(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Osama bin Laden

{bin lah′-din, oh-sah′-mah}

Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, b. 1957?, is allegedly the mastermind of the Islamist terrorist network Al Qaeda (al-Qaida). This shadowy and loosely organized group is believed to have been responsible for the deadly September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States; it has also been implicated in numerous suicide bombings and other attacks. Bin Laden's wealth came from his Yemeni family's construction business in Saudi Arabia. He left that country for Afghanistan in 1979. In Afghanistan, he recruited and purchased equipment for guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation there in the 1980s. Bin Laden was supported in this endeavor by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; he may have received training from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. After the Soviet withdrawal, he and his followers redirected their anger against the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

Bin Laden's beliefs are founded on the teachings of Salafism, a stridently anti-Western form of Yemen. Salafism teaches that Muslims should engage in a modern jihad, or holy war, to eradicate the corrupt ways of the modern world. He founded his own terrorist group, Al Qaeda, in 1989. The group has recruited people to form terrorist "cells" throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. It works on its own and through various other radical Islamist organizations. Funds for its activities are raised through seemingly innocent front organizations throughout the world. Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991. In 1994 he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship after being charged with inciting fundamentalist opposition to the Saudi royal family. After leaving Saudi Arabia he first found sanctuary in Sudan. From 1996, he was sheltered in Afghanistan. He had close ties to the fundamentalist Taliban, which he provided with significant financial support. In return, the Taliban allowed him to establish training camps in Afghanistan. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 extremists were believed to have been taught such skills as bomb making and the use of chemical and biological weapons in these camps.

Bin Laden and his organization were soon linked to the world's deadliest terrorist attack—the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking of four U.S. commercial airliners. Two were flown into New York City's World Trade Center. A third flew into the Pentagonin Arlington, Va. The fourth, likely headed for the nation's capital, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania, apparently during a struggle between hijackers and passengers. In all, almost 3,000 people died. A defiant bin Laden subsequently released several videotapes calling for new assaults on the United States and its allies. In another tape he appeared to acknowledge complicity in the September 11 attacks. His statements fueled long-standing Muslim resentment of the United States in many parts of the world. They referred to "hot-button" issues such as the presence of U.S. military personnel ("infidels") in Saudi Arabia; the plight of Palestinian Arabs; the negative impact of international sanctions on Iraqi civilians; and the unpopularity of many U.S.-supported governments in the Middle East. They also raised concerns about the risk of casualties among innocent civilians during air strikes that U.S. and British forces launched on October 7 on targets in Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was attacked because it had refused to surrender bin Laden and his associates. When this regime swiftly collapsed, bin Laden was deprived of his main operating base. He also lost much of his funding. From hiding, he continued to periodically issue audiotapes and videotapes extolling subsequent terrorist acts by his followers in many parts of the world. Among these communications was a November 2002 audiotape praising a series of October 2002 terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Kuwait, Yemen, and Moscow.

It appeared, however, that bin Laden's network had become widely dispersed. The militants he had trained in Afghanistan returned to their native lands. The young local activists they trained and local groups sharing similar radical agendas received inspiration from bin Laden. Often, however, they planned and carried out terrorist attacks on their own initiative rather than under the direction of an effectively functioning central command. This was particularly true of the insurgency that developed in Iraq following the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 Iraq War. In that insurrection, bin Laden was largely eclipsed by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. bombing raid on June 7, 2006, and his bloody Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency waned. Much of the subsequent violence was linked to Iran, or to various domestic rivalries, rather than to Al Qaeda.)

In July 2005, British suicide bombers allegedly linked to Al Qaeda staged attacks on London's mass transit system in which more than 50 people died. By this time, at least two-thirds of bin Laden's known original top associates had been killed, captured, or dispersed. In addition, previous allegations that he was bankrolling current Al Qaeda activities, which were mostly low tech and relatively low cost, had been abandoned.

Nevertheless, bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remained at large. They were believed to be hiding in the mountainous border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. By 2008, supporters of bin Laden and the Taliban had retaken control of much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. It was unclear, however, what degree of control bin Laden still maintained over the planning of Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. The world network of international terrorism that he had helped to create had become increasingly complex. Bin Laden's purported goal of driving the United States out of the Muslim world was not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. Nor did most Muslims approve of replacing moderate governments in the Muslim world with fundamentalist states. Nevertheless, bin Laden's extremist beliefs found adherents among the disaffected, many of whom harbored ancient local grievances.

Further Reading:

Bergen, Peter L., Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2001) and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader (2006).

bin Laden, Osama, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, trans. by James Howarth, ed. by Bruce Lawrence (2005).

Coll, Steve, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008) and Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004).

Randal, Jonathan, Osama: The Making of a Terrorist (2004).

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