Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) was a Saudi-born religious fanatic who fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and later founded the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the 17th of 52 children to the same father. Bin Laden Senior was a Yemeni tribesman who had emigrated to oil-rich state, won favour with the Saudi royal family and became a billionaire through state-backed building and construction contracts.
Osama bin Laden was educated in economics and engineering, in preparation for taking over his father’s business. His main interest, however, was religion. Bin Laden was a devout Wahhabi Muslim, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam. At the age of 20, bin Laden completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. After this, he decided to devote his life and fortune to militant Islam.
Bin Laden was roused to action by the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. Unlike those in the West, he considered the Soviet invasion, not an act of political sabotage but an atheist attack on the people of Islam.
Outraged, bin Laden travelled to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he worked to organise and fund groups supplying the mujahideen resistance inside Afghanistan. One of these groups recruited Muslims from around the world to fight against the Soviets. These recruits were transported to Pakistan, where they were sent across the border into eastern Afghanistan.
During this period bin Laden’s groups allegedly benefited from equipment and training provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Bin Laden detested Western governments, however, and it is unlikely that he had any direct contact with American agents.
By late 1989, the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. Now without a cause, bin Laden decided to form a paramilitary group to advance his own brand of Islamic fundamentalism. The United States came into his sights for two reasons: Washington’s support for Israel and the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Mohammed.
Bin Laden and his group, now named al-Qaeda (‘the base), called for a holy war against Americans and their allies. In 1992, he was banished from Saudi Arabia and relocated to the African nation of Sudan. In mid-1996, international pressure forced bin Laden out of Sudan. He took refuge in southern Afghanistan, which by now was dominated by a fundamentalist Islamic group called the Taliban.
The September 11 attacks
Under the cover of the Taliban, bin Laden and his followers began planning attacks on American targets. In August 1998 his supporters bombed US embassies in the African nations of Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people. In October 2000, the destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, an attack that killed 19 American sailors.
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are best known for orchestrating a four-pronged attack on targets within the United States on September 11th 2001. Using hijacked civilian aircraft, bin Laden’s followers destroyed the World Trade Centre towers in New York City and caused significant damage to the Pentagon in Washington DC. Almost 3,000 people were killed.
The 9/11 attacks, as they became known, precipitated the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Pursued by the Americans, bin Laden took refuge, probably in mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. He continued to release written and visual propaganda, however, al-Qaeda was shattered by the US military intervention and rendered unable to launch further significant attacks.
Bin Laden was eventually located in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He was shot dead during a raid by US commandos in May 2011.