World·In Depth

IN DEPTH: Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden links to extremist organizations span at least three decades.

"I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."

With those words, televised live from the East Room of the White House on the evening of May 1, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama brought an end to the decade-long manhunt for the man behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., that killed more than 3,000 people.

While he is best known for his involvement in the 9/11 attacks and his al-Qaeda organization, Osama bin Laden has been called America's most wanted terrorist suspect at least since the bombing in 1998 of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. His links to extremist groups span three decades.

Why he hated the West

Bin Laden followed a very strict fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that believes a core responsibility of every Muslim is to take up arms against enemies of Islam. Despite American efforts to capture him, or perhaps because of them, Osama bin Laden is a hero to many people in the Middle East and South Asia.

Only a few Western journalists have spoken to bin Laden, but according to the few interviews he gave, he believed U.S. foreign policy and actions have targeted the Islamic world. He also said the U.S. has unduly supported the Israeli government in its conflict with the Palestinians, as well as sustained dictatorships and corrupt governments in many other countries.

Osama bin Laden speaks at a 1998 news conference in Afghanistan. ((Reuters) )

In August 1996, bin Laden declared jihad against the U.S. The term "jihad" has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Most modern Muslims use it to mean "struggle" – in the sense of trying to stay true to Islam. But bin Laden and other fundamentalists use it to mean a holy war against those who they deem to oppose Islam.

In bin Laden's declaration, he outlined his goals as: driving the U.S. forces from the Arabian Peninsula, overthrowing the Saudi Arabian government, liberating Muslim holy sites and supporting Islamic revolutionary groups around the world. He declared the U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf fair game for attack by Saudis.

In an interview with ABC correspondent John Miller on May 28, 1998, Bin Laden made the following comment on the fatwa calling Muslims to kill Americans regardless of whether they are civilians or military:

Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers … After World War II, the Americans became more aggressive and oppressive, especially in the Muslim world. American history does not distinguish between civilians and military, and not even women and children. They are the ones who used the bombs against Nagasaki. Can these bombs distinguish between infants and military? America does not have a religion that will prevent it from destroying all people.

Bin Laden's early years

Osama bin Laden was born on March 10, 1957, in Saudi Arabia. His family, originally from Yemen, built one of the largest construction companies in the Arab world, called the Bin Laden Group, based in the Saudi city of Jidda. It made its fortune building projects for the Saudi royal family.

As a young man, Osama bin Laden was reportedly a bit of a playboy, using his family fortune to have fun outside of Saudi Arabia in Europe and the Gulf states.

But the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 changed his life. Like many young Islamists, he went to Afghanistan to help fight the invaders, taking part in the jihad against the Soviets.

He spent time in Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out and before the U.S. forced him into hiding. According to an Associated Press report, he would wake before dawn for prayers, then eat a simple breakfast of cheese and bread. He closely monitored world affairs and held regular military drills with his men. Horseback riding was his favourite hobby, and he enjoyed playing traditional healer, often prescribing honey, his favourite food, and herbs to treat colds and other illnesses.

In Afghanistan, bin Laden was often accompanied by his four wives, which is the maximum Islam allows. Estimates on the number of his children range up to 23.

Extremist groups

The U.S. State Department has called bin Laden "one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world." Bin Laden has been accused of using his vast personal wealth to fund attacks in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahri speak with a Pakistani reporter in 2001. ((Hamid Mir/Reuters) )

He reportedly gave money to Maktab al-Khidimat (MAK), which recruited young Muslim men from around the world. He also used his fortune to help buy equipment for the Afghan resistance. Other notable involvements with extremist groups include:

  • Helping Abdullah Azzam, founder of the Pakistani "Office of Services," establish training camps in Afghanistan in 1984. The Office of Services' goal was to recruit and train Muslim volunteers. Bin Laden provided financial support and handled military affairs.
  • Establishing his own training camp for Persian Gulf Arabs called al Masadah, or the Lion's Den, in 1986.
  • In 1988, as the Soviet occupation faltered in Afghanistan, bin Laden founded al-Qaeda, Arabic for "The Base," to take militants from around the world and shape them into an international network that would bring Muslims under a militant version of Islamic law. In 1991, bin Laden moved the headquarters of al-Qaeda to Sudan, where a militant Islamic government had come to power.
  • In 1994, Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship for alleged terrorist links. His family disavowed him, at least publicly.
  • In 1998, bin Laden teamed up with an Egyptian militant, Ayman Zawahiri, to form "The International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," which acted as an umbrella group for international militant groups. It issued a religious order saying it was a religious duty of Muslims to kill Americans anywhere possible.

Terrorist activities

Osama bin Laden has been linked to a number of high-profile attacks around the world over the past two decades.

In 1993, a bomb exploded in an underground parking garage at the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring another 1,000. The attack was linked to bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization.

In October 1998, the U.S. Justice Dept. indicted bin Laden for his alleged role in ordering the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 231.

In October 2000, suicide bombers attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbour in Yemen. Bin Laden was suspected of ordering the attack, which killed 17 American sailors.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center towers in New York and Pentagon in Washington, D.C. involved hijacking four airplanes and using them as flying bombs. The death toll, including airline passengers and people on the ground, was more than 3,000.

The manhunt

Bin Laden and his men had years of experience dodging a previous enemy, the Soviet Union, while it occupied Afghanistan until it was driven out in the 1980s. He also reportedly received training from the CIA during that time, when the U.S. was backing the Afghan holy warriors – the mujahedeen – in their fight against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, although the U.S. has not officially confirmed this.

His experience, coupled with the rugged geography of the region and a local network of supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, made bin Laden extremely difficult to track down.

In December 2001, U.S. intelligence said they pinpointed bin Laden in a cave complex at Tora Bora. A group ofU.S. special and regular forces and Afghan allies attacked the caves, but bin Laden slipped through their fingers and disappeared into the mountains.

Images of bin Laden are displayed at a market stall in Quetta, Pakistan. ((Naseer Ahmed/Reuters) )

On March 7, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered his forces to launch Operation Mountain Storm in the rugged border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was unsuccessful.

The U.S. sent the elite special forces outfit of commandos and CIA officers, Task Force 121, to the border region to find bin Laden and the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammed Omar. Task Force 121 was reportedly key in tracking down the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, but it couldn't find bin Laden.

The U.S. deployed more search teams in the following years, and also employed drone aircraft and satellite surveillance. Bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden, was reported killed by a missile from one of the drones in July 2009.

Bin Laden himself eluded the search teams for nearly a decade, but in late April 2011 U.S. security forces had credible information that he was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

On May 1, the U.S. launched an attack against a compound about 150 kilometres north of Islamabad. Four helicopters carrying CIA paramilitaries and a Navy SEAL team were involved in the attack, and bin Laden was killed in the firefight.

"Justice has been done," president Barack Obama said in a televised address later that evening.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that 24 Canadians died in the Sept. 11 attack. He said the death of the bin Laden "secures a measure of justice for those Canadians and their families."

With files from Associated Press