Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Osama bin Laden: High Priest of Terror

Prime Suspect

FBI Wanted poster, Sept 17, 2001
FBI Wanted poster, Sept 17, 2001 (CORBIS)

Following the cataclysmic events of September 11, the U.S. authorities were quick to name bin Laden their prime suspect.  The reasons for their suspicions are many, and the evidence collected during the ensuing investigation seems to support their theory.

Although the evidence seemed compelling, at least two people weren't convinced.  Milt Beardon, a former CIA agent who spent time in Afghanistan advising the mujahedeen during their fight against the Soviets, told ABC's Sunday program that the attacks may have been the work of Shi'ite Muslims because the hijackers on the aircraft that crashed outside Philadelphia were described as wearing "red head bands," an adornment known to date back to the formation of the Shi'ite sect.

Mir also doubts that bin Laden was behind the September 11 attacks, saying the terrorist leader did not have the resources to pull it off.

'60 MINUTES' stopwatch logo
'60 MINUTES' stopwatch logo (AP)

Despite these doubts, another piece of information provided a chilling insight into what was to come. While recording a segment for the CBS 60 Minutes program, the show's producer George Creel, was traveling in a car with Khaled Kodja, a known bin Laden associate, when Kodja told him:

"America is a very vulnerable country, you are a very open country.  I tell you, your White hHouse is your most vulnerable target.  It would be very simple to just get it.  It is not difficult.  It takes only one or two lives to have it, it's not difficult.  We have people like this."   

Professor Bard O'Neil from the National War College in Washington had no hesitation in naming bin Laden as the culprit when he told the BBC's Panorama program:

"My prime suspect is Osama bin Laden because he was indicating he was going to do this, he was calling for the killing of Americans just recently and he had the capability, so why wouldn't we suspect him – we'd have to be crazy."

Although the world intelligence community has been aware of bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network for some time, no one was able to predict where and when he would strike next; the organization is not only more sophisticated than past terrorist groups, but it is  controlled and financed by a man who has dedicated most of his adult life to fighting a jihad against anyone he sees as an "enemy of Islam," particularly America.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden (AP)

Osama bin Laden (Usamah bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Ladin) was born in 1957 or 1958 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  He was the seventh son in a family of 52 children.

His father, Sheik Mohammed Awad bin Laden, was a poor, uneducated laborer from Hadramout in South Yemen who worked as a lowly porter in Jeddah. In 1930, the elder bin Laden started his own construction business, which became so successful that his family grew to be known as "the wealthiest non-royal family in the kingdom."

King Saud of Saudi Arabia
King Saud of Saudi Arabia (CORBIS)

Using the risky tactic of always bidding lower than the lowest bid, Mohammed quickly secured an impressive list of contracts, including the palaces of the then-ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Saud.

According to an FBI fact sheet, other contracts include:

*    A $296 million contract with other companies for the construction of a ring freeway around Riyadh.

*    A $1.3 billion contract for construction of housing units for the security forces in Jiddah.

*    A $1.3 billion contract for similar units for the National Guard at Mecca.

*    A $1.1 billion contract for construction of the Kharaj Military City near Riyadh.

*    A $1.1 billion contract for the Mecca Royal Divan.

*    A $4 billion contract for expansion of the Mecca Holy Places.

Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia
Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia (CORBIS)

As the "royal builder," the elder bin Laden built a close relationship with the royal family, particularly Prince Faisal.  This alliance would prove prudent in later years when Faisal deposed Saud as king and began rebuilding the country after the excesses of the Saud era.  Finding the kingdom dangerously short of funds, Faisal graciously accepted bin Laden's offer of financial assistance to shore up the country's ailing economy. As a reward for his generosity, Faisal issued a royal decree awarding all future construction projects to bin Laden's company.  The result: a company with assets of more than $5 billion dollars.

Despite his royal associations and great wealth, Mohammed bin Laden remained a humble and devoted Muslim who insisted that his children observe a strict religious and moral code.  He went to great pains to teach his children to take charge of their own lives and maintain their independence.  In 1968, this training came into play in a brutal way when Mohammed was killed in a plane crash near San Antonio, Texas, leaving his sons in charge, not only of the family business, but of their own destinies.  Following his death, Mohammed bin Laden's eldest sons continued to expand their late father's company until it employed more than 40,000 people.  The bin Laden group also expanded into Egypt, where it is now that country's largest foreign private group.

The bin Laden group of companies later entered into negotiations with the Lebanese government to rebuild part of central Beirut at a cost of $50 million.

While his father's legacy continued to grow, Osama, at just 10 or 11 years of age, was deeply affected by his father's death, which also served to intensify his Muslim beliefs. Osama was said to have inherited between $80 million and $300 million, although sources close to the family claim the figure was less than $20 million. Osama went on to complete his primary and secondary schooling and joined the Muslim Brotherhood.  During this period he expanded his compulsory Islamic studies through a series of meetings that were conducted at the family home by his elder brothers.  Among the contacts he made at these meetings were notable Islamic scholars and the leaders of various Muslim movements.  Later, he attended King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah and completed degrees in public administration and economics.  When he wasn't studying, the affluence of his family allowed him to broaden his knowledge through travel to other countries including Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.

In 1982, one trip to Pakistan coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While there, bin Laden observed the plight of thousands of Afghan refugees who were streaming across the border into Pakistan.   He also met some of the leaders of the mujahedeen and sympathized with their cause. 

A month later he returned home to raise money for his newfound friends and support for their jihad against the Russian invaders.  The mission went well, and he was soon able to return to Pakistan with a large amount of money and the promise of ongoing support.  Buoyed by his early success, he made several more trips during 1982, bringing more money and other Saudi friends and associates to join in the campaign.

During the next two years he moved his operation to Afghanistan and began building roads and camps with the money and construction equipment his company had provided.  A year later he built a "guesthouse" to process the growing number of Saudis and Arabs who had volunteered to fight the Russians before moving them to the front.

By 1986 he had built several training camps in Afghanistan and began to assemble his own troops and coordinate their attacks personally.  He continued this activity for several years and took part in numerous battles. 

In a 1995 interview with a French journalist, bin Laden explained why he chose to join the mujahedeen fight against the Russians at that time:

"To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan ... I did not fight against the communist threat while forgetting the peril from the West.  For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers. I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against communist or Western oppression. The urgent thing was communism, but the next target was America ... This is an open war up to the end, until victory."

Afghan kids, gutted soviet tank
Afghan kids, gutted soviet tank (CORBIS)

The success of the Afghan war changed bin Laden; he saw that a lightly armed force could defeat a superpower.  Most observers believe that this was an important turning point in his organization because he was able to use the victory in Afghanistan to advance his goal of "radicalizing" Islam.

Robert Fisk, a Mideast correspondent for The Observer  newspaper in London, recalls bin Laden telling him in an interview following the Russian withdrawal:

"We destroyed the Russian army in Afghanistan, which helped to destroy the Soviet Union so we can also destroy the United States."

During that period bin Laden's operation became highly organized and called itself al-Qaeda (The Base). 

Paul Bremmer, a former U.S. ambassador of counterterrorism, described the organization:

"It is a rather loosely structured organization, with bin Laden and a few top deputies doing all the strategy and major planning.  Then he's got affinity groups, groups who support him one way or the other. They may not at all times be on his payroll, spread in as many as 40  or 50 countries around the world."

Professor Bard O'Neill agreed:

"Some people have referred to his organization as being the Ford Foundation of terrorism, and there's an insight right there.  In a sense that he supports people of like mind, whereby that I mean ideologically, they share his vision of creating an Islamic world."

Following the "victory" in 1989, bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia intending to organize a new jihad in South Yemen. He began to hold public rallies warning his countrymen against a possible invasion by Saddam Hussein.  The Saudi government took a very dim view of his activities and banned him from traveling, insisting he keep "a low profile."

Following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, bin Laden reportedly felt vindicated and sent several letters to King Faisal instructing him how to protect the kingdom and offered to help fight the invaders.

Pres George Bush w advisors
Pres George Bush w advisors (CORBIS)

It was then that President George Bush authorized "Operation Desert Storm" and sent the U.S. military to defend Kuwait.  Bin Laden was incensed and began mobilizing an army of his own.

Dr. Saud Al Fagih, an Arab dissident who knew bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, described to BBC Online how bin Laden reacted to the news of a U.S. presence in his homeland:

"Osama bin Laden had never thought that the Saudi regime would go to the degree of allowing American forces inside Saudi Arabia, and he was actually shocked when he found out that the American forces were coming.  He became crazy and very angry at that stage."

Stanley Bedlington, a senior analyst with the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center from 1988 until 1994, also told the BBC:

"Saudi Arabia to him [bin Laden] is the most holy country on earth and it should not be befouled, he would say, by any external forces. That's his major objective."

Within days of the U.S. "invasion," bin Laden had amassed more than 4,000 Saudi supporters and took them to Afghanistan to begin training.  Because the Saudi government had aligned itself with the U.S., it considered bin Laden's activities an embarrassing intervention and, after several warnings, eventually placed him under "house arrest."

With his plans stifled, and being unable to effectively plead his case, bin Laden used his family's royal connections to secure permission to travel to Pakistan on "business." He arrived in Pakistan in 1991 and moved directly into Afghanistan but found the country in the midst of political turmoil following the Soviet withdrawal.  After several failed attempts to mediate between the warring factions, he learned that the Saudis had requested Pakistani intelligence to track him down and kill him.  Using his influence, he was able to make his escape to Sudan in a private jet.

Sudan map with Khartoum
Sudan map with Khartoum (AP)

Settling in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, bin Laden offered to provide the Sudanese government with construction equipment and funding to build much needed roads, an airport and other projects in exchange for his safety and freedom of movement.  The Sudanese government, sharing his radical version of Islam, welcomed him and treated him as its "special guest." He formed links with some of the country's top ministers, including Dr. Hassan Al Tarabi, a radical thinker who has been described as the country's "ideological leader."

Interviewed on the BBC's Panorama program following the September 11 attacks, Al Tarabi described bin Laden's motivation:

"I would say that he focuses on advancing Islamic thoughts of new policies and programs for the Islamic society, but if he hears about Muslims suffering anywhere or someone oppressing them or attacking them he will go there to try to put up as much money as he can to get behind the Muslim fighting." 

Although he had found safety and freedom of movement in his new home, bin Laden was still within the reach of the Saudi government and just barely escaped two further attempts on his life.  In 1994 the Saudis turned against him in a different way when they revoked his citizenship and banned him from returning to his homeland.

He retaliated by issuing several communiqués condemning the Saudi government and its alliance with the U.S., calling them "inadequately Islamic."


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