The life and times of Osama bin Laden

Profiling the world's most hated terrorist

The world's most hated terrorist

AFP/Getty Images

The compound was neither a mansion, nor a fortress; it was a prison. For months, maybe even years, the planet’s most-wanted man hid behind its high, razor-wire topped walls, trying to obscure his presence from spies, satellites and drones. The house had no phone or Internet connections. Garbage was burned in the courtyard. And afraid of being recognized simply by his tall, skinny frame, he could not even venture outdoors.

In the end, the first real contact Osama bin Laden had with the outside world since he fled Afghanistan in December 2001 came when a team of U.S. Navy Seals touched down at his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hiding spot Sunday. Forty minutes later, he was dead—shot through the head in a bedroom, his blood spreading across a shabby oriental carpet.

The 54-year-old’s death came as he had often predicted, from the barrel of an American gun. Perhaps he even welcomed it. “I’m fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God,” bin Laden once told Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a British-based Arabic language newspaper. “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us two,” he proclaimed on another occasion. And few, in the West at least, will term it anything but justice. Author of deadly bombings in East Africa and Yemen, the Saudi-born scion of a multi-millionaire construction magnate had been at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list since 1998. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, he dispatched teams of hijackers to fly passenger jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, murdering 2,933 people. (Forty more died when a fourth plane was brought down in a Pennsylvania field, short of another presumed Washington target.) The fires set that day still burn across the globe.

For a decade now, Osama bin Laden has been the object of our fascination and the repository of our fears. Academics and the press have parsed his hidey-hole communiqués looking for an ideology or explanation. Booksellers’ shelves are crammed with dozens of biographies and oral histories, purporting to deliver the “inside” story of his and al-Qaeda’s rise. Yet the motives, life and now death of a figure destined to go down as one of history’s greatest villains remain muddled.

Some accounts of the bedroom firefight say a woman tried to shield bin Laden with her body. The Americans think it was his wife, although which one, or even how many he had (some sources suggest four, others five) is a mystery. The same for a son reportedly left dead in the compound—one of his 13, or 19, or maybe 23 children. The fate of the terrorist leader’s body, spirited away and said to have been buried at sea, is already the subject of conspiracy theories. Osama’s violent demise may offer “sober satisfaction,” as Stephen Harper put it, but it won’t end the questions. Killing the myth may prove even harder than killing the man.

The date and place of Osama’s birth—March 10, 1957, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—are clear. But not so much the circumstances. As one of the 52, or maybe 54, offspring that Muhammad bin-Awad bin Laden sired with his 22 wives, perhaps that’s understandable. The elder bin Laden emigrated to the kingdom around 1930. A porter in his native Yemen, he found a new calling in construction, building a palace on the cheap for King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud and securing a lifelong patron. Lucrative contracts for roads and bridges followed, as well as prestigious commissions to renovate Islam’s holiest sites in Medina and Mecca. By the time of Osama’s birth, Muhammad was among the country’s wealthiest men. But he remained renowned for his piety—praying at three different mosques each day, never having more than four wives at one time in accordance with religious law, and renovating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem at cost. He was also a fierce believer in the prevailing Arab cause. In the wake of the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, Osama once told an interviewer, Muhammad tried to have his company’s 200 bulldozers converted to tanks so he could launch his own invasion.

He had met Osama’s mother, Alia, during a visit to Syria in the mid-1950s. The marriage—his 10th—lasted only a few years and produced just the one child. By some family accounts, Alia was more of a concubine than wife. In others, she was a headstrong and sophisticated woman who demanded a divorce and adopted Western dress when outside the country. What is certain is that Osama adored her. “First comes God and then his mother,” Osama’s half-brother Ahmad Muhammad al-Attas told journalists in the months after 9/11. During his years of exile in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, bin Laden made a point of calling her frequently, even though security officials at home and in the U.S. were surely monitoring the calls.

Osama’s relationship with Muhammad, who died in a September 1967 plane crash, was not as close. One friend claims bin Laden only met his father five times. But he was accepted by his many half-siblings, and given an inheritance—shares in the family firm that were worth somewhere between US$8 million and $250 million, according to widely divergent accounts. Whatever the amount, he didn’t do much with it. Compatriots remember him as a quiet kid, who enjoyed picnics and soccer games, and had one notable passion—horseback riding.

While many of his brothers and sisters travelled and studied abroad, Osama preferred to stay in Saudi Arabia. There have been reports that he once travelled to Sweden as a teen, and Chicago as a young adult, but the only confirmed voyages were annual visits to Syria to see his mother’s family. As a student at the prestigious al-Thager Model School in Jeddah—where the royal family educates its boys—he was considered passably bright. In 1978, he entered King Abdul Aziz University to study economics, management and business administration. Already married and the father of two boys—he had wed his 14-year-old first cousin, Najwa, when he was 17—he didn’t stick at school for long, and was soon back working for the family firm. But what bin Laden did discover during his brief post-secondary career was his first spiritual mentor, a Palestinian firebrand named Abdullah Azzam. A follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, Azzam was a deep believer in the concept of jihad. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the religious scholar issued his own fatwa, declaring it every Muslim’s duty to join the struggle.

Soon after, Azzam left Saudi Arabia for the border regions of Pakistan to minister to the mujahedeen. Bin Laden followed. Some sources suggest the two men worked together raising money and setting up training camps for the fighters. Others like Michael Scheur, in his recent biography of the terrorist leader, claim Osama spent five years doing the bidding of Saudi intelligence, using his family’s equipment to build hospitals and cut roads through the border mountains to ease arms deliveries. By the time they officially set up a joint operation in 1984—the Maktab al-Khadamat (services office)—to welcome foreign fighters, bin Laden had become a recognized force in his own right, possessed with the kind of confidence that made men follow. “He was a natural leader,” Khalid al-Batarfi, a friend, told Peter Bergen, the author of The Osama I Know. “He leads by example and by hints more than direct orders. He just sets an example and then expects you to follow and somehow you follow even if you are not 100 per cent convinced.”

In 1986, bin Laden set up al-Masadah (the Lion’s Den), his own training camp for Arab recruits in the mountains. But the man who was teaching others to fight had yet to see action. In the spring of 1987, the base—garrisoned by 50 or so fighters—came under attack from a much larger Soviet force. According to some accounts, the mujahedeen held out for a great victory. In others, they suffered heavy losses and retreated in disarray. For years afterwards, Osama was always pictured holding a Kalashnikov rifle he claimed to have taken away from a Russian he killed in hand-to-hand combat that week. As reports of the battle spread, his prestige grew. In the following weeks, he and other foreign commanders met to form a loose alliance of jihadis, which would ultimately morph into al-Qaeda. It was the beginning of bin Laden’s legend.

The FBI’s wanted poster is scant on details. “Usama” bin Laden is listed as between six foot four and six foot six and “approximately” 160 lb. His languages are Arabic and “probably” Pashtu. (What is not noted is that he also studied English in high school.) There are no known scars and marks. He is left-handed, walks with a cane, and has used the aliases the Sheik, the Prince, the Emir and the Director. But as of the morning of May 2, one hard fact had been added: the label “deceased” under his picture.

The emerging narrative of his death suggests the $25 million reward the United States government has been dangling for his “apprehension or conviction” played no role in the Abbottabad raid. So too the Pakistani authorities, who managed not to respond to a helicopter assault and lengthy gun battle at a compound located just a kilometre away from their chief officer-training school, the Kakul military academy, and nearby several other bases.

Official links to bin Laden have always been a touchy subject. In addition to Saudi support during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, it has long been reported he and his men also received training and arms from the CIA. Certainly he was once—and given his final location, almost assuredly still— friendly with elements of the Pakistani intelligence service.

In 1989, when the 32-year-old returned home to Jeddah after the Russian withdrawal, he was considered a hero. There were talks with Prince Turki Al Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, about overthrowing the Communists in Yemen—although the prince ultimately decided that such a war would be a little too close to home. In August 1990, when Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait, bin Laden offered his services and followers to defend the kingdom in the event that Saddam pushed on. He was turned down.

Osama’s rift with the West is often attributed to his anger over the garrisoning of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the first Gulf War, a supposed “desecration” of Islam’s holiest sites. But he had already begun formulating a vision of global jihadism back in Afghanistan, working closely with a new mentor, the Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 1991, his anti-government proclamations became too much for the Saudis and he was asked to leave the country. He made his way to Sudan, where a hardline Islamic regime had seized power in 1989. Still, in those days he was hardly considered a global threat. In Khartoum, he operated in the open as a businessman, building roads for the government and importing medical equipment and supplies. It was Zawahiri and his continued attacks on Egyptian targets that drew the most attention. His friend bin Laden was considered to be a sympathizer, and perhaps financier.

At the behest of the Saudi government, friends and family continued to visit Osama in Sudan, trying to convince him to sever ties with his former Afghan comrades. At one point he supposedly mused about resigning from al-Qaeda to pursue life as a watermelon and peanut farmer. But in 1994, the bin Laden family found it necessary to take out advertisements in Saudi newspapers officially disowning Osama. (Although money continued to flow his way, and relatives travelled to see him in Afghanistan as late as January 2001 for the wedding of his son, Mohammed.) The Saudi government stripped him of his citizenship and he replied with an open letter calling for the royal family’s violent overthrow.

It was the actions of Zawahiri’s followers, including a 1995 suicide bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, which killed 17, that eventually got the pair expelled from Sudan. In May 1996, bin Laden chartered a private jet and flew to Kandahar, where he was greeted with open arms by the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar.

Al-Qaeda’s early Afghan days were idyllic, according to some. Followers, including Toronto’s Khadr family, congregated at a rough compound near Jalalabad. In their retelling, Osama was more like a sitcom dad than the father of a global terrorist movement. “He’s a normal human being,” Abdurahman Khadr told the CBC in 2004. “He has issues with his wife and his kids. Financial issues, you know. The kids aren’t listening. The kids aren’t doing this and that.” His sister Zaynab recalled a man who loved horseback riding, playing volleyball, and target shooting with the kids. Although he seemed a little strict, even by radical fundamentalist standards. The female bin Ladens “have lots of restrictions, where they go, when they go, where they come, when they come, who visits them and how long they can stay in their house and all that,” Zaynab explained.

Osama also harboured some prejudices against creature comforts, forbidding his family from having running water, electricity, or even using ice. “He is against drinking cold water,” said Abdurahman. “He didn’t want them in any way to be spoiled.” Conspicuous non-consumption was a bit of an obsession for the rich Saudi. In the stifling heat of Khartoum, he refused to install air conditioning. “We want a simple life,” was one of his mantras.

What bin Laden didn’t seem to shy away from was publicity. In the late 1990s, as his fame as a terrorist grew, he gave regular interviews to foreign journalists, and even held a press conference with Zawahiri in 1998 to announce the formation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews. A few months later, al-Qaeda staged its first major operation, bombing the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224. President Bill Clinton responded by firing more than 100 cruise missiles at bin Laden’s Afghan camps, but al-Qaeda’s leadership escaped unscathed. The Taliban, already internationally isolated, resisted UN sanctions and blandishments like a $5-million reward, and refused to hand the Saudi over. But they didn’t necessarily enjoy the grandstanding. Even long-time bin Laden deputies like Abu Musab al-Suri (captured in 2005 and sent to a secret Syrian prison) found it all a bit much. “I think our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans and applause,” he wrote in 1999.

It took a good long while for the Americans to figure out that they had missed their chance to kill bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in December 2001. The ferocious assault by Afghan tribal militias, backed by U.S. and British war planes, killed more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters, including 18 commanders. Foreign troops, Canadians among them, returned to the scene several times over the following months, looking in vain for the corpses of Osama and Zawahiri. Eventually the CIA obtained a videotape of Osama hiking through the mountains into Pakistan and realized just how close they had come. It showed a U.S. plane dropping a bomb on the caves. “We were there last night,” remarks bin Laden.

Audio tapes from the al-Qaeda leader would surface occasionally. (By 2010 there were more than 40 authenticated messages.) In October 2004, he appeared in a video, looking disturbingly robust and well-groomed. After George W. Bush won re-election, nothing was heard from bin Laden for more than three years. Many speculated that he had been killed in a drone attack, or died from a medical condition, like his supposed kidney diseases. All the time, the hunt—and the wars that flowed out of it—went on.

The secret U.S. commando organization responsible for the terrorist’s assassination, the Joint Special Operations Command, has a budget of more than $1 billion a year. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to an Afghan campaign that has cost more than $450 billion since 2001, and a loosely related invasion and occupation of Iraq that is closing in on $800 billion. Still, in the afterglow of bin Laden’s killing, which sent euphoric crowds into the streets of Washington, New York and other cities, many will say the expense and effort were worth it.

However, eliminating the face of terror doesn’t rid any of us of the problem. Footage of the Abbottabad compound show a large satellite dish which surely enabled bin Laden to follow the deadly exploits of his followers, clones and imitators around the world.

One can only hope that he found channel surfing much less pleasurable in his final months, as Arabs throughout the Middle East took to the streets to rise up against their dictators. Not in violent jihad, as bin Laden has envisioned, but in largely peaceful protests demanding rights, reform and democracy.

History will record that when revolution finally came to the region it was inspired by a simple Tunisian fruit-seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze to protest government corruption and indifference—an unwanted man who may end up having far more influence than the world’s foremost fugitive.

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