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Osama bin Laden

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One sunny day in September 2001, people round the world watched in horror as television pictures showed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York collapsing in flames. Two passenger planes had been hijacked and flown into the towers, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth had crashed in a field. Almost immediately, suspicion was focused on the Al Qaeda organisation and its leader, Osama bin Laden. His picture was displayed in newspapers and on televisions: tall, thin, with long legs and a flowing beard. So who is he and how did he become the United States' most wanted man?

Historical Background

At the end of the First World War, most of the world’s Moslems lived under the dominance of Western powers. Although Moslem countries asserted their independence after the Second World War, their governments still pursued Western-style policies and sought to create secular states. Although many people relished their new freedoms, devout Moslems were dismayed at the erosion of their traditional values.

With the discovery of oil, some people became extremely rich, but the benefits were not passed down to the peasants and the labourers. Grasping landlords, exploitative employers and corrupt police were seen to be protected by a political elite who spent their wealth on Western luxuries. By the time Osama bin Laden was growing up, resentment was simmering against corrupt and authoritarian governments and demand was growing for the rooting out of what were seen as decadent Western values.

Osama bin Laden's Background

Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh in 1957, the son of a Yemeni construction magnate Mohammed bin Laden, and a Saudi mother. Mohammed bin Laden was a close friend of the late King Fahd and his company had become fabulously wealthy through contracts to renovate and extend the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. Osama was the 17th of his father’s 57 children but he still inherited a fortune: in 2001 he was reportedly worth 250m USD (£154m).

According to his biographer Yossef Bodansky, he 'started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected - breaking the strict Moslem lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college, Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos and bars. He was a drinker and womaniser, which often got him into bar brawls'. However, while he was studying at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, he met the Palestinian preacher Abdullah Azzam, who had a critical influence on him. He switched to Islamic Studies, and his contemporaries there remember him as quiet and pious, but not marked out for great things.

Invasion of Afghanistan

In April 1978, the Afghan president, Mohammed Daud Khan was overthrown in a bloody military coup by Marxist sympathisers in the army. After the mullahs declared jihad or holy war against the infidel communists, the Soviet Union sent in their tanks to prop up their client government. For the Afghans, the Soviet invasion was an attempt by outsiders to subdue them and replace their time honoured customs with an alien ideology. However, Afghanistan became the centre of an intensified cold war between the Soviet Union and the USA. Between 1980 and 1992, the US committed 4-5 billion USD to fund the mujahideen fighting the Russians. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also supported them.

Mohammed bin Laden had helped fund the Afghan struggle so Osama's family were happy for him to join the cause. He travelled to Peshawar in Pakistan in 1980 and met the mujahideen leaders, returning frequently with Saudi donations. In 1982, he settled in Peshawar and brought company engineers and heavy construction equipment to build roads and depots for the mujahideen. The CIA funded the construction of a tunnel complex near Khost, to provide a major arms depot and training facility under the mountains close to the Pakistan border. Here, bin Laden set up a training camp for Moslem radicals who flocked to join the Afghan cause (the so called Arab Afghans). He took over an organisation in Peshawar which had been set up by Abdullah Azzam to provide services for the Arab Afghans. This is the organisation that came to be known as Al Qaeda, which means base or foundation in Arabic, although it is not clear if bin Laden gave it that name.

After the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujahideen started fighting between themselves. Disillusioned with the bickering, Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for the family firm and founded a welfare organisation for Arab Afghan veterans. When Iraq invaded Kuwait he lobbied the Saudi royal family to use the Afghan war veterans as the basis for a popular defence of the country. Instead, King Fahd invited in the Americans, an action which bin Laden regarded as a betrayal. After a fiery meeting with the Interior Minister Prince Naif, who he called a traitor to Islam, bin Laden was declared persona non grata.

International Terrorism

Osama bin Laden left for Sudan, to take part in the Islamic revolution underway there. He gathered round him veterans of the Afghan war who were angered by the American war with Iraq and the attitude of the Arab ruling elite, who allowed US forces to stay in the Gulf. His criticism of the Saudi royal family so annoyed them that they took the unprecedented step of withdrawing his passport. Eventually Sudan yielded to US and Saudi Arabian pressure and asked him to leave.

In May 1996, bin Laden travelled back to Afghanistan in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including 3 wives and 13 children. At this time, the Taliban were sweeping north across Afghanistan, conquering Kabul in September 1996. Bin Laden struck up a friendship with the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar and moved to Kandahar under their protection. Here, he lived in style in a mansion with his family, servants and fellow militants. Although the arrogant behaviour of the Arab Afghans alienated locals, bin Laden won the support of Mullah Omar by providing hundreds of fighters to join the Taliban.

By this time, bin Laden was becoming more messianic and radical, calling for a global jihad against Americans and Jews. He wanted to see US forces removed from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Jerusalem liberated from the Israelis. President Clinton's administration grew increasingly worried about his activities. A US state department report said that he was financing terrorist camps in Somalia, Egypt, and Sudan as well as Afghanistan. The US blocked bin Laden's access to his funds and brought pressure on the Taliban to expel him. The Taliban refused, saying that it was against Afghan tradition to expel a guest.

In February 1998, all the groups associated with Al Qaeda met at the Khost camp and issued a fatwa, calling on Moslems to kill Americans and their allies, both military and civilians. Soon afterwards, bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 220 people. Al Qaeda was immediately suspected and the US hit back by firing cruise missiles against their camps at Khost and Jalalabad. They were blamed again when the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen in 2000.


When the planes flew into the World Trade Centre, the 19 suicide bombers responsible belonged to Al Qaeda. Within hours, President George W Bush had announced that America was at war with international terrorists. As American and allied forces moved across Afghanistan, bin Laden was reported to have taken refuge in caves in the Tora Bora mountains, close to the Pakistan border. From here, he probably escaped into Pakistan. Although the US offered a reward of 25m USD (£15.4m) for his capture, he has never been found.

Al Qaeda has continued to operate, however. It was linked indirectly to the bombings of two nightclubs on the island of Bali in Indonesia, which killed at least 190 people from 21 countries. Bombings in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, as well as devastating suicide attacks in Casablanca, Riyadh and Istanbul were also associated with Al Qaeda. Although President Bush claimed in 2004 that many Al Qaeda leaders had been captured or killed, a US intelligence report in 2007 stated that the organisation was regrouping in Pakistani tribal areas and posed a greater threat than ever. Pakistan has angrily denied harbouring bin Laden.

Although bin Laden made a number of recorded statements after the 2001 attacks, these grew less frequent and apparently stopped altogether in 2007. There were rumours that he had been ill and could have died. According to one theory, he has kidney disease, while others have suggested he has Marfan syndrome, which could have left him with a weak heart. However, a BBC report on 22 June 2009 described an audio recording purporting to have come from bin Laden. This accused President Barack Obama of fuelling hatred against America in Pakistan. Even if bin Laden himself dies, Al Qaeda is likely to continue.


It is difficult to assess the 'real' Osama bin Laden, because of the myths that surround him. People who have met him describe him as quietly spoken and mild mannered. He believed that only the restoration of sharia law across the Moslem world would resolve its problems. However, according to those who knew him, he wasn't particularly intellectual or clear about what needed to be done. He turned readily to mentors, being easily impressed by those who he thought knew more about Islam than he did. Many of the men who surrounded him had been refugees and had been deeply affected by their experience of war but, as bin Laden himself had a privileged background, it is more difficult to understand his motivation. He may have made the grievances of the refugees his own but he has been described as having a psychopathic personality.

It is clear that, in funding the Afghan mujahideen, the Americans helped to create a range of Moslem extremist groups that were angry with the west and with their own governments. To some extent, the Americans created the monster that came to plague them. However, it would be wrong to think that Osama bin Laden is simply an enemy of the West; the people who have suffered the most from the activities of Al Qaeda have been ordinary Moslems and other inhabitants of the countries in which it has operated.

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