Osama bin Laden, who used a family inheritance to build the global terrorist network that killed almost 3,000 people in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks targeting New York and Washington, has died in a U.S. military action, according to President Barack Obama.
The Saudi-born bin Laden, who helped found al-Qaeda in 1988 after fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan, was targeted in a compound in Pakistan. He was 54.
For the U.S. public, bin Laden was the face of terrorism. He appeared in videotapes threatening strikes against the West, including a message praising the Sept. 11 attacks as “divine blows” against America. The attacks with hijacked airliners prompted a national security initiative for commercial aviation that has altered air-travel for every American since then.
“He really was able to drive some parts of U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy in a major way,” said Thomas M. Sanderson, a deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. Bin Laden and his allies “generated a degree of hysteria in the United States, genuine fear and provided part of the cover for invading Iraq.”
Al-Qaeda has become a more dispersed organization in the past decade. Still, bin Laden’s demise may hamper the coordination of terrorist organizations and reduce recruitment by his network and other groups.
While attempts at additional large-scale terror attacks on the U.S. have failed since 9/11, al-Qaeda has been linked to strikes in other nations.
Attacks in Europe
A group claiming to be part of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombings of Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004, that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,500. In an audiotape broadcast in April 2004 by the al-Arabiya television network, a speaker identified as bin Laden called the Madrid bombings and the Sept. 11 attacks “your just returns.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant, claimed responsibility for the July 7, 2005, bombing on London’s transport system that killed 52 people, the city’s deadliest attack since World War II.
More recently, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day 2009 plot in which a Nigerian man was charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278 passengers as it approached Detroit.
Bin Laden was driven by his anger at the West, epitomized to him by U.S. influence in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. “What America is tasting today is something very little of what we have tasted for decades,” bin Laden said, a gun at his side, in taped comments broadcast by al-Jazeera TV minutes after a U.S.-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001.
Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaeda with money from a family inheritance and preached an extreme interpretation of Islam. He built a network spanning 60 countries including followers willing to commit suicide for the cause.
The U.S. commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks concluded that bin Laden’s focus on the wounded pride of Muslims won him “thousands of followers and some degree of approval from millions more.”
“He appeals to people disoriented by cyclonic change as they confront modernity and globalization,” the commission said in its final report.
For many Muslims, bin Laden was an underdog who fought a powerful infidel enemy.
“He was able to create a story, a narrative, that Islam was under attack by the West and its Arab allies and others,” Sanderson said.
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden was one of U.S. law enforcement’s most wanted, accused in connection with bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998, which killed 224 people. He also was linked to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.
New Operations Planned
According to the 9/11 commission, bin Laden was weighing ideas for new operations in 1999 when he received a proposal from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti-born engineer active for several years in planning jihadist attacks. His idea for an attack on the U.S. using commercial airplanes won bin Laden’s support.
The commission said Mohammed, during interrogations after his capture, told authorities that he, bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s military chief, Mohammed Atef, developed the list of targets for the operation. “According to KSM,” the commission wrote, using Mohammed’s initials, “bin Laden wanted to destroy the White House and the Pentagon, KSM wanted to strike the World Trade Center, and all of them wanted to hit the Capitol.”
On Sept. 11, two planes hijacked by al-Qaeda operatives struck and took down the two World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, and one struck the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers rebelled against the hijackers.
One week after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” The U.S. offered a reward of as much as $25 million for information leading to his capture. The reward was doubled in 2007.
The failure to capture or kill bin Laden tarnished Bush’s image during his two terms in office. Critics, including now- President Obama, said Bush created a distraction by ordering an invasion of Iraq in 2003 and should have committed more troops to capturing bin Laden, was in a mountain range near Pakistan during the war that toppled the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan.
‘Patient, Stubborn Adversary’
Obama entered office in January 2009 promising to beef up U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and root out bin Laden. Days before Obama’s inauguration, bin Laden warned that the new president would “inherit a long guerrilla war against a patient, stubborn adversary” in a recording released on an Islamist Web site.
Bin Laden criticized Obama six months later. In an audiotape aired on al-Jazeera as Obama began a tour of the Middle East, bin Laden said the president had adopted the same policies toward Muslims as his predecessor and that he and his administration were “sowing the seeds for revenge and hatred” against Americans.
On March 16, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing if he would try bin Laden in a civilian or a military court. Holder replied that bin Laden was likely to be killed instead of captured. Less than a week later, in an audiotape aired on al-Jazeera, bin Laden threatened to kill any captured Americans if the U.S. executes Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind captured in 2003.
Osama bin Laden was born on March 10, 1957, in Riyadh, the 17th child of Muhammad bin Laden, an immigrant from Yemen who helped found Saudi Binladin Group, a family construction business, in 1931.
Osama grew up wealthy as his father’s business became one of the kingdom’s largest construction companies, building roads and bridges, renovating mosques in Mecca and Medina and expanding into real estate, textiles, telecommunications and distribution.
In 1968, Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash, leaving his fortune to be split among his more than 50 children. Estimates of Osama bin Laden’s inheritance vary, although Forbes magazine estimated that he received $50 million.
Bin Laden studied management and economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He became interested in militant Islam as his education came to an end and a U.S.-supported guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan began in 1979.
The war in Afghanistan attracted as many as 30,000 men from about 50 countries, and bin Laden was among the first young Muslims who rushed to fight, according to testimony from the embassy bombing trial in New York.
Bin Laden wound up raising funds and recruiting for the war from Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the border with Afghanistan. There he used the family company to aid construction projects and helped set up the “Maktab al- Khidamat,” or services office, in the mid-1980s, which helped the young militants get travel papers and citizenship documents.
In 1988 bin Laden and Maktab al-Khidamat founder Abdullah Azzam established al-Qaeda -- Arabic for “the base” -- by recruiting fighters in camps in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.
Back in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden grew angrier at the U.S. after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to the stationing of U.S. troops in his country. He viewed that as an occupation of the spiritual center of Islam, the homeland of the prophet Mohammed and the site of the holy city Mecca, toward which devout Muslims turn in prayer five times each day.
Haven in Sudan
He left Saudi Arabia for Sudan, where he set up import- export, currency exchange, construction and agricultural businesses to finance his activities. Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship in 1994 because of his advocacy of terrorism. Sudan evicted him in 1996 under U.S. pressure, prompting him to shift most of his operation of some 20,000 terrorist trainees to Afghanistan, where the Taliban took power later in the year and gave him protection.
After the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, the U.S. attacked sites in Afghanistan and Sudan in a failed attempt to kill bin Laden, and the United Nations imposed sanctions on Afghanistan for refusing to extradite him in November 1999.
Bin Laden was quickly suspected of being behind the 9/11 attacks. Former President Bill Clinton, the target of a failed al-Qaeda assassination plot in the Philippines, told CNN’s Larry King in an interview in September 2002 that his first thought after the second plane struck the World Trade Center was that bin Laden was responsible.
Boast from Afghanistan
In a grainy, homemade videotape found in Afghanistan and released by the U.S. in December 2001, bin Laden told a Saudi sheik the New York attack was more devastating than he expected.
“We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy,” he said, according to the U.S. translation of the tape. “I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.”
The bearded, 160-pound (73-kilogram) fugitive, who stood at least 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimeters) tall and walked with a cane, was almost captured on several occasions during the manhunt that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to press reports.
Known under aliases including “The Prince,” “The Emir,” “The Director,” and “The Hajj,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bin Laden was believed to have spent much of his time on the run in rugged tribal territory along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistani officials said that bin Laden suffered from kidney problems and required dialysis when he was being sheltered by the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the pan Arab Al-Hayat newspaper reported.
In his final years, bin Laden consolidated power by combining with other Islamic extremist groups and recruiting more followers, and broadened his message to include avenging Iraqis hurt by UN sanctions and U.S. bombings, and Lebanese and Palestinians killed in conflicts with Israel.
“And to America,” he said in the tape broadcast in October 2001, “I say to it and to its people this: I swear, by God the Great, America will never dream, nor those who live in America will never taste security and safety unless we feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com