Born in 1957 in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden was the 17th of 53 children fathered by Muhamad Awad bin Laden, a native Yemeni who immigrated to Saudi Arabia and established numerous construction and contracting ventures which yielded him a fortune of nearly $5 billion. Of that sum, Osama bin Laden is believed to have inherited as much as $300 million when his father, who married at least 22 times, died in a 1968 helicopter crash.
After the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden, then in his early twenties, became increasingly affiliated with extremist groups such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and he proclaimed that all Muslims had a religious duty to take up arms against the Soviets. Starting in the mid-Eighties, he used his great wealth to establish training camps in Afghanistan — initially to prepare the mujahedeen, or “freedom fighters,” for combat against their Soviet adversaries, and later to wage jihad against other targets around the world. Together with Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden headed one of the seven main militias that were involved in fighting the Soviets. He attracted thousands of recruits from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan.
During his campaign against the USSR, bin Laden received some help from the American CIA, which sought to thwart Soviet expansion into Afghanistan; the CIA purchased vast quantities of weapons, ammunition, and supplies and sent these to the Pakistani intelligence agency, which in turn distributed them to the mujahedeen. The U.S. did not, however, train or directly finance bin Laden’s forces. The Arabs had their own sources of funding and support. What training was provided came from Pakistan. Bin Laden himself never had any relations with Americans or American officials.
By the time Soviet troops were finally driven out of Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden had acquired a sizable following, which he began to reference as “al Qaeda,” an Arabic term meaning “the Base.” In 1989 he moved back to Saudi Arabia, expecting a hero’s welcome in honor of his successful effort against the Soviets. But when he was not received as the liberator which he believed himself to be, he became an outspoken, inveterate critic of Saudi authorities. His discontent was further fueled by the Saudi regime’s decision to permit U.S. forces to use Saudi territory as a base for military operations during the 1991 Gulf War — and to thereby “pollut[e]” the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad with the presence of “infidels.” In retribution for this perceived affront, bin Laden vowed to depose the Saudi royal family and to install an Islamic fundamentalist regime in its stead. His ultimate objective was to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
Growing increasingly uncomfortable with bin Laden’s militant rhetoric, the royal family expelled the al Qaeda leader from their country in 1991. For the next five years, bin Laden headquartered his operations in Sudan, where, with the help of his Sudanese hosts as well as Iran, he established important connections and collaborations with other terror groups. Most notably, bin Laden played a role in the 1992 bombings of two hotels in Yemen; he maintained a safe-house in Pakistan for Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing; he gave financial support to Omar Abdel Rahman, who was also convicted for playing a role in the WTC bombing; he gave massive assistance to Somali militias whose efforts would eventually force the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1994; and he was involved in a 1995 assassination plot against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
In 1996 Mansoor Ijaz, a Muslim-American businessman and a supporter of President Bill Clinton, opened an unofficial diplomatic channel between the Sudanese government and the Clinton administration, whose State Department had recently accused Sudan of harboring terrorists and had described bin Laden as “the greatest single financier of terrorist projects in the world.” Said Ijaz:
“[Sudanese] President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who wanted terrorism sanctions against Sudan lifted, offered the arrest and extradition of bin Laden and detailed intelligence data about the global networks constructed by Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, Iran’s Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas. Among the members of these networks were … two hijackers who [would later pilot] commercial airliners into the World Trade Center [on 9/11]. The silence of the Clinton administration in responding to these offers was deafening.”
According to a London Sunday Times account based on a Clinton administration source, this was one of three separate occasions when President Clinton had an opportunity to seize bin Laden but chose not to. Responsibility for those decisions to turn down access to the al Qaeda kingpin, said the Times, “went to the very top of the White House.”
Ijaz reported further that in May 1996 “the Sudanese capitulated to U.S. pressure and asked bin Laden to leave, despite their feeling that he could be monitored better in Sudan than elsewhere.” Thus bin Laden relocated to Afghanistan, where he was welcomed as an honored “guest” by the brutal, authoritarian Taliban regime, and where he promptly began to escalate his anti-American rhetoric. In a July 1996 interview with the Independent, bin Laden praised a 1995 truck-bomb attack in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia that had killed 19 U.S. servicemen as “the beginning of war between Muslims and the United States.” Though he did not take responsibility for the bombing, he noted that “not long ago, I gave advice to the Americans to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia.”
On August 23, 1996, bin Laden issued a landmark fatwa, or religious edict, entitled “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” First published in Al Quds Al Arabi, a London-based newspaper, this fatwa declared that “the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators”; it derided the Saudi government for its “inability … to protect the country” from the presence of “the American crusader forces”; it stated that there was “no more important duty [for Muslims] than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land”; it called for a combination of “economical [sic] boycotting” and “terrorizing” to be directed against U.S. interests; and it urged Muslims to “slay the idolaters where ever you find them, and take them captives [sic] and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush.”
On February 23, 1998, bin Laden and several leading Muslim militants announced the formation of a coalition called the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders. The coalition’s member groups included al Qaeda, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Group, and organizations engaged in Kashmir and Bangladesh. Its council (shura) members, led by bin Laden, signed a fatwa — published, again, in Al Quds Al Arabi — which accused the United States of such transgressions as “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula”; plundering [Arabia’s] riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, [and] terrorizing its neighbors”; conspiring “to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there”; and issuing “a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.” “On that basis, and in compliance with Allah’s order,” wrote bin Laden and his comrades, “we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: 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.”
After the foregoing fatwa had been issued, bin Laden helped mastermind high-profile attacks like the August 7, 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (killing a combined 224 people); the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen (which killed 17 American sailors); and, most famously, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Responding to 9/11 with military force, the United States quickly overthrew the Taliban regime which had given bin Laden a safe haven in Afghanistan. A low-grade conflict dragged on for years afterward, however. Throughout that conflict, bin Laden remained in hiding; his precise whereabouts were unknown, though the intelligence community’s general consensus was that the terror leader was likely in a remote region somewhere near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He occasionally released audio or video tapes (aired by the Al Jazeera broadcast network) praising and encouraging further strikes against American interests in various places. “I have sworn to only live free,” said bin Laden in one such audiotape. “Even if I find bitter the taste of death, I don’t want to die humiliated or deceived…. The jihad is continuing with strength …”
A key development in the search for the elusive bin Laden occurred in 2007, when two Guantanamo Bay detainees — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi — were shipped to an “extraordinary rendition” site in Eastern Europe where they were waterboarded. As a direct result of that waterboarding, these men provided U.S. officials with the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden’s most trusted personal couriers. The informants indicated that the courier in question might be living with, and protecting, the al Qaeda leader. Proceeding from that tip, U.S. intelligence officials painstakingly set out to locate the courier. In August 2010 they finally succeeded in tracing him to a three-story residence in Abbottabad, an affluent suburb about 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan. Further surveillance suggested that bin Laden himself was also living there.
Late on the night of May 1, 2011, forty U.S. Navy SEALS raided the Abbottabad residence, found bin Laden therein, and fatally shot him in the face. Soon after bin Laden’s death, U.S. military personnel washed his body, wrapped it in a white sheet, and gave him a religious Islamic funeral on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. Then they buried bin Laden at sea at 2 a.m. local time on May 2.