The Most Wanted Face of Terrorism

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Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Sunday, was a son of the Saudi elite whose radical, violent campaign to recreate a seventh-century Muslim empire redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.

With the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Bin Laden was elevated to the realm of evil in the American imagination once reserved for dictators like Hitler and Stalin. He was a new national enemy, his face on wanted posters, gloating on videotapes, taunting the United States and Western civilization.

“Do you want Bin Laden dead?” a reporter asked President George W. Bush six days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I want him — I want justice,” the president answered. “And there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”

It took nearly a decade before that quest finally ended in Pakistan with the death of Bin Laden during a confrontation with American forces, who attacked a compound where officials said he had been hiding.

The manhunt was punctuated by a December 2001 battle at an Afghan mountain redoubt called Tora Bora, near the border with Pakistan, where Bin Laden and his allies were hiding. Despite days of pounding by American bombers, Bin Laden escaped. For more than nine years afterward, he remained an elusive, shadowy figure frustratingly beyond the grasp of his pursuers and thought to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan and plotting new attacks.

Long before, he had become a hero in much of the Islamic world, as much a myth as a man — what a longtime C.I.A. officer called “the North Star” of global terrorism. He had united disparate militant groups, from Egypt to Chechnya, from Yemen to the Philippines, under the banner of Al Qaeda and his ideal of a borderless brotherhood of radical Islam.

Terrorism before Bin Laden was often state-sponsored, but he was a terrorist who had sponsored a state. For five years, 1996 to 2001, he paid for the protection of the Taliban, then the rulers of Afghanistan. He bought the time and the freedom to make Al Qaeda — which means “the base” — a multinational enterprise to export terror around the globe.

For years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the name of Al Qaeda and the fame of Bin Laden spread like a 21st-century political plague. Groups calling themselves Al Qaeda, or acting in the name of its cause, attacked American troops in Iraq, bombed tourist spots in Bali and blew up passenger trains in Spain.

To this day, the precise reach of his power remains unknown: how many members Al Qaeda could truly count on; how many countries its cells had penetrated; and whether, as Bin Laden boasted, he sought to arm Al Qaeda with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

He waged holy war with distinctly modern methods. He sent fatwas — religious decrees — by fax and declared war on Americans in an e-mail beamed by satellite around the world. Qaeda members kept bomb-making manuals on CD and communicated with encrypted memos on laptops, leading one American official to declare that Bin Laden possessed better communications technology than the United States. He railed against globalization, even as his agents in Europe and North America took advantage of a globalized world to carry out their attacks, insinuating themselves into the very Western culture he despised.

He styled himself a Muslim ascetic, a billionaire’s son who gave up a life of privilege for the cause. But he was media savvy and acutely image conscious; before a CNN crew that interviewed him in 1997 was allowed to leave, his media advisers insisted on editing out unflattering shots. He summoned reporters to a cave in Afghanistan when he needed to get his message out, but like the most controlling of C.E.O.’s he insisted on receiving written questions in advance.

His reedy voice seemed to belie the warrior image he cultivated, a man whose constant companion was a Kalashnikov rifle that he boasted he had taken from a Russian soldier he had killed. The world’s most threatening terrorist, he was also known to submit to frequent dressings down by his mother. While he built his reputation on his combat experience against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even some of his supporters questioned whether he had actually fought.

And though he claimed to follow the purest form of Islam, many scholars insisted that he was glossing over the faith’s edicts against killing innocents and civilians. Islam draws boundaries on where and why holy war can be waged; Bin Laden declared the entire world fair territory.

Yet it was the United States, Bin Laden insisted, that was guilty of a double standard.

“It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this,” he told CNN in the 1997 interview. “If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists. When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation, the U.S. says they are terrorists. Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel. At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.”

The Turning Point

For Bin Laden, as for the United States, the turning point came in 1989, with the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

For the United States, which had supported the Afghan resistance with billions of dollars in arms and ammunition, that defeat marked the beginning of the end of the cold war and the birth of a new world order.

Bin Laden, who had supported the resistance with money, construction equipment and housing, saw the retreat of the Soviets as an affirmation of Muslim power and an opportunity to recreate Islamic political power and topple infidel governments through jihad, or holy war.

He declared to an interviewer, “I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.”

In its place, he built his own legend, modeling himself after the Prophet Muhammad, who in the seventh century led the Muslim people to rout the infidels, or nonbelievers, from North Africa and the Middle East. As the Koran had been revealed to Muhammad amid intense persecution, Bin Laden saw his own expulsions during the 1990s — from Saudi Arabia and then Sudan — as affirmation of himself as a chosen one.

In his vision, he would be the “emir,” or prince, in a restoration of the khalifa, a political empire extending from Afghanistan across the globe. “These countries belong to Islam,” he told the same interviewer in 1998, “not the rulers.”

Al Qaeda became the infrastructure for his dream. Under it, Bin Laden created a web of businesses — some legitimate, some less so — to obtain and move the weapons, chemicals and money he needed. He created training camps for his foot soldiers, a media office to spread his word, and even “shuras,” or councils, to approve his military plans and his fatwas.

Through the ’90s, Al Qaeda evolved into a far-flung and loosely connected network of symbiotic relationships: Bin Laden gave affiliated terrorist groups money, training and expertise; they gave him operational cover and a furthering of his cause. Perhaps the most important of those alliances was with the Taliban, who rose to power in Afghanistan largely on the strength of Bin Laden’s aid, and in turn provided him refuge and a launching pad for holy war.

Long before Sept. 11, though the evidentiary trails were often thin, American officials considered Bin Laden at least in part responsible for the killing of American soldiers in Somalia and in Saudi Arabia; the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993; the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; and a foiled plot to hijack a dozen jets, crash a plane into the C.I.A. headquarters and kill President Bill Clinton.

In 1996, the officials described Bin Laden as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremism in the world.” But he was thought at the time to be primarily a financier of terrorism, not someone capable of orchestrating international terrorist plots. Yet when the United States put out a list of the most wanted terrorists in 1997, neither Bin Laden nor Al Qaeda was on it.

Bin Laden, however, demanded to be noticed. In February 1998, he declared it the duty of every Muslim to “kill Americans wherever they are found.” After the bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa in August 1998, President Clinton declared Bin Laden “Public Enemy No. 1.”

The C.I.A. spent much of the next three years hunting Bin Laden. The goal was to capture him with recruited Afghan agents or to kill him with a precision-guided missile, according to the 2004 report of the 9/11 Commission and the memoirs of George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence from July 1997 to July 2004.

The intelligence was never good enough to pull the trigger. By the summer of 2001, the C.I.A. was convinced that Al Qaeda was on the verge of a spectacular attack. But no one knew where or when it would come.

The Early Life

By accounts of people close to the family, Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son and 17th child, among 50 or more, of his father.

His father, Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden, had immigrated to what would soon become Saudi Arabia in 1931 from the family’s ancestral village in a conservative province of southern Yemen. He found work in Jidda as a porter to the pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Mecca; years later, when he would own the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia, he displayed his porter’s bag in the main reception room of his palace as a reminder of his humble origins.

According to family friends, the Bin Laden family’s rise began with a risk — when the father offered to build a palace for King Saud in the 1950s for far less than the lowest bid. By the 1960s he had ingratiated himself so well with the Saudi royal family that King Faisal decreed that all construction projects be awarded to the Bin Laden group. When the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was set on fire by a deranged tourist in 1969, the senior Bin Laden was chosen to rebuild it. Soon afterward, he was chosen to refurbish the mosques at Mecca and Medina as well. In interviews years later, Osama bin Laden would recall proudly that his father had sometimes prayed in all three holy places in one day.

His father was a devout Muslim who welcomed pilgrims and clergy into his home. He required all his children to work for the family company, meaning that Osama spent summers working on road projects. The elder Bin Laden died in a plane crash when Osama was 10.

The siblings each inherited millions — the precise amount was a matter of some debate — and led a life of near-royalty. Osama — the name means “young lion” — grew up playing with Saudi princes and had his own stable of horses by age 15.

But some people close to the family paint a portrait of Bin Laden as a misfit. His mother, the last of his father’s four wives, was from Syria, the only one of the wives not from Saudi Arabia. The elder Bin Laden had met her on a vacation, and Osama was their only child. Within the family, she was said to be known as “the slave” and Osama “the slave child.”

Within the Saudi elite, it was rare to have both parents born outside the kingdom. In a profile of Osama bin Laden in The New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver quoted a family friend who suggested that he had felt alienated in a culture that so obsessed over lineage, saying: “It must have been difficult for him, Osama was almost a double outsider. His paternal roots are in Yemen, and within the family, his mother was a double outsider as well — she was neither Saudi nor Yemeni but Syrian.”

According to one of his brothers, Osama was the only one of the Bin Laden children who never traveled abroad to study. A biography of Bin Laden, provided to the PBS television program “Frontline” by an unidentified family friend, asserted that Bin Laden never traveled outside the Middle East.

That lack of exposure to Western culture would prove a crucial distinction; the other siblings went on to lead lives that would not be unfamiliar to most Americans. They took over the family business, estimated to be worth billions, distributing Snapple drinks, Volkswagens and Disney products across the Middle East. On Sept. 11, 2001, several Bin Laden siblings were living in the United States.

Bin Laden had been educated — and, indeed, steeped, as many Saudi children are — in Wahhabism, the puritanical, ardently anti-Western strain of Islam. Even years later, he so despised the Saudi ruling family’s coziness with Western nations that he refused to refer to Saudi Arabia by its modern name, instead calling it “the Country of the Two Holy Places.”

Newspapers have quoted anonymous sources — particularly, an unidentified Lebanese barber — about a wild period of drinking and womanizing in Bin Laden’s life. But by most accounts he was devout and quiet, marrying a relative, the first of his four wives, at age 17.

Soon afterward, he began earning a degree at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda. It was there that he shaped his militancy. He became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamic radicals who believed that much of the Muslim world, including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, lived as infidels, in violation of the true meaning of the Koran.

And he fell under the influence of two Islamic scholars: Muhammad Quttub and Abdullah Azzam, whose ideas would become the underpinnings for Al Qaeda. Mr. Azzam became a mentor to the young Bin Laden. Jihad was the responsibility of all Muslims, he taught, until the lands once held by Islam were reclaimed. His motto: “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogue.”

The Middle East was becoming increasingly unsettled in 1979, when Bin Laden was at the university. In Iran, Shiite Muslims mounted an Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah and began to make the United States a target. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. And as the year ended, Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan.

Bin Laden arrived in Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan within two weeks of the occupation. He said later that he had been asked to go by Saudi officials, who were eager to support the resistance movement. In his book “Taliban,” the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said that the Saudis had originally hoped that a member of the royal family might serve as an inspirational leader in Afghanistan, but that they settled on Bin Laden as the next closest thing when no princes volunteered.

You can read the full story on: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/02/world/02osama-bin-laden-obituary.html?pagewanted=3&hp