He lives a life fired by fury and faith
-- why terror's $250 million man loathes the U.S.
BY LISA BEYER
Things might have turned out differently for Osama bin Laden and for the denizens of southern Manhattan if the tall, thin, soft-spoken 44-year-old hadn't been born rich, or if he'd been born rich but not a second-rank Saudi. It might have been another story if, while studying engineering in college, the young man had drawn a different teacher for Islamic Studies rather than a charismatic Palestinian lecturer who fired his religious fervor. Things might have been different if the Soviet Union hadn't invaded Afghanistan, if Saddam Hussein hadn't stolen Kuwait, or if U.S. forces hadn't retreated so hastily after a beating in Somalia, giving bin Laden the idea that Americans are cowards who can be defeated easily.
Of course, Osama bin Laden wouldn't buy any of that. For him, life is preordained, written in advance by God, who in bin Laden's view must have delighted in the deaths of all those infidels in Manhattan last week. Still, those are among the seminal details that shaped the man U.S. officials believe to be not only capable but also guilty of one of the worst single massacres of civilians since Hitler's camps were shut down. How does any one man, and an intelligent man, come to be so angry? And so callous? Bin Laden has considered himself at war with the U.S. for years, even if the U.S. is getting there only now. Still, how does one man come to be so comfortably certain in the face of responsibility for so many devoured lives?
Last week's deadly operation took planning, patience, money, cool, stealth and extraordinarily committed operatives. It was a measure of the sophistication of the complex network of devout, high-spirited Islamic militants whom bin Laden has been assembling for almost 20 years. The big challenge here was will. Whence did the will grow to do something so atrocious?
In many ways, bin Laden's story is like that of many other Muslim extremists. There's the fanatical religiosity and the intemperate interpretation of Islam; the outrage over the dominance, particularly in the Arab world, of a secular, decadent U.S.; the indignation over U.S. support for Israel; the sense of grievance over the perceived humiliations of the Arab people at the hands of the West.
But bin Laden brings some particular, and collectively potent, elements to this equation. As a volunteer in the war that the Islamic rebels of Afghanistan fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, bin Laden had a front-row seat at an astonishing and empowering development: the defeat of a superpower by a gaggle of makeshift militias. Though the U.S., with billions of dollars in aid, helped the militias in their triumph, bin Laden soon turned on their benefactor. When U.S. troops in 1990 arrived in his sacred Saudi homeland to fight Saddam Hussein, bin Laden considered their infidel presence a desecration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace. He was inspired to take on a second superpower, and he was funded to do so: by a fortune inherited from his contractor father, by an empire of business enterprises, by the hubris that comes from being a rich kid whose commands had always been obeyed by nannies, butlers and maids.
Though bin Laden grew up wealthy, he wasn't entirely within the charmed circle in Saudi Arabia. As the son of immigrants, he didn't have quite the right credentials. His mother came from Syria by some reports, Palestine by others. His father moved to Saudi Arabia from neighboring Yemen, a desperately poor country looked down on by Saudis. If bin Laden felt any alienation or resentment about his status, it was good preparation for the break he would ultimately make with the privileged and bourgeois life that was laid out for him at birth.
The family's wealth came from the Saudi bin Laden Group, built by Osama's father Mohamed, who had four wives and 52 children. Mohamed had had the good luck of befriending the country's founder, Abdel Aziz al Saud. That relationship led to important government contracts such as refurbishing the shrines at Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest places, projects that moved young Osama deeply. Today the company, with 35,000 employees worldwide, is worth $5 billion. Osama got his share at 13 when his father died, leaving him $80 million, a fortune the son subsequently expanded to an estimated $250 million. At the King Abdel Aziz University in Jidda, bin Laden, according to associates, was greatly influenced by one of his teachers, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who was a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has played a large role in the resu rgence of Islamic religiosity. Bin Laden, who like most Saudis is a member of the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, had been pious from childhood, but his encounter with Azzam seemed to deepen his faith. What's more, through Azzam he became steeped not in the then popular ideology of pan-Arabism, which stresses the unity of all Arabs, but in a more ambitious pan-Islamicism, which reaches out to all the world's 1 billion Muslims. And so bin Laden at age 22 was quick to sign up to help fellow Muslims in Afghanistan fight the godless invading Soviets in 1979. For hard-liners like bin Laden, a non-Muslim infringement on Islamic territory goes beyond the political sin of oppression; it is an offense to God that must be corrected at all costs.
At first, bin Laden mainly raised money, especially among rich Gulf Arabs, for the Afghan rebels, the mujahedin. He also brought in some of the family bulldozers and was once famously using one to dig a trench when a Soviet helicopter strafed him but missed. In the early 1980s, Abdullah Azzam founded the Maktab al Khidmat, which later morphed into an organization called al-Qaeda (the base). It provided logistical help and channeled foreign assistance to the mujahedin. Bin Laden joined his old teacher and became the group's chief financier and a major recruiter of the so-called Arab Afghans, the legions of young Arabs who left their homes in places like Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia to join the mujahedin. He was instrumental in building the training camps that prepared them to fight. Bin Laden saw combat too; how much is in dispute.
During the same years, the CIA, intent on seeing a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, was also funneling money and arms to the mujahedin. Milton Bearden, who ran the covert program during its peak years 1986 to 1989 says the CIA had no direct dealings with bin Laden. But U.S. officials acknowledge that some of the aid probably ended up with bin Laden's group anyway.
In 1989, the exhausted Soviets finally quit Afghanistan. With his mentor Azzam dead at the hands of an assassin and his job seemingly done, bin Laden went home to Jidda. The war had stiffened him. He became increasingly indignant over the corruption of th e Saudi regime and what he considered its insufficient piety. His outrage boiled over in 1990. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, bin Laden informed the royal family that he and his Arab Afghans were prepared to defend the kingdom. The offer was spurned. Instead, the Saudis invited in U.S. troops for the first time ever. Like many other Muslims, bin Laden was offended by the Army's presence, with its Christian and Jewish soldiers, its rock music, its women who drove and wore p ants. Saudi Arabia has a singular place among Islamic countries as the cradle of Islam and as home to Mecca and Medina, which are barred to non-Muslims.
When bin Laden began to write treatises against the Saudi regime, King Fahd had him confined to Jidda. So bin Laden fled the country, winding up in Sudan. That country was by then under the control of radical Muslims headed by Hassan al-Turabi, a cleric bin Laden had met in Afghanistan who had impressed him with the need to overthrow the secular regimes in the Arab world and install purely Islamic governments. Bin Laden would go on to marry al-Turabi's niece. Eventually the Saudis, troubled by bin Laden's growing extremism, revoked his citizenship. His family renounced him as well. After relatives visited him in Sudan to exhort him to stop agitating against Fahd's regime, he told a reporter, he apologized to them because he knew they'd been forced to do it. In Sudan, bin Laden established a variety of businesses, building a major road, producing sunflower seeds, exporting goatskins. But he was seething. He was also gathering around him many of the old Arab Afghans who, like him, returning home after the war, faced suspicion from, if not detention by, their governments.
In 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers, part of a contingent sent on a humanitarian mission to famine-struck Somalia, were murdered by street fighters in Mogadishu. Bin Laden later claimed that some of the Arab Afghans were involved. The main thing to bin Laden, however, was the horrified American reaction to the deaths. Within six months, the U.S. had withdrawn from Somalia. In interviews, bin Laden has said that his forces expected the Americans to be tough like the Soviets but instead found that they were "paper tigers" who "after a few blows ran in defeat."
Bin Laden began to think big. U.S. officials suspect he may have had a financial role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by a group of Egyptian radicals. This may have been bin Laden's first strike back at the entity he believed to be the sourc e of so much of his own and his people's trouble. That same year, U.S. officials now believe, bin Laden began shopping for a nuclear weapon, hoping to buy one on the Russian black market. When that failed, they say, he started experimenting with chemical warfare, perhaps even testing a device. Then, in 1995, a truck bombing of a military base in Riyadh killed five Americans and two Indians. Linking bin Laden to the attack, the U.S. along with the Saudis pressured the Sudanese to expel him. To his dismay, they did.
With his supporters, his three wives (he is rumored to have since added a fourth) and some 10 children, bin Laden moved again to Afghanistan. There he returned full time to jihad. This time, instead of importing holy warriors, he began to export them. He turned al-Qaeda into what some have called "a Ford Foundation" for Islamic terror organizations, building ties of varying strength to groups in at least a few dozen places. He brought their adherents to his camps in Afghanistan for training, then sent them back to Egypt, Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, the Philippines, Eritrea, Libya and Jordan. U.S. intelligence officials believe that bin Laden's camps have trained tens of thousands of fighters. Sometimes bin Laden sent his trainers out to, for instance, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, according to the State Department. As a result, U.S. officials believe bin Laden's group controls or influences about 3,000 to 5,000 guerrilla fighters or terrorists in a very loose organization around the world.
Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was arrested entering the U.S. from Canada in December 1999 with a carful of explosives, has told interrogators that his al-Qaeda curriculum included lessons in sabotage, urban warfare and explosives. He was trained to attack power grids, airports, railroads, hotels and military installations. Visitors to al-Qaeda camps say that students receive instruction not only in using intricate maps of U.S. cities and targeted venues but also in employing scale models of potential sites for strikes. A 180-page al-Qaeda manual offers advice to "sleepers" (agents sent overseas to await missions) on how to be inconspicuous: shave your beard, wear cologne, move to newly developed neighborhoods where residents don't know one another.
Bin Laden's far-flung business dealings have been a tremendous asset to his network. U.S. officials believe he has interests in agricultural companies, banking and investment firms, construction companies and import-export firms around the globe. Says a U .S. official: "This empire is useful for moving people, money, materials, providing cover." Though American authorities did break up two al-Qaeda fund-raising operations in the past year, they have been mostly unsuccessful in finding and freezing bin Laden's assets.
As he built his syndicate, bin Laden also became more open about what he was up to. In 1996 he issued a "Declaration of Jihad." His stated goals were to overthrow the Saudi regime and drive out U.S. forces. He expanded the target with another declaration in early 1998 stating that Muslims should kill Americans, civilians included, wherever they could find them. Later that year, his operatives used car bombs against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224, mostly Africans. Those blasts provoked a U.S. cruise-missile attack on an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan that missed bin Laden and only burnished his image as an authentic hero to many Muslims.
Bin Laden has spoken out against Israel, which he, like many Muslims, regards as an alien and aggressive presence on land belonging to Islam. Lately, he has lauded the current Palestinian uprising against Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian terri tories. But his main fixation remains the U.S. Officially, he is committed to preparing for a worldwide Islamic state, but for now he focuses on eradicating infidels from Islamic lands.
Bin Laden's precise place in the terror franchise he's associated with is somewhat nebulous. Certainly, he is its public face. But Ressam has told interrogators that bin Laden is only one of two or three chieftains in al-Qaeda. Many bin Laden watchers and even ex-associates have observed that bin Laden appears to be a simple fighter without a brilliant head for tactics. His lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who heads the Egyptian al Jihad, which took credit for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, is often mentioned as the brains behind the operations. U.S. federal prosecutors have asserted in court filings that al Jihad "effectively merged" with al-Qaeda in 1998. Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda's military commander, is a lso a powerful figure. He is said to be a former Egyptian policeman who joined the Arab Afghans in 1983. His daughter recently married bin Laden's eldest son Mohamed. Speculation that bin Laden is in poor health he sometimes walks with a cane and is rumored to have kidney problems has focused succession discussions on these two men.
It's not clear that any of the three key figures actually issues specific attack orders to adherents. Ressam told investigators the al-Qaeda operatives are rarely given detailed instructions. Rather, they are trained and then sent out to almost autonomous cells to act on their own, to plan attacks and raise their own funds, often using credit-card scams to load up on money, despite the Islamic prohibition against theft. Bin Laden, whose general practice is to praise terror attacks but disclaim any direct connection to them, has said, "Our job is to instigate."
If his current hosts, the radical Islamic Taliban regime in Afghanistan, are to be believed, that's about the maximum bin Laden can personally do now. Under heavy international pressure to give their guest up, the Taliban claims to have denied him phone and fax capabilities. (He had already quit using his satellite phone because its signal can be traced.) Bin Laden has been forced to rely on human messengers. He leads a spartan life; he no longer has a comfortable camp. U.S. officials believe he lives on the move, in a sturdy Japanese pickup truck, changing sleeping locations nightly to avoid attempts on his life.
He's still able to get out his message, though, through interviews and videotapes produced for his supporters. A tape of his son's wedding last January features bin Laden reading an ode he'd written to the bombing by his supporters of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, an attack that killed 17 service members. "The pieces of the bodies of the infidels were flying like dust particles," he sang. "If you had seen it with your own eyes, your heart would have been filled with joy." What would he say about the civilian men and women, the moms and dads, the children who died in New York City on Sept. 11? He might say, as he said to ABC News in 1998, "In today's wars, there are no morals. We believe the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans. We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets."
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