Osama bin Laden, 54; Al Qaeda leader and mastermind of Sept. 11 attacks

Globe Staff / May 2, 2011

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Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, was killed in a firefight with US forces outside Islamabad, Pakistan, early Monday. The founder and spiritual leader of Al Qaeda was 54.

A scion of a Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden rose through the ranks of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan before founding Al Qaeda, the worldwide Islamic militant movement that has been the focus of US military and intelligence action from Afghanistan to Indonesia to Somalia.

Bin Laden's Al Qaeda came to represent an international call to arms by militant Muslims to carry out jihad, or "holy war," against the United States and the West. Security experts say that Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for "The Base," will remain long past the man who built it.

"He franchised the idea of terrorism directed at America and the franchises are now in every corner of the Muslim world," said Milt Bearden, the CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986-1989 when the agency covertly backed the "mujahideen" in Afghanistan in their fight to oust Soviet forces.

"He will be remembered as an ignition key for a great Islamic reawakening, as he would call it, which became a call to confront the West. It is a struggle that will continue long after his death," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the St. Andrew's University Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of London-based Al-Quds Al Arabi, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996 and developed deep sources inside Al Qaeda, said, "Osama bin Laden is the David of the Arab world who challenged the American Goliath."

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks - in which Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial planes and crash them into the World Trade Center's twin towers, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people - bin Laden was seen as the prime suspect.

Evidence mounted in the following weeks that a Qaeda cell out of Hamburg, Germany - 19 men in all, 15 of them Saudis - had coordinated the attack.

The United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to crush the fundamentalist Taliban regime that had provided sanctuary to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But the 6-foot-4-inch bin Laden managed to evade the US air strikes and the Special Forces troops it put on the ground to root out the terrorist organization inside Afghanistan.

For the five years that followed, bin Laden continually eluded an international manhunt that was backed by the Bush administration's unprecedented bounty of $25 million for his capture - dead or alive.

His bearded face was everywhere - on the US military's air-dropped leaflets proclaiming the reward and on the Arabic satellite channels that endlessly broadcast his videotaped statements praising the Sept. 11 attack and encouraging more such actions.

A towering figure with brooding features, bin Laden could be seen on posters and T-shirts in the more impoverished and militant corners of the Arab world. He was portrayed as a folk hero from the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza to the remote towns in Saudi Arabia, where the puritanical Wahabi sect of Islam flourishes.

But even if bin Laden's image was everywhere, the man was nowhere to be found. He frustrated US spies and Special Forces who spent years trying to track his movements through a network of caves and tunnels in the remote tribal areas of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

The ongoing hunt seemed to only enhance bin Laden's legend as a voice of violent resistance through terror to what so many people in the Arab world see as Washington's imperial ambitions for oil in the Middle East and its unwavering support of Israel.

Bin Laden's anti-American message tapped into a deep yearning in some parts of the Muslim world to confront more secular Western societies, as well as the corrupt regimes and royal families the United States backs in the Middle East.

Bin Laden was born March 10, 1957, in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. His father, Mohammed bin Laden, who hailed from the unforgiving terrain of neighboring Yemen, was a legendary construction magnate. As a boy, bin Laden grew up in a wealthy family, on the fringes of the royal court in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, the father, had endeared himself to King Saud in the early 1950s and built a strong relationship with Saud's brother, Prince Faisal. Mohammed bin Laden's company eventually became known as "the king's private contractor."

A devout man, Mohammed was given the honor of renovating and repairing three of Islam's holiest sites - the mosques in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Al Aqsa in Jerusalem.

Osama - the name means "young lion" - was the 17th son of Mohammed, who sired more than 50 children with at least five wives. By many accounts he was doted upon by his mother, his father's youngest wife, who was of Syrian descent.

Mohammed bin Laden died in a plane crashed when Osama was 10. But Osama came of age surrounded by brothers and uncles and cousins who ran the family's construction empire.

The bin Laden family developed close ties with the United States, where several relatives resided in New Jersey and in the Boston area. Harvard University at one point had a fellowship in Islamic architecture in the family's name. The family's long-time connections to the Bush political dynasty was famously documented in books and films in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

For the young Osama bin Laden, 1979 was a pivotal year in the development of his ideology. In January, the pro-Western Shah of Iran went into exile. The next month the Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to put his blessing on a revolutionary theocracy.

And in November 1979, radical Islamic students stormed the US Embassy and took 62 Americans hostage.

In December of the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in a Cold War-era operation that a few years later would draw bin Laden into action.

At this time of great ferment, bin Laden was attending King Abdul Aziz University in the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah. It was here that he was first exposed to the ideas of militant clerics who preached fiery rhetoric and wrote pamphlets on the call to jihad, the Arabic word for "holy war." Among the clerics were Abdullah Azzam and Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb, the author of one of the seminal tracts of the jihadist movement.

In the early 1980s, bin Laden headed to Pakistan to meet with the Afghan resistance leaders and answered the call to jihad against the Soviet Union's military occupation of Afghanistan, a war in which more than a million Afghans were killed.

Bin Laden arrived with cash and experience in demolition and operating heavy machinery, skills acquired working for his father's construction company. He traveled between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan raising money for the Afghan resistance.

He brought into the conflict hundreds of tons of construction machinery - from bulldozers and dump trucks to tunneling equipment - to build roads and the vast network of bunkers and tunnels. These would become subterranean command centers for the mujahideen, and later hideouts for bin Laden when he widened the jihad against the United States.

In 1984, he established a kind of dormitory in Peshawar resistance fighters on their way into Afghanistan. It was there that he made the contacts with fighters from disparate Islamic militant movements fighting against oppressive rulers throughout the Arab world.

Bearden, the former CIA station chief, says bin Laden was known at this time as "more of a fund-raiser than a fighter." He said he never met bin Laden during those years, but that he was remembered for fighting in few battles, and only one of any significance, which was in the Paktia province not far from the training camps of Khost that the US military would strike in 1998.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia.

In 1990, he became disillusioned with the Saudi decision to allow US troops - infidels, as he saw them - onto the hallowed ground of Mecca and Medina. The troops were amassing in Saudi to stage the US-led war to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Saddam Hussein had invaded in August of that year.

The presence of the US forces - with their Christian ethos and a culture in which women in tank-tops drove Humvees - offended bin Laden and other Wahabis.

At this point, Osama began openly talking about the illegitimacy of the House of Saud and about the need for Muslims to fight America to force it to leave Saudi Arabia. His fiery rhetoric resulted in him being expelled from his homeland in the end of 1991. Many members of his family renounced him, and he left for Sudan.

In the early 1990s in Khartoum, bin Laden began to reconnect with guerrillas from the Afghan war. He surrounded himself with dozens of these fighters and began to espouse a movement that sought to redirect their energies away from their disparate - and ultimately futile - movements against dictatorship and kingdoms propped up by the United States. Bin Laden called instead for a terrorist war that targeted what he saw as the source of oppression of Muslims throughout the world - the United States.

One of Al Qaeda's earliest known strikes on an American target, bin Laden boasted in a 1997 interview with CNN, was the ambush by his fighters on more than a dozen American soldiers stationed in Somalia. Several paragraphs of the indictment against bin Laden by the US government refer to this 1993 attack.

In the fall of 1993, bin Laden could be seen in public in Khartoum. In a flowing traditional shalwar kameez and turban, he would walk from his home down a dusty road to enter a neighboring mosque for prayers. He seemed focus, graceful, almost serene.

Bin Laden had used Sudan to set up a network of businesses, according to Peter L. Bergen, author of "Holy War Inc. - Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."

These corporate interests became the financial basis for the organization of Al Qaeda, which bin Laden was then methodically building. Al Qaeda, Bergen writes, was "as globally minded as any other international company."

In Sudan, bin Laden also cemented his relationship with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian physician and leader within the Islamic militant movement that sought to topple the US-backed Egyptian government and replace it with a theocracy grounded in sharia, or Islamic law.

Zawahri, 53, would become a pivotal figure in shaping the ideas of bin Laden and the organization of Al Qaeda, according to Montasser Al-Zayyat, an Egyptian human rights lawyer and expert on Islamic militant movements. Zayyat, the author of "The Road to Al Qaeda: The story of bin Laden's Right-Hand Man," met Zawahri in the early 1980s when they were both jailed and tortured in the notoriously brutal Egyptian prison system for their activism within the Islamic movement.

"Bin Laden had the money and Zawahri had the ideas," Zayyat said. "Their relationship goes very deep. To understand Al Qaeda you need to understand how it grows out of Zawahri's frustration with his movement in Egypt and bin Laden's frustration with his movement in Saudi Arabia.

"Al Qaeda is formed at the point at which the two men agree to work together in one direction against the United States, and it was Zawahri who brought bin Laden to that understanding," he said.

In November of 1995, Al Qaeda escalated its attack on America by bombing the National Guard communications center in Riyadh, where American troops trained Saudi soldiers, killing five Americans.

In early 1996, the United States pressured Sudan to deport bin Laden. As a result, he and Zawahri returned to Afghanistan in May 1996.

Bin Laden was accompanied by his three wives and an uncertain number of children.

For bin Laden, the return to Afghanistan was something akin to a spiritual pilgrimage back to where his holy war had begun and where he - along with Zawahri - was determined to open a new front.

In June 1996, Al Qaeda bombed the Khobar Towers dormitory in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. US intelligence officials learned that Zawahri called bin Laden to congratulate him on the success of the operation.

From their base in the rugged hinterlands of Afghanistan, Western intelligence officials believe that Zawahri's training as a physician was also a crucial aspect of the two men's co-dependency. Zawahri, US security officials say, provided crucial medical attention to bin Laden who was believed to need regular dialysis treatment and, by some accounts, to have required medication for a heart condition.

On Aug. 23, 1996, bin Laden penned an edict titled "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." It outlined his indictment of the House of Saud and his case for war against America. "There is no higher priority, after faith, than pushing back the American-Israeli alliance," it read.

And in February 1998, the two men put their signatures - along with other militant leaders from more than a dozen nations - on yet another document. This epistle announced the formation of the "International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders." It issued a fatwa, or religious decree, for all Muslims "to kill the Americans and their allies - civilian and military."

In August of that year, Al Qaeda escalated its holy war with the simultaneous bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223 people and injuring 5,000. On Aug. 20, President Clinton ordered an attack on bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. Despite a storm of 79 Tomahawk cruise missiles, the air strikes did little to damage the infrastructure, and bin Laden was unscathed in the attack.

On Oct. 12, 2000, Al Qaeda struck yet again, this time on the Navy destroyer the USS Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

By now, Al Qaeda was methodically planning its most sophisticated and dramatic attack against the United States. The movement had tapped into cyberspace as a primary tool.

The Internet allows Al Qaeda to shape and disseminate political propaganda, gather intelligence with stealth, communicate and coordinate with anonymity, and silently build a broad base of support in a way that was virtually untraceable.

The Sept. 11 plot centered around a "sleeper cell" in Hamburg, Germany, headed by the Egyptian Mohammed Atta. Using the Internet and traveling constantly, Atta recruited the 19 young men who carried out the suicide hijackings of four commercial airliners.

The Sept. 11 attacks dramatically revealed the level of sophistication that Al Qaeda had reached. Rohan Gunaratna, author of six books on Islamic militancy, said: "Al Qaeda has moved terrorism beyond the status of a technique of protest and resistance and turned it into a global instrument with which to compete with and challenge Western influence in the Muslim world."

In the aftermath of the attacks, bin Laden seemed to take on the role of a poet in this war, a kind of "sha'ir," an Arabic word for the one who was the voice of the tribe, the elder, the defender. On an audiotape distributed in 2003, bin Laden shared one of these poems, that sought to invoke the ancient verse of 8th century Islam.

"I am leading my horse and casting him and myself this year into one of the battles..... O Lord, when death arrives, let it not be upon a bier covered with green shrouds. Rather, let my grave be in the belly of a vulture, tranquil in the sky. .. I shall be a martyr resting among a group of young men whom death will overtake in a terrible ravine."