Osama bin Laden
Usāmah bin Muhammad bin `Awad bin Lādin (born March 10, 1957) (Arabic: أسامة بن محمد بن عود بن لادن), commonly known as Osama bin Laden (أسامة بن لادن), is the figurehead of al-Qaeda, an Islamist movement that has been involved in attacks against civilians and military targets around the world. He is believed to have inspired the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington (9/11), which killed at least 2,752 people.
His immensely wealthy family publicly disowned him in 1994, shortly before the Saudi Arabian government revoked his citizenship. He attended his son's wedding in January 2001, but since 9/11 is believed only to have had contact with his mother on one occasion. (See Osama and the September 11 Terrorist Attacks below.)
One of Bin Laden's main goals was to force the removal of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, where two of Islam's holiest places are located. The U.S. has announced that it will close its bases, although it is unclear whether Bin Laden's activities were a factor in this decision.
Bin Laden is probably the "most wanted" man in the world with a reward for information leading to his capture of US$50 million. His current whereabouts are unknown, although he is widely believed to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or in the semi-autonomous Pakistani tribal area of the Toba Kakar Mountains near Waziristan.
Table of contents
Osama bin Laden's name can be transliterated in several ways. The form used here, Osama bin Laden, is used by most English-language mass media, including CNN and the BBC. The second most common English-language form of the name is Usama bin Laden (used by the FBI and FOX News), commonly abbreviated to UBL. Less common renderings include Ussamah Bin Ladin and Oussama Ben Laden (used in French-language mass media). The latter part of the name can also be found as ibn Laden, Binladen or Binladin.
Strictly speaking, under the Arabic naming convention, it is incorrect to use "bin Laden" as though it were a Western surname. His full name means "Osama, son of Mohammed, son of Laden." However, the bin Laden family (or "Binladin," as they prefer to be known) generally use the name as a surname, in the Western style. The family company is known as the Binladin Brothers for Contracting and Industry and is one of the largest corporations in Saudi Arabia. For this reason, although the Arabic convention would be to refer to him either as "Osama" or "Osama bin Laden," using "bin Laden" is in accordance with the family's own usage of the name and is the near-universal convention in Western references to him.
Appearance and manner
Bin Laden is often described as lanky — the FBI describes him as tall and thin, being 6' 4" (193 cm) to 6' 6" (198 cm) tall and weighing 160 pounds (75 kg). He has an olive complexion, is left-handed and usually walks with a cane. He wears a plain white turban and no longer dons the traditional Saudi male headdress.
Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Muhammad Awad bin Ladin, a wealthy businessman involved in construction and with close ties to the Saudi royal family. There is no definitive account of the number of children born to Mohammed bin Laden, but the number is generally put at 54. In addition, various accounts place Osama as his seventeenth son, while others say he was the last of 25 sons.
The large number of bin Laden siblings is the result of polygyny; his father was married ten times, although to no more than four women at a time per Islamic law. Osama bin Laden is the only son of the elder bin Laden's tenth wife, Hamida al-Attas, who is reportedly of Syrian descent. A woman who in 1971 had attended an English language course with Osama recalled him saying with some sadness that his mother was a concubine.
His family originally came from Hadhramaut, Yemen and he was raised as a devout Sunni Muslim. After his graduation from secondary school in 1973, bin Laden went to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and allegedly frequented bars and nightclubs. As a college student, he studied business and project administration. He also earned a degree in civil engineering from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah in 1979, possibly in preparation for taking over parts of his father's extensive construction and civil engineering business.
After his father died, bin Laden inherited what was first estimated to be a fortune of US$300 million; more recent estimates put his holdings at about US$25 million.
In 1974, at the age of 17, bin Laden married his first wife (and first cousin), Najwa Ghanem. Bin Laden reportedly married four other women, divorcing one. He has fathered at least 24 children. Najwa, a Syrian and his mother's niece, reportedly had 11 children by bin Laden, seven of them sons, including Abdallah, Omar, Saad, and Muhammad. Saad, born in 1979, is reportedly active in an Iran-based al-Qaida network. Omar and Abdallah were reportedly organizing the U.S. branch of the World Congress of Muslim Youth in Falls Church, Virginia during the 1990s.
His wealth and connections permitted him to pursue his interest in supporting the mujahideen, Muslim guerrillas fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. (See: the History of Afghanistan.) By 1984 he had established an organization named Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) (Office of Order in English), which funneled money, arms and Muslim fighters from around the world into the Afghan war.
Formation of al-Qaeda
By 1988, bin Laden had split from the MAK and established a new militant group, later dubbed al-Qaeda by the U.S. government, which included many of the more militant MAK members he had met in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and bin Laden was lauded as a mujahideen hero in Saudi Arabia. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden offered to help defend Saudi Arabia (with 12,000 armed men) but was rebuffed by the Saudi Arabian government. Bin Laden publicly denounced his government's dependence on the U.S. military and demanded an end to the presence of foreign military bases in the country. According to reports (by the BBC and others), the 1990/91 deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in connection with the Gulf War profoundly shocked and revolted bin Laden and other Islamist militants because the Saudi Arabian government claims legitimacy based on their role as guardians of the sacred Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. After the Gulf War, the establishment of permanent bases for non-Muslim U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia continued to undermine the Saudi Arabian rulers' legitimacy and inflamed anti-government Islamist militants, including bin Laden. Bin Laden's increasingly strident criticisms of the Saudi monarchy led the Saudi Arabian government to expel him to Sudan in 1991.
Assisted by donations funneled through business and charitable fronts such as Benevolence International established by his brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden established a new base for mujahideen operations in Sudan to disseminate Islamist philosophy and recruit operatives in Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Bin Laden also invested in business ventures, such as al-Hajira, a construction company that built roads throughout Sudan, and Wadi al-Aqiq, an agricultural corporation that farmed hundreds of thousands of acres of sorghum, gum arabic, sesame and sunflowers in Sudan's central Gezira province. Bin Laden's operations in Sudan were protected by the powerful Sudanese government figure Hassan al Turabi. The funding from these ventures was used to run several training camps on his farmland, where Islamist militants could receive instruction in firearms use and the use of explosives from former Afghan mujahideen.
Around this time, bin Laden and his associates began developing and executing a series of meticulously-planned terrorist attacks. In 1995, the Saudi Arabian government stripped bin Laden of his citizenship after he claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. and Saudi military bases in Riyadh and Dahran.
Sudanese officials offered to extradite bin Laden to either the United States or Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s. However, the U.S. had no legal grounds to hold bin Laden and thus refused to accept him; Saudi Arabia refused because of the political difficulties of accepting such a controversial figure into their custody. Thus, in May 1996, under increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States, Sudan expelled bin Laden to Afghanistan. He chartered a plane and flew to Kabul before settling in Jalalabad. After spending a few months in the border region hosted by local leaders, bin Laden forged a close relationship with some of the leaders of Afghanistan's new Taliban government, notably Mullah Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden supported the Taliban government with financial and paramilitary assistance and, in 1997, he moved to Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold.
Bin Laden is suspected of funding the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists in Luxor, Egypt conducted by Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian militant Islamist group. The Egyptian government convicted Bin Laden's colleague, one of the leaders of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and sentenced him to death in absentia for the massacre.
Terrorist attacks on the United States
Osama bin Laden's first strike against the United States was the December 29, 1992 bombing of the Gold Mihor Hotel in Aden, Yemen that killed a Yemeni hotel employee, an Austrian national and seriously injured his wife. About 100 US soldiers, part of Operation Restore Hope, had been staying at the hotel for two weeks but had left two days earlier for Somalia. Some sources believe that Osama bin Laden funded and/or directed the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Bin Laden and the Indonesian militant known as Hambali allegedly funded the aborted Operation Bojinka conspiracy until police discovered the plot in Manila, Philippines on January 6, 1995.
In 1998, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (a leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad) co-signed a fatwa (binding religious edict) in the name of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, declaring, "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Makka) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, 'and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,' and 'fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.'" For more information, see Osama bin Laden Fatwa.
Bin Laden is officially wanted by the United States in connection with the August 7, 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, that killed 225 people and injured more than 4000. Since June 1999, bin Laden has been listed as one of the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives and FBI Most Wanted Terrorists. Al-Qaida was allegedly involved in several unsuccessful conspiracies, including the 2000 millennium attack plots to bomb Los Angeles airport, several tourist sites in Jordan and the USS The Sullivans, and well as the subsequent Paris embassy terrorist attack plot. The al-Qaida organization was allegedly responsible for the successful USS Cole bombing in October, 2000.
In response to these attacks, President Bill Clinton ordered a freeze on assets linked to bin Laden. Clinton also signed an executive order authorizing bin Laden's arrest or assassination. In August 1998, the U.S. military launched an assassination attempt using cruise missiles. The attack failed to harm bin Laden but killed 19 other people. The U.S. offered a US$25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's apprehension or conviction and, in 1999, convinced the United Nations to impose sanctions against Afghanistan in an attempt to force the Taliban to extradite him.
Osama and the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks
Immediately after the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks in the United States, the United States government named bin Laden as the prime suspect. At first he denied this accusation, suggesting the attacks were the fault of Jews or of the CIA. But in subsequent statements and interviews he expressed admiration for whoever was responsible. He took credit for "inspiring" what he calls the "blessed attacks" of September 11th in several public statements.
In December 2001 U.S. forces in Afghanistan captured a videotape during a raid on a house in Jalalabad, in which a man who looks like bin Laden is seen and heard discussing the September 11 attacks with a group of followers. According to the official U.S. translation of this tape—which has been disputed—bin Laden says:
- We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. (...Inaudible...) Due to my experience in this field, 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. (full text of the tape transcript)
In December 2001 there was disagreement whether the tape should be released or not. Some in the Bush Administration believed the tape would provide decisive evidence for bin Laden's involvement in the September 11th attacks; others feared there would be allegations that the tape was fabricated, taking into account the poor quality of the tape. The tape was finally released on December 13. The next day, the Pakistani political party JUI claimed that the tape was doctored, the photographic quality of the video being so low that a fake bin Laden would be indistinguishable. Others claimed that the video could have been doctored using digital technology and computers.
In January 2002 CNN reported that the U.S. spread leaflets of doctored photographs of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, portraying him shaved and in western clothing, aiming to lead the Al-Qaida fighters to believe that bin Laden had deserted them. Some argued that if the U.S. was willing to fabricate photographs to achieve their goals then they would probably also be willing to fabricate videos. United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when asked "...whether the leaflet could be used by some to say the United States is willing to doctor or make up things — as has been alleged about the videotape found in Afghanistan by the United States..." (quoting the above cited article), he is reported to have replied that he had not thought about the possibility.
In January 2002 a German expert in Middle Eastern studies, Gernot Rotter, as well as two other independent translators of Arabic, reported on German television (ARD) and in the newspapers Netzeitung and Der Spiegel that several serious mistakes could be found in the official American translation of the tape.
Several other videotapes have surfaced in the media (11.11.01 Sunday Times / Al-Jazeera 26.12.02 / 04.02 Al-Jazeera/AP / Sunday Times 19.05.02 / 09.02 Al-Jazeera etc). The video found in Jalalabad in December 2001 is still the most often cited as evidence for bin Laden's participation, suggesting that this video presents the strongest case for a bin Laden involvement in the September 11th attacks.
As early as October 2001, the U.S. presented evidence to NATO, behind closed doors, of bin Laden's involvement in the September 11 attacks. NATO's general secretary George Robertson reported to AP that the U.S. had presented clear and decisive evidence of bin Laden's participation, causing him to invoke article 5 in the NATO pact. The evidence presented to NATO was never presented to the public; according to American officials, the reason for this was fears that terrorists might find out secrets about American intelligence. The nature of this evidence thus remains uncertain. The U.S. — because of its unwillingness to show the evidence that NATO found so compelling — has had to resort to low quality videos (like the 2001 Jalalabad video) when presenting evidence to the public.
If this tape is authentic and its transcripts correctly translated, it shows at the very least that bin Laden claimed to some that he had advance knowledge of the attacks on the World Trade Center, including the precise nature of the attacks. One leading al-Qaida member, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, claims (according to his interrogators) that the idea for the attacks came from him and not from bin Laden. Khalid has been in United States custody since September 2003. The extent to which bin Laden was involved in funding or overseeing the operation is unknown. FBI's most wanted poster of bin Laden only makes reference to bin Laden being sought for pre-September 11 terrorist activity.
Nevertheless, bin Laden has publicly praised the September 11 attacks in several instances and has taken credit for being their "inspiration." It is clear in many of his public statements that he views himself as an active participant in the attacks, whether or not he deserves the credit the West gives him as their "mastermind." A good example is this passage from his October 2001 interview with Al-Jazeera:
- As for the World Trade Center, the ones who were attacked and who died in it were a financial power. It wasn't a children's school! And it wasn't a residence. And the general consensus is that most of the people who were in there were men that backed the biggest financial force in the world that spreads worldwide mischief [ta`ithu fil ardi fasaadaa]. And those individuals should stand for Allah, and to re-think and re-do their calculations. We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.
In October of 2004, a videotape was released of Bin Laden directly admitting that he had ordered the September 11 attacks:
- ...as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.
As of May 2005, Osama bin Laden's location is unknown. After the September 11 attacks, the United States asked the Taliban government of Afghanistan to "hand him over." The Taliban counter-offer to try bin Laden in an Islamic court or extradite him to a third-party country was deemed unacceptable by the U.S. government. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the death or arrest of numerous militiamen, but bin Laden was not found. In September 2003, a videotape of Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, accompanied by an audiotape, were released to the al-Jazeera network in Qatar, purporting to prove that both men are still alive. Bin Laden appeared in a mountainous region wearing traditional Pathan attire. The date of the videotape recording could not be ascertained.
There had been suggestions that bin Laden was killed or fatally injured during U.S. bombardments, most notably near Tora Bora, or that he may have died of natural causes. The U.S. military had reported that bin Laden suffered from a kidney disorder requiring him to have access to advanced medical facilities, possibly kidney dialysis. Ayman al-Zawahiri, also an FBI Most Wanted Terrorist, is a physician and may have provided medical care to bin Laden. Although Osama has been publicly disowned by his family, an estranged family member, Carmen Binladin, speculates (without providing evidence) that unnamed family members may be providing financial support to Osama bin Laden.
Rumours about his whereabouts have appeared from time to time since the start of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan but none have been confirmed.
On October 21, 2004, John Lehman, a member of the 9/11 Commission, reported that bin Laden was indeed alive, and that the Pentagon knew exactly where he was. According to Lehman, bin Laden was living in South Waziristan in the Toba Kakar Mountains of the Baluchistan region, surviving from donations from outside countries such as the United Arab Emirates and high-ranking ministers inside Saudi Arabia. "There is an American presence in the area, but we can't just send in troops," Lehman said. "If we did, we could have another Vietnam, and the United States cannot afford that right now."
On October 29, 2004, the Arab television network Al Jazeera broadcast a video tape of bin Laden addressing citizens of the United States, discussing the reasons behind the September 11, 2001 attacks. This release came just four days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election. See 2004 bin Laden video.
- Terrorist incidents
- Videos of bin Laden
- Worldwide perception of Osama bin Laden
- Osama bin Laden's Declaration of War
- Osama tapes
- Steven Emerson
- BBC:Transcript of Osama bin Laden video aired by al-Jazeera
- Who is Osama bin Laden? BBC report
- BBC News: 'I met Osama bin Laden' – March 26, 2004 – a short profile of bin Laden's life
- Fatwa from World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders – Statement from bin Laden, 23 February 1998
- Transcript of interview by CNN (PDF file) – Correspondent Peter Arnett (March 20, 1997). The interview was first broadcast on CNN on May 10, 1997. This was Osama bin Ladin's first sit-down with a Western TV journalist.
- Interview with Osama bin Laden – Questions partly by some of his followers and partly by ABC reporter John Miller, (May 1998)
- Alleged interview – Transcription from Pakistani Newspaper of questions answered via written correspondence with the Taliban, who supposedly passed them to bin Laden
- Interview printed in the January 11, 1999 issue of Time Magazine
- Interpol Profile
- FBI's Usama bin Laden "Most Wanted Terrorists" poster
- BBC News profile
- Bin Laden comes home to roost – By Michael Moran, MSNBC, August 24, 1998. Alleges a CIA/bin Laden relationship
- Who Is Osama bin Laden? – By Michel Chossudovsky
- CNN story about the interview
- Picture of bin Ladin and two brothers on a visit to Oxford in 1971 – Story on BBC News
- $US 40 billion sponsorship of islamic fundamentalist training program – Carter + Brzezinski
- Summary of medical information, mostly speculative
- Bin Laden's wealth not the force behind 9/11 (AP/CNN)
- Osama bin Laden at the Internet Movie Database
- Coll, Steve (2004), Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin Press; ISBN 1594200076
- Emerson, S. (2002), American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Free Press; ISBN 0743233247