Osama bin Laden

Well-known today as the leader of al-Qaida and the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Osama bin Laden has become the personification of radical Islam.

Who is he?

(Arabic names do not have a direct English equivalent. I have seen his first name spelled Osama, Usama, and Ussamah, and his last name bin Laden or bin Ladin. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, most English-speaking media have settled on Osama bin Laden.)

Osama bin Laden was born around 1955 into a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, the 17th of 52 children of a Saudi construction magnate and his ten wives. He inherited $250 million.

Bin Laden became an Islamic fundamentalist and started to become active in Islamic groups in 1973.

As time went on, bin Laden developed his philosophy of uniting the Arab world into a single Islamic empire based on Islamic religious teachings. As a result, he began to target both existing Arab governments, whom he believed to be corrupt, and the non-Muslim "infidels" who had influence in the Arab world: the officially athiest Soviet Union, the predominately Christian West, Hindu India, and Jewish Israel.

Jihad, and enter The U.S.

When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden began to see military resistance as a religious obligation -- jihad (usually translated as "holy war" but more generally meaning "struggle").

Within a few days of the invasion he traveled to Afghanistan to support the mujahedeen, or Islamic holy warriors. Islamic advocates including bin Laden urged Muslims from around the world to come to Afghanistan for jihad.

Bin Laden used his wealth to fund the mujahedeen, establishing a military training camp in Afghanistan and funding arms purchases. Ironically, the United States was doing the same thing, so that they were both on the same side at this time. The name of Bin Laden's camp, al-Qaida ("The Base") became the name of his global efforts for jihad.

Bin Laden actually participated on several occasions in the fighting against the Soviets. By the end of the war in 1989, when the Soviets were forced to withdraw, bin Laden had become a national hero of Afghanistan. He returned to his native Saudi Arabia, and continued the al-Qaida organization to support opposition groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Breaking with the West

After the United States launched the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, and with the Soviet Union no longer a threat, bin Laden turned his attention to the West. In 1992, bin Laden issued a proclamation ordering the attack of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. In 1993, bin Laden-trained forces killed 18 U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia.

Exiled from his native Saudi Arabia in 1991, bin Laden moved to the Sudan, where he invested millions of dollars and offered jobs to the country's poor citizens. In 1994, the Saudi government withdrew his citizenship and froze his assets, and his family officially disowned him. In 1996, under pressure from foreign governments, Sudan expelled him, and he moved again to Afghanistan.

By 1995, U.S. officials linked bin Laden to the terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and began an intensive intelligence operation to disrupt his activities.

In 1996, bin Laden declared war against the United States.

By the end of the 1990s, Osama bin Laden was believed to have used al-Qaida to connect militant groups in more than sixty countries, including Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Jordan, Kashmir (India), Kenya, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, The Phillippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Yemen.

The escalation of terror

QUESTION: Does the State Department or the government have evidence that bin Laden is trying to acquire nuclear weapons?

MR. FOLEY: We've had long-standing concerns that bin Laden has undertaken efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction . . . Beyond that, I can't say in a public forum . . .

-- October 19, 1999 U.S. State Department press briefing

On August 7, 1998, two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa.

In November 1998, the United States announced a $5 million reward for his capture, as well as an indictment accusing him of being the "mastermind" behind the embassy bombings. The U.S. attacked bin Laden's Afghan hide-out and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with cruise missiles, but he survived.

In October 1999, the United Nations issued a 30-day deadline for Afghanistan to hand over bin Laden, or sanctions would be put into effect. On October 30, bin Laden announced through the Taliban his intention to leave Afghanistan, probably as a ruse to try to avert sanctions.

In December 1999, the United States issued a warning that bin Laden was planning a worldwide series of attacks on gatherings of U.S. citizens to celebrate the millennium. An Algerian native was arrested for smuggling bomb-making materials into Seattle, and an intense intelligence and security effort was likely the only reason the attacks did not occur at that time.

Frustrated by the disruption of the millennium attacks, bin Laden plotted an even more massive operation.

Provoking war

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, were the largest terrorist attacks in history.

I regret that I do not have time to add a section on the Sept. 11 attacks or the ensuing "war on terror." I hope to be able to do so at a later date.

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