West and the Muslim Middle East. It also energized the new terrorism for many years and disrupted advanced economies in ways few could have imagined possible before 9/11. On the other hand, the violence of bin Laden and Al-Qaeda may backfire for the Muslim world, leading to disruption and civil war and further isolation, rather than renewal along the lines of Islamist fantasies. It may be many years before we will know with any degree of certainty whether the twenty-first century will be relatively free of terrorism and violence.

SEE ALSO Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.; Fundamentalism, Islamic; September 11, 2001; Terrorism; Terrorists


Anti-Defamation League. Osama bin Laden: ADL


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bin Laden, Osama. 2005. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence. London: Verso.

Coll, Steve. 2004. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin.

Hoffman, Bruce. 2003. The Leadership Secrets of Osama Bin Laden: The Terrorist as CEO. Atlantic Monthly 291 (3): 2627.

Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. Inside Terrorism. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jacquard, Roland. 2002. In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the Bin Laden Brotherhood. Trans. George Holoch. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kepel, Gilles. 2002. JIHAD: The Trial of Political Islam. Trans. Anthony F. Roberts. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Randal, Jonathan C. 2004. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist. New York: Knopf.

Scheuer, Michael. 2006. Through Our Enemies Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. 2nd rev. ed. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.

Stern, Jessica. 2003. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. New York: HarperCollins.

Weaver, Mary Anne. 2005. The War on Terror: Four Years On: Lost at Tora Bora. New York Times Magazine. September 11: Sec 6: 54.

WGBH Boston, with New York Times Television. 2003. Frontline: Chasing the Sleeper Cell.

Williams, Paul L. 2004. Osamas Revenge: The Next 9/11, What the Media and the Government Havent Told You. New York: Prometheus.

Charles B. Strozier
Renee Cummings

Osama bin Laden

views updated May 11 2018

Osama bin Laden

The Islamic fundamentalist leader Osama bin Laden (born 1957), a harsh critic of the United States and its policies, is widely believed to have orchestrated the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, as well as the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. But it is his role as the apparent mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that have made bin Laden one of the most infamous and sought-after figures in recent history.

The 6-foot-5, lanky, bearded leader—soft-spoken and effeminate, even when he rails against America—is a man of tremendous wealth, and makes an unlikely spokesman for the poor and oppressed people of Islam whom he claims to represent. Nevertheless, his call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States and Israel, has been heeded by like-minded fundamentalist Muslims.

Raised in Great Wealth

Born in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden was the son of Mohammad bin Laden, one of the country's wealthiest business leaders. Some sources state that he is the seventh son, while others claim that he is the seventeenth of some 50 children born to the construction magnate and his various wives. Young bin Laden led a privileged life, surrounded by pampering servants and residing in air-conditioned houses well insulated from the oppressive desert heat. He may have heard tales of poverty from his father, who started his career as a destitute Yemeni porter. He moved to Saudi Arabia and eventually become the owner of the kingdom's largest construction company.

Mohammed bin Laden's success was in part due to the strong personal ties he cultivated with King Saud after he rebuilt the monarch's palaces for a price much lower than any other bidder. Favored by the royal family, Mohammed served for a time as minister of public works. King Faisal, who succeeded Saud, issued a decree that all construction projects go to Mohammed's company, the Binladin Group. Among these construction projects were lucrative contracts to rebuild mosques in Mecca and Medina. When Mohammed died in a helicopter crash in 1968, his children inherited the billionaire's construction empire. Osama bin Laden, then 13 years old, purportedly came into a fortune of some $300 million.

A Passion for Religious Politics

Young bin Laden attended schools in Jedda, and was encouraged to marry early, at the age of 17, to a Syrian girl and family relation. She was to be the first of several wives. In 1979 he earned a degree in civil engineering from King Abdul-Aziz University. He seemed to be preparing to join the family business, but he did not continue on that course for long.

Former classmates of bin Laden recall him as a frequent patron of Beirut nightclubs, who drank and caroused with his Saudi royalty cohorts. Yet it was also at the university that bin Laden met the Muslim fundamentalist Sheik Abdullah Azzam, perhaps his first teacher of religious politics and his earliest influence. Azzam spoke fervently of the need to liberate Islamic nations from foreign interests and interventions, and he indoctrinated his disciples in the strictest tenets of the Muslim faith. Bin Laden, however, would eventually cultivate a brand of militant religious extremism that exceeded his teacher's.

Joined the Afghan War

As a student in the late 1970s, bin Laden was galvanized by events that seemed to pit both the Western world and communist Russia against Muslim nations. One of these was the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel; another was the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. In December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden, like many other Muslims, rose to join the jihad declared against the attackers. He did not initially enter the fray as a soldier, but instead channeled his efforts into the organization and financing of the mujahedeen, or Afghan resistance. Over the next ten years, he used his tremendous wealth to buy arms, build training camps, and provide food and medical care. He was said to have occasionally joined the fighting, and to have participated in the bloody siege of Jalalabad in 1989, in which Afghanistan wrested control from the Soviet Union.

The United States, then embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, provided help to bin Laden and his associates. Although in many respects he worked side by side with the Americans to defeat the Soviets, bin Laden remained wary of the Western superpower. "To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan," bin Laden later told a French journalist in an interview quoted by the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) Frontline. "I did not fight against the communist threat while forgetting the peril from the West. … [W]e had to fight on all fronts against communist or Western oppression."

Formed "Al Qaeda"

During the war, bin Laden forged connections with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the militant group linked with the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat. Under the influence of this group, bin Laden was persuaded to help expand the jihad and enlist as many Muslims as possible to rebel against so-called infidel regimes. In 1988 he and the Egyptians founded Al Qaeda, ("The Base"), a network initially designed to build fighting power for the Afghan resistance. Al Qaeda would later become known as a radical Islamic group with bin Laden at the helm, and with the United States as the key target for its terrorist acts.

After the war, bin Laden was touted as a hero in Afghanistan as well as in his homeland. He returned to Saudi Arabia to work for the Binladin Group, but he remained preoccupied with extremist religious politics. Now it was his homeland that concerned him. In 1990 Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, worried about a possible invasion by Iraq, asked the United States and its allies to station troops that would defend Saudi soil. Eager to protect its interests in the oil-producing kingdom, the United States complied. Bin Laden, euphoric after the Afghan victory and proud of the power of Muslim nations, was outraged that Fahd had asked a non-Muslim country for protection. He now channeled his energy and money into opposition movements against the Saudi monarchy.

As an outspoken critic of the royal family, bin Laden gained a reputation as a troublemaker. For a time, he was placed under house arrest in Jedda. His siblings, who had strong ties to the monarchy, vehemently opposed his antics and severed all ties—familial and economic—with their upstart brother. "He was totally ostracized by the family and by the kingdom," Daniel Uman, who worked with the Binladin Group, told an interviewer for the New York Times. The Saudi government, ever watchful of bin Laden, caught him smuggling weapons from Yemen and revoked his passport. No longer a Saudi citizen, he was asked to leave the country.

With several wives and many children, bin Laden relocated with his family to Sudan, where a militant Islamic government ruled. In Sudan, he was welcomed for his great wealth, which he used to establish a major construction company as well as other businesses. He also focused on expanding Al Qaeda, building terrorist training camps and forging ties with other militant Islamic groups. His primary aim had become to thwart the presence of American troops in Muslim countries.

Orchestrated First Terrorist Attacks

Bin Laden regarded even American humanitarian efforts as disgraces to Muslim countries. The first terrorist attack believed to trace back to bin Laden involved the December 1992 explosion of a bomb at a hotel in Aden, Yemen. American troops, en route to Somalia for a humanitarian mission, had been staying at the hotel, but they had already left. Two Austrian tourists were killed. Almost a year later, 18 American servicemen were shot down over Mogadishu in Somalia. Bin Laden initially claimed not to be involved in the attack, yet he later admitted to an Arabic newspaper that he had played a role in training the guerrilla troops responsible for the attack.

Several months later, on February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. Though it has not been proven, bin Laden is widely suspected of being the mission's ringleader. Many believe it was the terrorist leader's first attempt to destroy the towers, which suicide hijackers succeeded in toppling in 2001. United States and Saudi leaders pressured the Sudanese government to expel bin Laden. In 1996 he left the country voluntarily, according to Sudanese officials.

Declared Holy War Against United States

That same year, bin Laden openly declared war on America, calling upon his followers to expel Americans and Jews from all Muslim lands. In a statement quoted by PBS's Frontline, he called for "fast-moving, light forces that work under complete secrecy." Interviewed by Cable News Network (CNN) in 1997, bin Laden said, "[The United States] has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal, whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation." The following year he issued an edict evoking even stronger language: "We—with God's help— call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

After the Sudanese government asked him to leave, bin Laden operated out of Afghanistan. He is believed to have orchestrated at least a dozen attacks, some successful, some not. Among the worst of these were two truck bombings, both on August 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Nairobi bombing killed 213 people (only 12 were Americans) and wounded 4,500. The Dar es Salaam attack left 11 dead and 85 wounded. This news, compounded by intelligence reports suspecting that bin Laden had been attempting to acquire chemical and biological weapons, prompted U.S. action. President Bill Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks on suspected Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. In November 1998 the U.S. State Department promised $5 million to anyone with information leading to bin Laden's arrest.

Despite attempts to apprehend him, bin Laden eluded the American government and continued plotting against it. Not all of his efforts were successful. A failed plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve, 1999—suspected to be one of several failed attacks designed to correspond with the millennium—was linked to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden is also suspected of orchestrating a botched attack on the USS The Sullivans, a U.S. warship stationed off the coast of Yemen. "[I]n what seemed to us a kind of comic presentation of what happened," recalled New York Times reporter Judith Miller, "the would-be martyrs loaded up their boat with explosives and set the little dingy out to meet The Sullivans and the [dingy] was overloaded and sank."

The same group, with bin Laden at the helm, is widely believed to be responsible for the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, carried out in the same waters only a few months after the Sullivans failure. The terrorists had apparently learned from their mistakes. The attack killed 17 U.S. navy personnel and left many wounded. Yemeni officials later reported that five suspects in the incident had admitted to training in bin Laden's Al Qaeda camps.

Prime Suspect in Attacks on America

Bin Laden's hatred for America had become well known, but nothing had prepared Americans for the most extravagant and heinous plot allegedly hatched by the terrorist leader: the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the clear, late-summer morning, two hijacked commercial jets flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. About an hour later, another hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon in the nation's capital. A fourth hijacked jet did not reach its target, crashing in Western Pennsylvania instead. When the massive towers collapsed in flames, thousands perished. Among those lost in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania were the 19 hijackers, most of whom have been linked to Al Qaeda operations. Bin Laden denied involvement in the attacks, but he praised the hijackers for their acts.

The U.S. government nevertheless regarded the terrorist leader as their prime suspect. President George W. Bush demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government turn him over or face war, but to no avail. In early October, U.S. forces began striking Afghan targets, declaring a war on terrorism and on the countries that harbor terrorists.

Bin Laden's followers, who support a radical fundamentalist brand of Islam, remain devoted to their leader and continue to heed his call for a holy war. Ever wary of the price America has put on his head, he has reportedly chosen a successor: Muhammad Atef, an Egyptian Muslim who married bin Laden's daughter in January 2001.


Anonymous, October 12, 2001.

Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2001.

New York Times, September 14, 2001; October 28, 2001.

Reuters, October 3, 2001.


"Hunting bin Laden," Frontline, (October 24, 2001).

"Laden, Osama bin,", (October 24, 2001). □

bin Laden, Osama

views updated May 14 2018

Osama bin Laden

"Jihad against Jews and Crusaders"

Published in Al-Quds al-Arabi, February 23, 1998

"The ruling to kill the 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 order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque in Mecca from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."

O n February 23, 1998, an Arabic-language newspaper in London, England, Al-Quds al-Arabi, published a fatwa that declared war on Americans. The newspaper claimed the fatwa had been written by Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–) and other leaders of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.

A fatwa is an instruction or interpretation of Islamic law issued by a Muslim leader to his followers. In some religions, it would be described as a religious decree. Islam recognizes many religious teachers; therefore, many individuals describe their writings as fatwas.

The following fatwa from Osama bin Laden was published three-and-a-half years before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. Little attention was paid to it at the time. But after the deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, the fatwa was viewed as a declaration of war that Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda took very seriously.

President George W. Bush (1946–) responded to the attacks on New York and Washington in terms of attacks on the freedoms enjoyed by Americans. The fatwa of bin Laden, however, has a very different point of view. Bin Laden refers to protecting Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam, from American influence and specifically from the presence of U.S. troops there.

The newspaper said that bin Laden had sent the fatwa by fax. Al-Quds al-Arabi is often used by Arabic-speaking people to transmit ideas to people throughout the West and to Arabs living in Western Europe.

Others who signed the document were Aymanal-Zawahiri, leader of the Jihad Group of Egypt and known to be a lieutenant of bin Laden; abu-Yasir Rifa'I Ahmad Taha, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group; Sheikh Mir Hamzah, leader of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan; and Fazlul Rahman, leader ofthe Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.

In the statement, Osama bin Laden tells Muslims (followers of the religion Islam) worldwide that they have a religious duty to kill Americans and their allies wherever possible. Bin Laden says that the United States has seized control of Islam's holiest shrines, including the main mosque (Islamic religious site, comparable to a church or synagogue) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Israel. (In fact, neither of these sites is under U.S. control. Bin Laden argues, however, that the United States has such influence over the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel that America indirectly controls the land around these mosques.)

The fatwa declares it to be the religious duty of Muslims to help drive Americans out of Islamic countries so that U.S. troops will not be able to threaten any observant Muslim.

Things to remember while reading "Jihad against Jews and Crusaders":

  • American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia for the first time after Iraq invaded Kuwait, which sits between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in 1990 to start the Persian Gulf War. After American troops and other forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait, the U.S. troops never left. This enraged Osama bin Laden, who felt it was an offense to Islam for non-Muslim troops to be stationed in the homeland of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
  • Bin Laden's fatwa declares it is the duty of Muslims to drive American troops out of Islamic lands. It does not speak of imposing the rules of Islam on the United States or other nations. Bin Laden's statement of principles stands in marked contrast to the statement of President Bush to the U.S. Congress in September 2001, in which he speaks of defending the United States against forces that want to rob Americans of their freedoms.
  • Osama bin Laden's fatwa uses religious language to justify the killing of Americans everywhere. President Bush also uses religious terms—describing the attackers of September 11, 2001 as "evildoers"—to justify his declaration of a "war on terrorism."
  • In Islam, a fatwa needs to follow certain forms to be valid, much like laws or declarations in Western countries follow certain forms. A fatwa needs to demonstrate that it is in line with other legal statements that have been derived from the Koran (Islam's holy book), and is issued by a sincere person who is knowledgeable about Islamic law. A fatwa also needs to be free of personal interest and aligned with the needs of the contemporary world.

What happened next …

Following publication of his fatwa, bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization planned and launched several attacks against U.S. forces. In one of these offensives, Al Qaeda militants bombed a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, while it was refueling in Yemen on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. The United States tried to retaliate for that attack by firing cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda target in Afghanistan, but the bombs missed bin Laden.

On September 11, 2001, bin Laden masterminded an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly three thousand people. In response, the United States declared war on terrorism and bombed camps in Afghanistan believed to be the headquarters of bin Laden. The United States military also drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic sect that strictly follows the teachings of the Moslem holy book, the Koran, had imposed harsh Islamic law on the country. But bin Laden evaded capture for months after September 11, 2001, leading to speculation that he had died of a disease or been killed in a bombing raid—or that he had escaped and was plotting future terrorist attacks.

Islam began to play a much larger role in international diplomacy. The influence of Islamic groups increased in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in hostilities since 1948, when Israel, with U.S. backing, was founded as a Jewish state on land that Palestinians, predominantly Arab, had hoped would be decreed to them), and the United States was drawn into a struggle by fundamentalist Islamic groups to influence Pakistan. Although President Bush declared war against "terrorism," some people interpreted this as meaning war against Islam. Indeed, after Afghanistan, the first military target of the United States was an Islamic group operating on an island in the southern Philippines.

Did you know …

  • The Internet has become a popular means of issuing fatwas. At one time, fatwas were issued by local Islamic preachers. New technology such as the Internet, as well as radio and television, has led to an explosion of Islamic religious opinions. At the same time, Islam believes in a direct connection between the worshiper and Allah, so interpretations by religious leaders do not carry the same weight as similar pronouncements might carry in other religions, such as Christianity.

For More Information

Benjamin, Dan. The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War against America. New York: Random House, 2002.

Bergen, Peter L. Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Bin Laden, Osama. "Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." Al-Quds al-Arabi, February 23, 1998.

Bodansky, Yossef. Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Rocklin, CA: Forum, 2001.

Islam on the Internet, Part III: The Debate Over Online Muslim Ideology. Available at (accessed on August 1, 2002).

Jacquard, Roland, and Serageldin, Samia. In the Name of Osama bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the bin Laden Brotherhood. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Louis, Nancy. Osama bin Laden. Edina, MN: ABDO & Daughters, 2002.

MacFarquhar, Neil. "Bin Laden and His Followers Adhere to an Austere, Stringent Form of Islam." New York Times, October 7, 2001, p. B7.

Weaver, Mary Anne. "The Real bin Laden: By Mythologizing Him, the Government Has Made Him Even More Dangerous." New Yorker, January 24, 2000, p. 32.

Osama bin Laden

views updated Jun 11 2018

Osama bin Laden (1957– ) Saudi dissident, leader of al-Qaeda (Arabic, ‘the base’), a loose network of terrorist groups. He commanded a group of Arab mujaheddin against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Expelled by the Saudi government in 1991, after denouncing the presence of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War (1991), bin Laden went first to the Sudan and then to Afghanistan. In 1998, he was named as the architect of the bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The US responded with missile attacks against suspected bases in Sudan and Afghanistan. In 2001 evidence linked him to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City, and the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., which claimed more than 3000 lives. The US declared war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

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