Laden, Osama Bin
Born on July 30, 1957 (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)
Osama bin Laden is known throughout the world as the terrorist mastermind behind the September 11, 2001, airplane attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which killed several thousand people. In the United States and throughout much of the West (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, and Canada), bin Laden is seen as a vicious terrorist, someone who "hates freedom," in the words of U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–). Established governments in many Middle Eastern countries also identify bin Laden as a terrorist threat. Yet there are many people in the Middle East who consider bin Laden a hero. Bin Laden and his followers represent the extreme side of Islamic fundamentalism, a religious movement which began in the Middle East in the late 1970s. Extreme Islamic fundamentalists believe that anything that teaches values or cultures that are different from those of the Islamic faith must be removed from the Middle East by any means necessary. They also believe that the Middle East should be ruled by Arabic people who follow the Islamic religion and that all other groups must be eliminated from the Middle East. Because of these
"Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God. ... I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America."
beliefs, bin Laden and his followers have attacked many countries that they feel have tried to influence Middle Eastern societies and governments to adopt values that go against or ignore the rules of the Islamic faith. His followers provide money for his terrorist organization, known as Al Qaeda (Arabic for "The Base"; pronounced Al KAY-duh), and cheer his attempts to strike at targets that symbolize non-Islamic values.
The fact that bin Laden can be considered both a terrorist mastermind and a religious hero indicates the deep political divisions that exist in the Middle East. These divisions occur over the proper place of Islamic religious law in government and the role that the United States and other Western countries play in the Middle East in terms of economy and social influence. They also focus on the Jewish state of Israel that was created in 1948, which caused the deportation of thousands of Arab Palestinians to other Arabic countries, and formed a large non-Islamic state in the Middle East supported by Western countries, such as the United States. Bin Laden, the wealthy son of one of Saudi Arabia's richest businessmen, emerged in the 1980s as a powerful voice calling for the establishment of Sharia (a system of Islamic law) in a united Islamic state, the elimination of Western values from the Middle East, and the destruction of Israel. He is one of the most controversial figures in the modern Middle East.
Child of privilege
Bin Laden is an unlikely revolutionary. He was born Osama bin Mohammed bin Laden on July 30, 1957, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His father was Mohammed bin Laden and his mother was named Hamida. Since Islamic law allows men to take multiple wives, the Syrian-born Hamida was one of the elder bin Laden's many wives. However, because she was not born in Mohammed bin Laden's native country of Saudi Arabia, Hamida was looked down upon by bin Laden's other wives. Regardless of his mother's standing in the family, Osama bin Laden, the seventeenth of fifty children, was entitled to the same respect as all of Mohammed bin Laden's other sons. Though the family was quite large, their father insisted that the male siblings maintain close ties to keep the family strong.
The two forces that shaped bin Laden's early life were his family's great wealth and their devout religious faith. Though Mohammed bin Laden had come from humble beginnings, he headed one of the largest construction companies in the Arab world, called the Bin Laden Group, by the time Osama bin Laden was born. Mohammed was close to Saudi Arabia's ruling family, the al-Sauds, and his relationship helped him win contracts to build major highways and restore several of the great Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the two cities considered to be the holiest in the Islamic religion. When Mohammed bin Laden died in 1968, the Bin Laden Group was worth billions of dollars. Mohammed bin Laden left control of the business to his eldest son, with the charge to spread the family wealth among his brothers. From the moment he reached adulthood, Osama bin Laden thus had access to many millions of dollars.
From the very beginning, religion played an important role in bin Laden's life. He and his siblings were raised as Sunnis, the leading denomination of Muslims, or believers in the Islamic faith. They all learned to read the Koran (the sacred book of Islam) and respected religious rules that restricted contact between men and women. Over time, Osama proved himself the most devout of any of the bin Ladens. He spent much time in prayer as a youth, and entered into long conversations about religion with teachers and clerics whom he met through his family connections. He soon began to follow a strict branch of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Wahhabism is named after its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Al-Wahhab and his followers preached a fundamentalist version of Islam: he wanted Muslims to revere only the Prophet Muhammad and to follow Sharia, or Islamic holy law, very closely. All other outside influences were considered to be sacrilegious, or disrespectful to the Islamic religion.
Serious in his faith, bin Laden was also a good student. One of his teachers described bin Laden to Salon magazine's Jason Burke as "very neat, precise, and conscientious" in his work. "Many students wanted to show you how clever they were. But if he knew the answer to something he wouldn't parade the fact. He would only reveal it if you asked him." The teacher continued, "He also stood out as he was singularly gracious and polite, and had a great deal of inner confidence."
Shuns the West
Across the Middle East, attitudes toward Western countries and their influence in the region were changing in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Jewish state of Israel, which was supported by the United States and other countries in the West, expanded its territory in the Six-Day War of 1967, a six-day period during which Israel launched attacks against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and took over land in the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula, all land held by Arab Palestinians. Six years later Arab armies tried to regain this land during the Yom Kippur War of 1973–74, but even though there were losses on both sides in terms of soldiers and supplies, Israel did not lose any of the land it had taken during the Six-Day War. As a result, many Arab Palestinians were forced from their lands in the West Bank and into refugee camps in countries like Jordan and Syria. While many Arab countries were alarmed at the growing power of Israel, many more were troubled by the spread of other Western influences in the region. The United States was the biggest customer for the oil produced in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Yet the United States promoted social values that went against the teachings of the Islamic religion, such as the equality of men and women and freedom of religious expression. Many Islamic nations faced deep conflicts over these issues.
Most of the men in bin Laden's family were more concerned about business than about loyalty to the Islamic faith. They worked with the big oil companies and the Saudi royal family, both of which were supported by U.S. money. The brothers also attended Western universities in England and the United States, drove fancy cars, and built lavish homes. Osama bin Laden, however, did not accept Western values. He elected to attend college in Saudi Arabia, and has never been in the United States. He shunned European music and fashion, and in the early 1970s began to wear traditional Saudi robes and turbans.
Bin Laden began attending King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1975. He studied engineering and management, skills he would need to take his place in the family business. But his real love was the Islamic religion. He began to listen to tapes made by the Palestinian academic Abdallah Azzam, the Egyptian professor Muhammad Qutb, and other fundamentalist religious teachers. According to Burke, these teachers "preached a severe message: only an absolute return to the values of conservative Islam could protect the Muslim World from the dangers and decadence of the West." Bin Laden joined an Islamic group called the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal was to incorporate Islamic religious principles into Middle Eastern governments.
A soldier in the Holy War
Tensions within the Middle East deepened in 1979. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, becoming the first Arab nation to openly acknowledge the Jewish state. This was seen as a sign of Egypt's acceptance of a Western presence in the Middle East. Around the same time, however, Islamic militants in Iran overthrew the Western-backed government and installed a religious dictatorship in its place. People throughout the Middle East were inspired to consider whether they wanted to side with the secular, or non-religious, governments allied with the West, or with Islamic governments supporting strict interpretations of the Koran. For Osama bin Laden, who grew increasingly critical of the Saudi ruling family's close ties with the West, the choice was easy: he was ready to go to war for the Islamic cause.
Also in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded the Muslim nation of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was not allied with the West, but it did promote a secular, communist form of government. (Communism is a system of government where the government controls the economy and all goods and services are shared equally by all people.) From across the Middle East, radical Muslims flocked to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet forces. Just twenty-two years old, Osama bin Laden decided to join these fighters, who were known by the name mujahideen, or holy warriors. Bin Laden did not pick up a rifle and fight in the hills like many mujahideen. Instead, he used his family connections to make alliances with Muslim leaders, including Abdallah Azzam. Beginning in 1980 he also traveled throughout Saudi Arabia, raising money from rich Muslims who supported the Afghan cause, which was very popular in the Middle East. He also donated large sums of money from his personal assets to assist the Islamic cause in Afghanistan.
With money and connections, bin Laden established training camps within Afghanistan and encouraged Muslims to travel to Afghanistan to fight. He imported heavy equipment, like bulldozers and backhoes, and also bought weapons and ammunition to supply the fighters. He also built and supplied hospitals to help the wounded and built schools for children whose villages had been destroyed in the fighting. Soon, legends began to spread in Afghanistan about the rich, powerful Saudi who traveled behind the fighting and dispensed gifts, money, and words of inspiration to fighters and their families. According to Bill Loehfelm, author of Osama bin Laden, "For many, bin Laden became the example of a man rewarded by Allah [God] for his devotion to Islam. He was a figure of wealth, power, and wisdom. Many called him 'emir,' an Arab title of royalty. Even those who had not met him knew of him and called him the Good Samaritan or the Saudi Prince. By 1984, Osama bin Laden had earned the personal loyalty of hundreds, if not thousands, of men."
Over time, bin Laden became more closely tied with actual combat operations. He established military training camps, where he paid to have fighters trained in guerrilla warfare (combat tactics used when a smaller, less well-equipped fighting force faces a more powerful foe). Reports indicated that bin Laden personally drove bulldozers that were building roads in Afghanistan, exposing himself to fire from Soviet troops. By 1987 he began to carry a rifle and participate in combat. He was wounded in battle and became known among the mujahideen for his personal bravery. He was also known for his devout religious ways. He always took time to talk to fellow fighters about their sacred religious mission, and he convinced many fighters that they were taking part in a great jihad, or holy war, against the forces opposed to Muslim dominance in the Middle East.
Fighting at home
By 1989 the Muslim fighters in Afghanistan had reached their goal: Soviet troops withdrew from the country, and an Islamic-led government took charge. Bin Laden took the Afghan victory as a symbol of the success of the holy war he said was reshaping the Middle East. He told ABC reporter John Miller, in an interview posted on the "Hunting Bin Laden" PBS Web site, "After our victory in Afghanistan and the defeat of the oppressors who had killed millions of Muslims, the legend about the invincibility of the superpowers vanished." Bin Laden was now ready to carry this holy war to Western countries that had influenced the Middle East, especially the United States which had supported the growth of Israel, had promoted ideals of equality and secularism in Middle Eastern countries, and had gained great influence over many governments in the region due to the large amounts of money the United States spent of Middle Eastern oil.
A Clash of Cultures
At the root of Osama bin Laden's holy war against the United States are some crucial cultural differences that separate much of the West from more fundamentalist Muslims. These differences in values, two of which are discussed here, help explain some of the hostility that Islamic fundamentalists feel for Western society.
Fundamentalist Muslims, often known as Taliban, believe that there should be no divisions between religion and government. They regard Islamic religious law, or Sharia, as the shaping force in society, and the Koran and other holy words as the source of that authority. Most Western governments, including the United States, are based on a separation between church and state. They promote laws, like the Constitution, based on secular principles, which allow people to follow their own religious beliefs.
Fundamentalist Muslims also have strict rules about the role of women in society. Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, and they could not hold jobs or appear in public without the presence of a man. Similar rules regulate contact between men and women in all areas of Muslim life. In the West, a fundamental value is that all people are equal, regardless of gender. Though there is gender bias in Western cultures, in theory women have access to all of the same rights as men.
Islamic fundamentalists have been especially concerned with keeping these Western values from "contaminating" their cultures. They are afraid that giving women freedom and allowing people to create their own laws will lead to the decline of Muslim culture.
Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia as a hero in 1989. Even those Saudis who were friendly to the West, like the royal family, offered their praise for the man who had provided so much assistance to the Muslim cause. Bin Laden became a popular speaker, and he traveled throughout the country giving speeches. In these speeches, which were taped and distributed widely in the Middle East, bin Laden called for every Muslim to support the jihad. He blasted the government of Saudi Arabia, claiming that it had sold out the interests of its people for Western money. He called for Muslims to rise up against "the Jews and over those fighting with them," according to the PBS Web site. (Bin Laden refuses to acknowledge the nation of Israel, and has always insisted that the Jewish state is the weapon that the Jewish-dominated West wants to use to gain control of the Middle East.)
Bin Laden's hatred of the West, and of the Saudi government, only increased in 1990. That was the year that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (1937–; see entry) invaded the nation of Kuwait, and Iraqi troops stood ready to march into Saudi Arabia as well. Bin Laden offered to mobilize his followers to fight against the Iraqis, who were led by a secular government, but the Saudi royal family refused his offer. Instead, the Saudis allowed American troops to be stationed on Saudi soil as a base for their attack on the Iraqis. To bin Laden, this was the ultimate offense. He told Miller that "America has spearheaded the crusade against the Islamic nation, sending tens of thousands of troops to the land of the two Holy Mosques [Saudi Arabia] ... meddling in its affairs and politics, and [giving] its support of the oppressive, corrupt, and tyrannical regime that is in control." Bin Laden increased his vocal disapproval of the Saudi government's actions and declared the United States to be the single greatest enemy of true Muslims. Offended by bin Laden's criticism, the Saudi government ordered bin Laden to be silent, and restricted his travel. Unwilling to accept these restrictions, in 1991 bin Laden chose to leave his native land. From that point on, bin Laden would be a man without a country. What he had instead was an increasingly powerful organization willing to use terror as a weapon to promote change.
Builds Al Qaeda in Sudan
During the Afghan war of the 1980s, bin Laden and Azzam had developed an organization they called Al Qaeda, Arabic for "The Base." This organization began as a resource for tracking Muslims who fought in Afghanistan, and communicating and providing aid to their families. Through Al Qaeda, bin Laden became connected to those Muslims who were most willing to fight for Islam. Soon, he would help turn Al Qaeda into one of the most feared terrorist organizations in history.
Fleeing Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was welcomed by the government of Sudan. Sudan, which lay across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia on the northeast coast of Africa, had a strict Islamic government. They allowed bin Laden to operate his legitimate business ventures from their country. Over time, bin Laden built roads and invested in Sudanese businesses. He became one of the most important businessmen in the country. More importantly, however, officials in Sudan allowed bin Laden to develop Al Qaeda's terrorism machine. In Sudan bin Laden established military training camps, and he supplied those camps with arms and equipment. Sudan granted passports to fighters bin Laden knew from the Afghan war, and they traveled to the country to help bin Laden. Bin Laden also worked to establish ties with other terrorist groups who shared some of his ideals. He made connections and learned from such long-standing terrorist groups as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Hamas, all of which had struck at Israeli and even American targets. By the early 1990s Al Qaeda had around two thousand members with connections throughout the world. They would soon begin to make themselves known to the world.
Al Qaeda's first actions began in 1991 and 1992. The group sent fighters to support Muslim fighters in armed conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, and cooperated with the actions of fellow terrorist groups. But bin Laden was eager to find a way for Al Qaeda to strike at the United States. He found his target when U.S. forces were sent to intervene in a civil war and to provide humanitarian aid in the African nation of Somalia. Labeling this intervention yet another attempt by the United States to dominate an Islamic nation, bin Laden ordered Al Qaeda operatives to bomb two hotels in the Arab nation of Yemen that were used to house U.S. soldiers on their way to Somalia. Two Australian tourists were killed in the bombings. This was the first in a long line of attacks aimed directly at the United States.
Between 1993 and 1995 Al Qaeda participated in several other attacks against American targets, including one attack conducted within the borders of the United States. On February 26, 1993, a powerful bomb was exploded in the underground parking structure of the World Trade Center, located in the heart of New York City. The explosion killed six people and injured more than a thousand. Perhaps most importantly, it showed Americans that terrorists were capable of striking within the United States. The bombing was eventually linked to an Egyptian Muslim cleric named Omar Abdel Rahman (1938–), who had ties to Al Qaeda.
In Somalia Al Qaeda provided arms and training to Muslim troops led by Mohamed Aidid. In October 1993 Aidid's forces attacked U.S. soldiers, killing eighteen and dragging the bodies of American soldiers through the streets. The Somalis were trained by Al Qaeda and used grenade launchers provided by the terrorist organization. (The events in Somalia were made into a book and later a movie called Black Hawk Down.) Soon, U.S. forces withdrew from Somalia. Bin Laden later told Esquire magazine interviewer John Miller that Al Qaeda had learned important lessons from their fight against American forces in Somalia: "Our boys were surprised at the low morale of the American soldier and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot about being a world leader ... and left [Somalia] ... dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
In 1995 and 1996, Al Qaeda succeeded at striking American targets in Saudi Arabia. On November 13, 1995, a car bomb exploded outside the American National Guard headquarters in the city of Riyadh, killing seven people, including five Americans, and wounding many others. Though Al Qaeda was implicated in the attacks, a full investigation was cut short when the Saudis executed the suspects. Then, on June 25, 1996, a huge truck bomb blasted the Khobar military complex in Dhahra, killing nineteen U.S. soldiers and injuring hundreds. Again, the investigation was slowed down by Saudi officials who allegedly wanted to play down the involvement of Saudi nationals in the attacks. Bin Laden himself claimed that the attacks were perfectly warranted, for the Saudi government had betrayed its people.
Not all of Al Qaeda's early attacks were successful. Twice in 1994 the group set in motion plans to assassinate U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001), but both plans were stopped by law enforcement. And not all of Al Qaeda's attacks were aimed at the United States. In 1996 the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan was destroyed by a truck bomb, and other minor attacks were launched against Arab states that were deemed sympathetic to American interests. Moreover, Al Qaeda provided financing and training to other terrorists acting in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Chechnya, Kashmir (part of India), Bosnia, Tajikistan, and the Philippines.
Escalates war on West
The attacks of the early 1990s brought Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to the attention of the world. To fundamentalist Muslims throughout the world, bin Laden was a hero. By fighting against both the Soviet Union and the United States, he had shown that he was not afraid to combat the most powerful nations in the world to promote the right of Muslims to live by the laws of the Koran. But to Western nations and to the governments of Middle Eastern nations that he attacked, bin Laden was a terrorist and an outlaw. Pressure from these nations, especially the United States, drove bin Laden out of Sudan in 1996. Soon, however, bin Laden and his terrorist group found a new home in what had become an outlaw nation: Afghanistan. Fundamentalist Muslims known as the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan and declared themselves enemies of the West. They welcomed bin Laden, sheltering him and allowing him to set up new terrorist bases in Afghanistan's remote, mountainous terrain.
In 1998 bin Laden issued his most aggressive statement ever against the United States. This statement was called a fatwa, which was typically a statement of religious law issued by an Islamic cleric. This fatwa was published in newspapers throughout the Islamic world. Quoted by Peter Bergen in his Holy War, Inc., it read in part: "We hereby give all Muslims the following judgment: The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country... . In the name of Allah, we call upon every Muslim ... to abide by Allah's order by killing Americans and stealing their money anywhere, anytime and whenever possible." Throughout the Middle East, people marched in support of bin Laden's fatwa. Many Muslim religious leaders spoke in support. Through his actions, bin Laden had encouraged a substantial number of Muslims to support open violence against all Americans.
Based in his mountain outpost in Kandahar, Afghanistan, bin Laden ordered ever more damaging attacks. In 1998 Al Qaeda operatives attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing a total of 224 people and injuring more than five thousand. U.S. forces struck back at training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, but bin Laden himself was never in danger. In 1999 an Al Qaeda operative nearly succeeded in bringing a bomb into the United States from Canada as part of a foiled Millennium Plot to destroy the Los Angeles Airport and various targets around the world on December 31, 1999. And on October 12, 2000, terrorists pulled their small boat alongside the USS Cole, a navy destroyer based in Yemen, and detonated a bomb that ripped a huge hole in the side of the ship. The bomb killed seventeen crewmen and injured thirty-nine. Al Qaeda was proving ever more successful at striking U.S. targets anywhere in the world. But few could have predicted the attack that was to come.
On September 11, 2001, in the largest terrorist attack ever launched on American soil, nineteen Al Qaeda operatives hijacked four U.S. commercial jetliners and guided them toward targets in New York City and Washington, D.C. Two of the jetliners flew directly into the side of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. The explosions and fire soon toppled both structures, killing over three thousand people. Another jet smashed into the side of the Pentagon, the U.S. military headquarters in Washington, D.C. A fourth jet, destined for an unknown target, crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside when passengers attacked the hijackers. All of the passengers on the flights died, as did the hijackers. The entire nation was stunned.
Bin Laden post-9/11
After 9/11 (as the attacks soon became known), the United States changed its policy toward terrorism. President George W. Bush declared a "war on terror," and launched a military offensive in Afghanistan. The goal was to remove the Taliban from power and to capture Osama bin Laden, who had been identified as the mastermind of the attacks of 9/11. They achieved their first goal very quickly, ending Taliban rule in Afghanistan by December 2001. But efforts to find bin Laden failed. Again and again, U.S. troops thought they were on the verge of capturing the world's most wanted terrorist. But bin Laden eluded capture.
On the run from soldiers, reportedly hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan, bin Laden issued several statements condemning the United States. In October 2001 he was interviewed by the Al-Jazeera news service, claiming that "not all terrorism is cursed; some terrorism is blessed... . American and Israel exercise the condemned terrorism. We practice the good terrorism," as quoted in Loehfelm's Osama bin Laden. Later he criticized those Islamic nations that cooperated with the United States in trying to destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. In these early tapes bin Laden looked tired and ill, leading many to believe that the manhunt was taking its toll on him. In November 2004, however, bin Laden issued another videotape. Looking healthy and relaxed, he vowed to continue his efforts to end U.S. influence in the Middle East. Though U.S. forces have occasionally felt they were close to capturing him, he remains at large. Some claim that he moves daily through the mountains of Afghanistan; others say that he is staying in Pakistan. As of early 2005, bin Laden remains free and many government and military officials believe that he still runs many Al Qaeda operations from afar.
For More Information
Bergen, Peter. Holy War, Inc. New York: Touchstone, 2002.
Burke, Jason. Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Loehfelm, Bill. Osama bin Laden. Farmington Hills, MI: Lucent Books, 2003.
Randal, Jonathan. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Miller, John. "Greetings, America. My Name Is Osama bin Laden. Now That I Have Your Attention..." Esquire (February 1, 1999). Available online at http://www.esquire.com (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Burke, Jason. "The Making of Osama bin Laden." Salon.http://dir.salon.com/news/feature/2001/11/01/osama_profile/index.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
"Hunting Bin Laden." PBS Frontline.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/ (accessed on July 7, 2005).