From businessman’s son to the face of terrorism

Wealthy Saudi transformed by hatred of the West

In an undated photo, Osama bin Laden spoke in Afghanistan, where he aided anti-Soviet resisters before founding Al Qaeda. In an undated photo, Osama bin Laden spoke in Afghanistan, where he aided anti-Soviet resisters before founding Al Qaeda. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)
By Charles M. Sennott
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2011

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He shattered a nation’s sense of self and security at the dawn of a new century, personified a network of terrorists intent on recreating an ancient Muslim kingdom from modernity’s ashes, and ignited a global response that continues to reshape the Near East today.

Osama bin Laden, the man behind the most devastating terrorist attack on the United States, was killed in a firefight with US forces outside Islamabad Sunday. The founder of Al Qaeda was 54.

“The world is safer,’’ President Obama said yesterday. “It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.’’

A scion of a Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden rose through the ranks of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan before founding Al Qaeda in 1988..

The terrorist network 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 to 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.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes, including two bound for the West Coast from Logan International Airport in Boston, and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

In all, about 3,000 people were killed, and bin Laden was the prime suspect.

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

The next month the United States, backing Afghan rebels, crushed the fundamentalist Taliban regime that had provided sanctuary to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But bin Laden managed to evade the US airstrikes and special forces on the ground trying to root out the terrorist organization inside Afghanistan.

For the next five years, bin Laden 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 plastered on leaflets proclaiming the reward and across Arabic satellite channels that continually broadcast his videotaped statements praising the Sept. 11 attack and encouraging more such actions.

A towering 6-foot-4 figure with brooding features, bin Laden could be seen on posters and T-shirts in the impoverished and militant corners of the Arab world. He was portrayed as a folk hero in the Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza and the remote towns in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where the puritanical Wahabi sect of Islam flourishes.

The image was everywhere; the man was nowhere to be found. He frustrated US spies and special forces by mastering 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 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.

Osama 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, Osama 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 crash 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.

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.

At the time, bin Laden was attending King Abdul Aziz University in the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah, where he was first exposed to militant clerics who preached fiery rhetoric and wrote pamphlets on the call to jihad. 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 a 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 for 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 Arabia 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 predominantly Christian ethos and a culture in which women in tank-tops drove Humvees — offended bin Laden and other Wahabis.

At this point, bin Laden 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 his being expelled from his homeland at 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.

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 wrote, 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, 59, 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 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.

Zawahri’s training as a physician was also a crucial aspect of the two men’s codependency, Western intelligence officials believe. 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.

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, 1998, President Clinton ordered an attack on bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. Despite a storm of 79 Tomahawk cruise missiles, the airstrikes 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 allowed 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 resistance, 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 eighth-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.’’

At ground zero in New York yesterday, the families of his victims offered their own parting thoughts.

“It’s good to see an evil person receive justice,’’ said Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son, Christian, a firefighter, was killed at the World Trade Center. “But it’s very bitter to realize that so many good people met a brutal and needless death at the hands of this monster.’’

Michael J. Bailey of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary, and material from the Washington Post also was used.